'The secret between us will remain a Dead Secret to the end of the world!'

[Plot Summary]   [Publishing History]

 The Dead Secret by Wilkie Colllins - Smith, Elder 1871 yellowback.

1871 Smith, Elder yellowback

The first full length novel by Collins specifically written for serialisation.  Dedicated to Edward Pigott.  Collins's introduction reveals he wrote the story to show 'the influence of a heavy responsibility on a naturally timid woman, whose mind was neither strong enough to bear it, nor bold enough to drop it altogether.'  The tragic servant figure reappears as Rosanna Spearman in The Moonstone.  A blind character is used again, to greater effect, in Poor Miss Finch, and Mr Phippen, the hypochondriac friend of Dr Chennery, foreshadows Mr Fairlie in The Woman in White (1860).

The Dead Secret - Bradbury & Evans first edition title-page.

The Dead Secret - Miller & Curtis first US edition, New York.

Title-page of first English edition (Bradbury & Evans) Title-page of first US edition (Miller & Curtis)


Plot Summary

The Dead Secret - John Gilbert  frontispiece to the 1861 Sampson Low one volume edition.

John Gilbert frontispiece to the 1861 Sampson Low one volume edition

In 1829, Mrs Treverton lies dying in Porthgenna Tower on the west coast of Cornwall.  She dictates to her maid, Sarah Leeson, a deathbed confession for her husband, Captain Treverton.  Mrs Treverton dies before before she can make Sarah swear to give it to the Captain but she has already extracted promises neither to destroy the paper nor take it away from the house.  Sarah therefore hides the confession in the Myrtle Room in the derelict north wing and after leaving a note for the Captain disappears from the house.


Fifteen years later, the young Rosamond Treverton is privately married by Dr Chennery to the blind Leonard Frankland.  Chennery is a friend of both families and knows Leonard's father had bought Porthgenna Tower from the Captain after the death of Mrs Treverton.  The Captain had quarrelled with his misanthropic brother, Andrew Treverton, who had insulted his wife, a former actress.  Andrew lives a miserly existence in Bayswater with his equally unpleasant servant, Shrowl. 


A few months later, while Rosamond and Leonard are travelling through the Somerset village of West Winston on their way to Porthgenna, Rosamond is taken ill and gives birth prematurely.  They engage a temporary nurse, Mrs Jazeph, who alarms Rosamond by her strange behaviour and a warning to keep out of the Myrtle room.  Mrs Jazeph is dismissed and flees to Truro to visit her uncle, Joseph Buschmann.  He is delighted to see his niece, in reality Sarah Leeson, after an interval of many years.  Uncle Joseph, a passionate lover of Mozart which he plays incessantly on his musical box, plans to help Sarah recover the secret paper from Porthgenna.  They gain entrance to the house but before Sarah can reach the letter she faints, terrified by mistaking the wind for a ghost.  Sarah leaves Porthgenna and to avoid any further questions loses herself in the anonymity of London.


Dr Chennery writes to Andrew Treverton on Rosamond's behalf to identify the Myrtle room.  Treverton refuses to help but Shrowl sells a copy of the plans and the Dead Secret is revealed.  Rosamond is really the illegitimate daughter of Sarah Leeson whose lover, Hugh Polwheal, was killed in a mining accident before they could marry.  The childless Mrs Treverton passed off Rosamond as her own, both to preserve the love of her husband and to save Sarah's reputation.  Rosamond's inheritance of £40,000, the purchase price of Porthgenna paid by Leonard's father, rightfully belongs to the dead Captain's brother.  Andrew Treverton, staggered at finding two people who don't care about money, forces them to take it back.  Uncle Joseph has meanwhile traced Sarah so that mother and daughter are reunited.  The frail Sarah dies happy in Rosamond's arms, at peace because the ghost which perpetually haunted her has finally disappeared.  She is buried in Hugh Polwheal's grave in Porthgenna.


The Dead Secret - Chatto & Windus 1900 paperback.

The Dead Secret - Peterson US pirated edition in 1871.

1900 Chatto & Windus edition 1871 Peterson edition



Household Words, 3 January--13 June 1857; Harper's Weekly, 24 January - 27 June 1857; and in Littell's Living Age, Boston, 28 February - 18 July 1857.


Book Publication

First edition

2 volumes, Bradbury & Evans, London 1857.  Grey-purple cloth, covers blocked in blind, spines lettered in gilt, cream end-papers.  Half-title in volume I.  Published between 1-14 June 1857.  Copies in brown cloth, with yellow end-papers and Chapman & Hall advertisements are of later issue (1873-74).

Vol I          viii + 304 pp

Vol II         (iv) + 332 pp


1 Volume editions

Sampson Low 1861 (new preface and frontispiece by J. Gilbert); Smith, Elder 1865-1872; Chatto & Windus, 1875-1929.  Dover, New York 1979; Sutton, Stroud 1986; World's Classics 1997 (Critical edition, edited by I. Nadel).


US editions

Miller & Curtis, New York 1857; Peterson, Philadelphia: [1871]



Russian, St Petersburg 1857, 1861; French, Paris 1858 (by E-D. Forgues); Dutch, Amsterdam 1858; German, Leipzig 1862.

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