This, one of Collins' earlier novels, lacks the excitement of later novels such as The Woman in White and Armadale, but is not without merit. It tells the story of Mary Grice, a deaf and dumb girl rescued from a travelling circus by the kind-hearted painter Valentine Blyth and his invalid wife Lavinia. Mary's origins are shrouded in mystery. She was born illegitimate, and the only clue to her identity is a hair bracelet that Blyth keeps locked in his bureau. He lives in fear that some of her relatives might one day find and reclaim her.
One of Blyth's closest friends is the much younger Zack Thorpe, a rather wild (though good-natured) young man rebelling against his father's values and his strict, cheerless upbringing. His chance meeting with a vagabond named Mat begins a friendship that will change the lives of both Zack and the Blyths.
The story moves in a fairly leisurely fashion - particularly the first half - but Collins' style is a little less prolix than some other Victorian novelists, and for the most part he avoids the temptation to lard the text with overblown literary allusions. There are elements of melodrama in the story, as one might expect from Collins, but the novel hinges on a couple of jaw-dropping coincidences that will probably tax most readers' ability to suspend disbelief. Nevertheless, this is still an enjoyable domestic novel, which treats disability in a positive way and provides a satisfyingly happy ending. [October 2007]