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Literature / The Law and the Lady

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A serialised Victorian novel by Wilkie Collins, The Law and the Lady features one of the earliest-known female amateur detectives in fiction.

Newly married Valeria Woodville (née Brinton) quickly comes to learn that her husband Eustace has a dark secret in his past - for a start, his real name isn't Woodville. Insistent on discovering the truth, she soon learns that he was married previously, and stood trial for his previous wife's murder. The jury's verdict was Not Proven - there wasn't enough evidence to convict Eustace, but not enough to clear him either.

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Determined to save her marriage, Valeria resolves to clear her husband's name by finding the real murderer.


The novel provides examples of:

  • Babies Ever After: Valeria discovers she's pregnant partway through the book, and her son is born just in time for the final chapter.
  • Bowdlerise: When the book was first published as a serial, the magazine censored a paragraph in which Dexter makes a pass at Valeria. Since their contract with Collins forbade them from making changes to his work, he forced them to publish the original paragraph with the following instalment.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The one time Valeria visits the mansion that was the scene of the crime and walks in the garden, the narrative pays special attention to the dust-heap. Sure enough, it later proves necessary to search the dust-heap for a vital clue.
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  • Description in the Mirror: Valeria introduces herself to the reader by describing her reflection in the mirror.
  • Dirty Old Man: Major Fitz-David, in his sixties, can't resist flirting with pretty young women — a weakness which Valeria uses to her advantage.
    The women had a warm friend — perhaps at one time a dangerously warm friend — in Major Fitz-David.
  • Eccentric Artist: Miserrimus Dexter is on the border between this and Mad Artist; the pictures he paints are, in Valeria's opinion, filled with 'diseased and riotous delight... in representing Horrors'.
  • Fainting: Valeria faints on discovering the account of the trial.
  • Gold Digger: By the end of the book, one of Major Fitz-David's lady friends has married him for his money.
  • Honorable Marriage Proposal: Eustace's first wife, Sara, pretty much forced him to marry her by contriving to be caught in his bedroom.
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  • I Am Not Pretty: Valeria insists to the reader that she isn't pretty; she's dark-haired and pale rather than fashionably blonde and rosy-cheeked.
  • Meet Cute: Valeria met Eustace by tripping and falling into the trout stream where he was fishing.
  • Meaningful Name: Miserrimus Dexter was deliberately given his first name (meaning 'most wretched') because of his deformity.
  • Not Proven: The stain on Eustace's reputation caused by the ambiguity of the verdict is what drives Valeria to investigate.
  • Old Retainer: Benjamin, formerly clerk to Valeria's father, to whom she turns for assistance through the book.
  • Ripped from the Headlines: The idea of a 'Not Proven' verdict in a widely-reported poisoning trial was likely inspired by the notorious case of Madeleine Smith.
  • Spirited Young Lady: Valeria is ladylike, graceful, and devoted to her husband. She also becomes one of the first amateur female detectives in the nineteenth-century novel.
  • Thrifty Scot: Mr Playmore. At one point Valeria horrifies him by giving him a blank cheque and telling him to fill in the correct amount; he refuses, and instead insists on producing an itemised bill.
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