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The Legacy of Cain
By Wilkie Collins
Amazon Digital Services, 257 pages
Wilkie Collins (1824-1889), a friend and sometime co-author of Charles Dickens, wrote enjoyable books. He was the inventor of detective novels. He is best known for his books “The Woman in White” and “Moonstone.” His plots are unusual and suspenseful. Even some plots of his non-detective tales have the flavor of that genre. He has a keen understanding of psychology, which is reflected frequently in his tales. In this book two sisters grow up not knowing that they are not related biologically, and turn out differently.
The story begins when a female prisoner who was sentenced to be hung for the horrible way she killed her husband persuades a minister, Mr. Gracedieu, to adopt her infant daughter. The minister and his wife have no children and do not expect to be able to have any. A doctor warns him that human nature causes physical and personality traits of parents to be inherited by their children, and tries to persuade the minister not to take the child because he will face horrors when the child grows up because she will have her mother’s despicable traits. The minister disagrees and states that his Christian lessons and pious home habits will assure the child grows into a responsible woman. The plot therefore focuses on what causes evil: heredity or environment or, to put it simply, is there a legacy of Cain?
The plot is amplified when the minister’s wife unexpectantly gives birth to a daughter and, unknown to her husband, tells the head of the prison in a venomous manner that she does not want the hung woman’s child and will do all she can to dispose of the child even though her husband wants her. She tries to gain his help in the enterprise, but he refuses. She dies before she can carry out her plan. The minister does all he can to hide that his adopted daughter is the child of a sinister murderess. He refuses to reveal to his daughters that one of them is adopted, and for unusual reasons asserts that he does not want to say which of the two is older. This act raises the curiosity of people who hear about it. He names his adopted daughter Eunice, which, not mentioned or even hinted by Collins, is based on the Greek “eu,” meaning “good,” while the minister’s wife names her daughter Helena against his wishes, a name that is reminiscent of Helen of Troy. Is this meant to be ironic?
The plot swells by the entrance of several characters into the lives of the children, including the mistress of the murdered husband, Miss Chance, who strongly disliked his wife who killed him and her daughter, who is determined to harm the daughter. Another is the entrance into the minister’s home of the minister’s cousin, Miss Jillgall, who Helena thinks is mean-hearted and duplicitous, while Eunice considers her a nice person. The well-meaning minister brought her into his home because she had nowhere else to live. One of her friends is Miss Chance. Jillgall is overly curious and a busy-body. Still another character introduced into the tale is the rich husband of the murderess’s sister who was no longer alive, who offered to help place the child, but refused to bring the child into his home lest his son fall in love with this tainted girl and want to marry her. He is not told that the minister adopted her.
Years later, the two girls are eighteen. Helena, the minister’s natural daughter is far smarter, prettier, and with a warmer personality than Eunice. While Helena is away, Eunice and the son meet, neither knowing the history, and they fall in love. Eunice thinks that the only problem that she might have with this young man is that his father is exceedingly rich while her father is poor, but she is wrong.