Review: Wilkie Collins – Antonina, or the Fall of Rome

Antonina, or the Fall of RomeAntonina, or the Fall of Rome by Wilkie Collins
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Not uncommon for its period, Antonina is a work of highs and lows, the lows too many and too irritating for me to recommend it.

Collins is inclined to waffle. This comes out at the beginning in which he tells us that he has no intention of dwelling upon the history and environment of the falling Rome around which the work is set beyond what his story requires. However, while he rambled on about not doing it, he may as well have done it. It would have been more colourful. These rambling asides feel like padding, and by half-way through the book I felt that I’d read way too much to justify the story so far, much of it really not worth reading.

Then there’s the drama. Oh! My darlings! The drama! I weep to recall it! At first, our heroine is placed in such a lamentable position by her father Numerian in his religious zealotry; her would-be seducer the wealthy Vetranio; and the scheming servant Ulpius, that I found myself shuffling in my seat with all the discomfort piling on. It was all-too painful, and felt like kitten-kicking. However, acquaintance with Antonina didn’t last long before I felt like kicking her myself. Classically pathetic in her situation, she was colloquially pathetic in her response. Had she had a little gumption at least she’d have held my sympathy, but as the pure victim she was characterless, a mere cipher, a plot device.

To some extent, the circumstances arise from the character herself. A comely wench, we assume, given half the blokes who come into contact with her either start lusting or go romantically woozy, she is – nonetheless – sheltered and, moreover, only fourteen. The problem is, of course, that the modern reader will tend to ignore this fact and visualise a woman in her late teens at the youngest for comfort’s sake, (who really reads Shakespeare remembering Juliet is a thirteen-year old?) In a child the weakness may be forgiven, but we tend to forget she is only a child. He could have made her a twenty-one-year old widow or something and still been there with the historical accuracy. Maybe then she’d have had a little more to her than the pinball we end up with, bouncing around at the behest of everyone she bumps into.

Then there are the too-convenient shifts in character of Vetranio and Numerian when she descends. The first turns instantly from selfish, scheming, life-long narcissist to regretful penitent, the second from religious nut to doting father. Oh! The regret! Daft pillocks. More careful plotting on the part of Collins and somewhat more depth of character might have introduced the same story arc without such preposterous character-flipping.

Ironically, if melodrama damns the work, it also provides it with some of its redeeming features with some darkly delightful grotesquerie. Ulpius as the maddened pagan high priest sequestered in his temple is overblown to good effect, while the ‘special guest’ at Vetranio’s suicidal banquet shows Collins to have a truly warped mind for which he is to be congratulated. Other parts of the novel tick along nicely in the absence of Antonia and Collins’ pointless expositions, but it’s not enough to rescue the work that it provides such alleviation from the repetitive irritation.

A novel which presents a damsel in distress as the eponymous character who the reader wants to drop dead at the earliest possible opportunity is not a successful novel. Sorry, Wilkie. You should have left the shed load of saccharine and stuck with the grotesque.

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