Lust, tea and sorcery

Ioláni; or, Tahíti as it was
May 28, 1999

Wilkie Collins began his working life apprenticed to a tea merchant. In his spare time, however, he scribbled away and in 1844, aged 20, he completed his first novel: Ioláni; or, Tahíti as it was . The manuscript of Ioláni , hidden for years in private hands, was bought at auction in 1991 and is now, like Mary Shelley's recently discovered Maurice, published for the first time.

The novel describes the machinations of the rapaciously wicked Ioláni , priest of Oro the war god and brother to the king, and his pursuit of two women, Aimáta and Idía. Idía has borne Ioláni 's child, but Ioláni is bent upon killing the nameless child, murdering the mother, and sacrificing Aimáta. It is sensational hokum: lust, murder, sorcery and full-scale tribal warfare, turning the prelapsarian Tahitians into infanticidal monsters; a juvenile fantasy to relieve the boredom of tea-company paperwork - what Collins himself happily described as "literary rubbish".

Although Collins had recently been reading Gothic novels by sensationally young authors, such as Lewis's The Monk and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein , Ioláni is pitiful by comparison. Longmans was prepared to publish only if Collins's father would fund printing, and Chapman and Hall rejected the thing outright. Even the author later disowned it as "a novel of the most wildly impracticable kind".

Today, Ioláni is, then, little more than a curiosity - though it is tempting to overanalyse the work because of what followed 15 years later. Perhaps the frequent descriptive passages make interesting attempts at virtuoso writing rather than tediously clumsy padding: painterly evocations of the dreaminess and intoxication of natural scenery, and enigmatic imaginary historical tableaux of, for example, the flight of the exiles - "the wounded warrior, the heart-broken woman, and the terrified child - a weary and woe-worn company!" The most striking scene in the book is visual too: by flashes of lightning Ioláni glimpses the wild man, an eerie figure of dreadful nemesis, "watching intently the speck of angry heaven above him". But such qualities, if they are qualities, are at the expense of what came to characterise a Wilkie Collins novel: fiendish plots, intricate structure and vivacious characterisation. The characters here lumber along like unwieldy chess pieces, subservient to, yet silent about, the banalities that surround them. Ioláni , for example, literally functions "mechanically", like an automaton: a mere principle or instrument of evil.

Ira Nadel in his introduction claims that Ioláni is "thrilling ... vivid ... remarkable". Such an appraisal is generous to a fault. He also argues that "Collins uses divisions of the story, which lack transitions or bridging passages, to control suspense, disrupt events, shift chronology, and occasionally mislead readers". Misleading, certainly, but deft? The absence of narrative transitions and bridging passages comes not from daring experimental technique, but incompetence. The whelp Collins twice abandons his opening of Book II before determining: "Ere, however, we proceed farther, it will be necessary to notice the more important incidents of the year that has passed...".

There do exist, however, some interesting connections between Ioláni and other early work. Collins's first published book was a biography of his father, of which he later wrote: "An author I became in the year 1848", and his first published novel an historical epic set at the fall of Rome. Like Memoirs and Antonina , Ioláni is also in a sense about the displacement of patriarchy and the modes of feminine power, a feature that would persist in his later fiction. But Ioláni , Memoirs and Antonina are clearly three false starts. The Wilkie Collins of The Woman in White (1859) and The Moonstone (1868) emerges only in 1852 with the publication of "A Terribly Strange Bed" and Basil. Any reader would have more success discerning his subsequent career in tea leaves than from the evidence of Ioláni .

Nick Groom is lecturer in English literature, University of Exeter.

Ioláni; or, Tahíti as it was: A Romance

Author - Wilkie Collins
Editor - Ira B. Nadel
ISBN - 0 691 03446 X
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Price - £14.95
Pages - 205

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