Oct 25, 2010

No Name by Wilkie Collins

No Name by Wilkie Collins

Wilkie Collins’ 1862 novel No Name tells the story of the Vanstone family, specifically of Norah and Magdalen, Mr and Mrs Vanstone’s daughters. You know as soon as the novel opens that their initial happy and prosperous home circumstances are going to change dramatically, but it’s not up to me to tell you how that happens. In fact, there isn’t very much I can tell you about the plot without ruining it to some extent – a common problem with even trying to summarise Victorian sensation novels. So instead, I’m going to devote the next paragraph to attempting to convince you really need to read No Name without saying too much about the story itself. Here it goes:

I’ll start by saying that whatever else No Name is – and it is, in my view, an extremely rich and insightful novel when it comes to gender roles and Victorian social and sexual mores – it’s also an absolutely fantastic read. There’s a fast-faced plot that constantly twists and turns and keeps you on the edge of your seat (believe me, the book doesn’t feel nearly as long as it actually is); there’s amazing suspense and unforgettable scenes galore; there are epistolary bits (always a plus); there are plenty of touches of Collins’ fabulous sense of humour; and there are unforgettable characters that very nearly rival his most memorable creation, Count Fosco. The battle of wits between Captain Wraggle, the “moral agriculturalist” and Mrs Lecount, a fearsome housekeeper (believe me, you do want to meet these two) was an absolute joy to read.

From this point on, I’ll have to include some spoilers if I want to discuss some of my favourite aspects of No Name in any detail. To be honest, this isn’t so much a novel of secrets as it is a novel of conspiracies, plots and intrigues (most of which, interestingly enough, would only be possible to execute in a now gone world; a world with far less surveillance than our own). The only big secret is revealed about a hundred and twenty pages into the novel (which, in a 740 pages chunkster, really is early on). Of course, the synopsis on the back cover of the book gives it away on the very first line, so if you care about spoilers do what I did and don’t read it until you have finished the book. But I’m really not comfortable giving it away myself, so consider yourselves warned. Spoilers begin now:

Despite some concessions to conventionality, the most obvious of all being the ending, No Name is a deeply subversive novel – one that explores social and personal possibilities that were seldom even mentioned, let alone discussed in any amount of detail at the time. Personally I didn’t find the ending disappointing, but possibly that’s mostly because I was expecting it. I was relieved that Collins didn’t kill Magdalen Vanstone, the most common end for supposedly troublesome or tainted women in Victorian novels, and instead simply had her be “saved” by the influence of a good man.

So yes, in the end she embraces respectability, and yes, her past conduct is overtly frowned upon, while her sister’s passivity and submission are rewarded – but this is only what happens at the very surface of things. Scratch it away, and there’s so much more to this story. No matter how things turn out, Wilkie Collins’ heroines are the Madgalens, the Rachels, the Marian Halcombe; not the Lauras or the Norahs whose passivity he seems to praise. The possibilities of female temperament and behaviour he acknowledges are revolutionary in the mere fact that he does acknowledge them – No Name and his other novels show us that there were other ways of being a Victorian woman; that there were Respectable Ladies who would not be patience and submissive, but would instead struggle against convention, refuse to become non-persons, feel angry and desperate, attempt to correct injustices and to make their own way into a deeply patriarchal world. As Virginia Blain so perfectly puts it in the introduction:
Clearly Collins had succeeded in touching some very sensitive nerves in his portrayal of Magdalen Vanstone. For the subversive, ‘sinful’ and lively side of his character, given so much space and animated with so much energy earlier in the novel, cannot be easily wiped out for the reader by a safe ‘moral’ conversion at the end. It is not in the superimposed black and white simplicities that out interest lies. Rather, it is in the detailed elaboration of an array of counterpointed similarities and contrasts between characters that the richest and most living parts of the novel take shape.
In the case of No Name, the right or wrong of Magdalen’s methods isn’t so much the point as is the fact that she does something. And this remains true no matter how much conventionality Wilkie Collins sprinkles on the surface of the story. Yes, his characters will often tut-tut them and say that women are or ought to be this or that – but there they are, Magdalen, Marian or Rachel, happily deviating from the established mould.

Another thing I liked was the fact that No Name is a novel of great seriousness and ethical complexity, even if it’s also full of schemers, tricksters and plotters. It’s a story about social and psychological motivations rather than one about pointless tricks, and Collins confuses the heroes and the villains to the point where you don’t quite know who to root for, or what kind of ending you’d like best. I have to say that my sympathy was with Magdalen at the whole time, even when she was at her most scheming, simply because of the sheer unfairness of the situation she was in. At the same time, however, I didn’t exactly want her to succeed, even for her own sake. But the important thing, and the thing Collins repeatedly draws attention to, is how easy it is to sympathise with her motivation if not with her methods. Her fury and her desperate desire to right the wrongs that befell her and her sister are absolutely legitimate.

And of course, there’s Wilkie Collins’ undisguised sympathy for the two daughters of the Vanstones, regardless of the circumstances of their birth; his outright criticism of the law that disinherited illegitimate children; his pooh-poohing of the general belief that not being legally married made a couple immoral or any less of a real couple; his validation of the anger Magdalen feels at being left destitute through circumstances that were in no way her fault. And all this in 1862. HEARTS, Wilkie Collins. Hearts.

Interesting bits (again, spoilers warning):
“No, Miss Garth, we must look facts as they are resolutely in the face. Mr. Vanstone’s daughters are Nobody’s Children; and the law leaves them helpless at their uncle’s mercy.”
“A cruel law, Mr. Pendril—a cruel law in a Christian country.”
“Cruel as it is, Miss Garth, it stands excused by a shocking peculiarity in this case. I am far from defending the law of England as it affects illegitimate offspring. On the contrary, I think it a disgrace to the nation. It visits the sins of the parents on the children; it encourages vice by depriving fathers and mothers of the strongest of all motives for making the atonement of marriage; and it claims to produce these two abominable results in the names of morality and religion. But it has no extraordinary oppression to answer for in the case of these unhappy girls. The more merciful and Christian law of other countries, which allows the marriage of the parents to make the children legitimate, has no mercy on these children. The accident of their father having been married, when he first met with their mother, has made them the outcasts of the whole social community; it has placed them out of the pale of the Civil Law of Europe. I tell you the hard truth—it is useless to disguise it. There is no hope, if we look back at the past: there may be hope, if we look on to the future. The best service which I can now render you is to shorten the period of your suspense. In less than an hour I shall be on my way back to London. Immediately on my arrival, I will ascertain the speediest means of communicating with Mr. Michael Vanstone; and will let you know the result. Sad as the position of the two sisters now is, we must look at it on its best side; we must not lose hope.”

“I know her, Mr. Vanstone! She is a nameless, homeless, friendless wretch. The law which takes care of you, the law which takes care of all legitimate children, casts her like carrion to the winds. It is your law—not hers. She only knows it as the instrument of a vile oppression, an insufferable wrong. The sense of that wrong haunts her like a possession of the devil. The resolution to right that wrong burns in her like fire. If that miserable girl was married and rich, with millions tomorrow, do you think she would move an inch from her purpose? I tell you she would resist, to the last breath in her body, the vile injustice which has struck at the helpless children, through the calamity of their father’s death! I tell you she would shrink from no means which a desperate woman can employ to force that closed hand of yours open, or die in the attempt!”
This one made me immensely sad, as it perfectly expresses the situation Magdalen and countless other Victorian women found themselves in:
“Do you know who I am? I am a respectable married woman, accountable for my actions to nobody under heaven but my husband. I have got a place in the world, and a name in the world, at last. Even the law, which is the friend of all you respectable people, has recognized my existence, and has become my friend too! The Archbishop of Canterbury gave me his license to be married, and the vicar of Aldborough performed the service. If I found your spies following me in the street, and if I chose to claim protection from them, the law would acknowledge my claim. You forget what wonders my wickedness has done for me. It has made Nobody’s Child Somebody’s Wife.”
Other points of view: books i done read, Moored at Sea, Savidge Reads, Tales from the Reading Room

(Have I missed yours?)

43 comments:

  1. Exciting! I have just "discovered" Wilkie Collins - this isn't one that I have read but several people have recommended it to me. I've just finished The haunted hotel which was so gripping and kept me guessing right til the end

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  2. Each book you write about moves immediately onto my wishlist. I stopped wondering about that, you have great reading taste! (BTW, I stopped reading at your mention of spoilers, so now I have to get this book asap to know what it was all about)

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  3. I ve only read the women in white this may be worth a try ,all the best stu

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  4. I'm dying to read this book - even more so now I've read your review! I skimmed the last half though, to avoid spoilers, but just the first two paragraphs is enough to make me want to run out and buy it right now!

    Thanks for the great review, Nymeth :)

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  5. I really want to read this so I've only read the beginning of your post. Will come back when I do (although I'm not sure when:P) but I'm glad you liked it!

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  6. This seems to be the time of year I start thinking about Wilkie Collins. Loved The Moonstone and The Woman in White, and have been trying to decide whether to read No Name and Armadale next. Thanks for helping me choose! :-)

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  7. I really need to read some Wilkie Collins! I read one of his years and years ago, but I think I was too young to properly appreciate it, and there have been so many positive reviews of his work lately.

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  8. Wonderful review, Ana! I have read two of Wilkie Collins' books - 'The Woman in White' and 'The Moonstone' and have liked them very much. I read them as mysteries with interesting plot twists and so it was interesting to read in your review about how Wilkie Collins depicts women of the Victorian era in his novels. This provides an interesting and new perspective to Collins' works. I will add 'No Name' to my wishlist.

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  9. You know, I know you guys say I shouldn't read this, and I know that it's probably 99% likely I won't like the book, but reading this sort of review compared to hearing Jason's journey through the book (he talked to me about it the whole way through) really puts to mind two completely contradictory images and I would love to resolve that. What I remember most about his journey was all the stupid and/or unbelievable and/or way-too-obvious things the one girl did, like dressing up as other people or something like that. His words, not mine, obviously. Perhaps I won't find them stupid or unbelieveable or silly or whatever. Maybe I still won't like the character, but maybe I'll at least be able to see this as a more feminist work, instead of now, where I see it as essentially anti-feminist (again, from Jason's journey).

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  10. Oh, I need to move this up on my to-read list. Drat these Victorians for writing so many long books! Dickens, Trollope, and now Wilkie Collins. . . I want to read them all. This one sounds really good.

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  11. Personally I'd love some cover re-dos of some of these older books....I can be a bit shallow and covers like this often make me want to yawn, but you say it has a twisty turny plot! Maybe one day I'll give old Wilkie a try.

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  12. I cannot wait to read this. I've loved Armadale, The Moonstone, and The Woman in White, I know I'd love No Name.
    Thanks for the great review; as usual, you've increased my desire to read even more!

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  13. I haven't read a single Wilkie Collins yet, and I'm feeling like I need to remedy that immediately! His books have been on my wish list for a while now, but I've just never found a time to fit it in!

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  14. I absolutely LOVED The Moonstone, and have The Woman in White on my Kindle, but have yet to read it. Now I need to add this one. But over 700 pages - holy crap! I need to just get over it and have a Wilkie month at some point.

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  15. I have been wanting to read something by Collins for such a long time, and though the ending to The Moonstone was ruined for me a long time ago, there are a lot of others for me to choose from. I think I actually have a copy of this one and The Woman in White on my shelf here at home, and am going to have to make time to read them. Of course, I didn't read your spoilers, but after I have read this book I will come back to check out the full review! Glad you loved it though!

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  16. Wilkie Collins sounds like a man before his time!

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  17. Verity: The Haunted Hotel just might be my next Collins - it sounds excellent, and has the extra advantage of being short ;)

    Francesca: Fingers crossed that you enjoy it :D

    Stu, definitely worth a try! And The Moonstone is as well - I actually enjoyed it even more than The Woman in White.

    Boof, I think you'd *love* this! Please read it soon ;)

    Sakura: I really did - might be my favourite Collins to date!

    JoAnn: I haven't read Armadale yet so I can't say which one I prefer - but in any case, it seems there's no going wrong with him.

    Fence: I hope you like it more the second time around!

    Vishy: I really love his female characters - or some of them anyway. He always does throw in a few "proper" ladies who supposedly work as models of behaviour, but you can tell it's not *their* stories that he really wants to tell. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this one when you get to it!

    Amanda: I hope you do read it, as I'd love to hear where you stand on it! I definitely agree that some scenes were far-fetched and dramatic (the disguise one being the main example), but to me that didn't matter so much as did the desperate situation that led Magdalen to do all those crazy things. And I strongly disagree about it being anti-feminist, though Jason is of course welcome to come argue with me about it :P

    Karen: I know! Collins at least does have some novellas... I need to read those soon.

    Amy: The plot is really, really gripping, I promise! That has been true of all of his books I've read so far.

    Amanda: You definitely would love it!

    Coffee and a Book Chick: Yes you do! His books are time-consuming, but so worth it.

    Sandy: It only feels like about 300 pages, though - you'll see!

    Zibilee: It really saddens me that spoilers for classics are so easy to come across! I was lucky not to have The Moonstone spoiled for me, but that did happen with countless other classics.

    Kathy: I think that in many ways he was!

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  18. Your points about surface conventionality versus underlying subversion are very apropos of a book I'm reading right now (Amelia Opie's 1804 Adeline Mowbray) - it's good to keep in mind that merely ACKNOWLEDGING the presence of people who held different opinions or acted differently from the norm could be a radical act, even if said characters reform at the end or are made to suffer/repent. Which doesn't completely erase my frustration about that type of ending, but it's definitely something to consider.

    More specific to No Name, it's next up on my list of Collins to check out!

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  19. I have never read Wilkie Collins and I do think that is a shame as I own quite a few books. I kind of inherited them from my father in law, so perhaps I need to have look and a read.

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  20. This sounds fabulous. The only Collins I have ever read was The Moonstone and I loved it. I've wanted to read more Collins but The Woman In White is a little intimidating. This might be a good second book to start with. It sounds really great (although I didn't read your spoilers).

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  21. Emily: Yes, exactly! I share your frustration with those endings, but very often it really pays to look beyond the attempts to wrap the story with a pretty bow and bring it back to the realm of safety and conventionality, and try to focus on the possibilities that all the things that happen before the end raise. Funnily enough, in the case of No Name the ending actually shocked Victorian readers because they felt that the character hadn't been "punished" enough! Without giving it away, I'll say I did feel that Collins' nods to convention were a lot more superficial than they could have been, and that in itself certainly means something.

    Vivienne: I envy you that collection! Do try to make time for them one of these days - if you loved Uncle Silas, you'll love Collins.

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  22. Brenna, I highly recommend both this and The Woman in White. Don't let their length intimidate you in either case! They're both amazing stories, and very difficult to put down.

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  23. I loved this book, though not quite as much as The Woman in White or Armadale. I agree that the battle of wits between Captain Wragge and Mrs Lecount was fantastic and definitely had me on the edge of my seat! I'm reading The Haunted Hotel & Other Stories at the moment and loving that one too.

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  24. Nymeth, you are an absolute menace to bookish peace of mind! You make every book sound so...intriguing, and readable, and must-acquire-urgently-now! This DOES sound good.

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  25. Hmm ... another author to delve into!

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  26. How long have we been friends now, Ana? And yet even though you review these books that sound so damn amazing I'm still scared to DEATH of them! I feel like this would be over my head, but it does sound so damn good.

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  27. My bookclub read The Woman in White a while ago and we ended up talking about Collins' other novels.

    I haven't read No Name, but most of the group felt it was too moralist and written in a stage in his life where he felt he had to save the world. I can see you loved it, but did you had to take the moral lessons with a spoon of sugar?

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  28. Helen: I need to read The Haunted Hotel! And Armadale! And... everything of his I can find, pretty much :P

    Anonymous: I'm not sure if I should apologise or not ;) I hope you enjoy No Name when you get to it!

    Stephanie, he's so worth it!

    Chris: I swear, I'm going to have to come up with some sort of masterplan to make you and Debi stop fearing the Victorians :P

    Alexandra: I think I'd have had to ask your book group what the moral lesson even is, as I didn't find it moralistic in the least! No Name was written only two years after The Woman in White, and I don't think his attitude changed much at all between one and the other. He does make his distaste for certain laws (married women's lack of rights in The Woman in White; and I can't say which law without spoilers in the case of No Name) VERY clear, but to be honest I was inwardly cheering :P Maybe part of the reason why is the fact that it's often easy to see ideological stances which match our own as fair forms of social protest, and those which don't or which aren't quite as close to our heart as more didactic or moralistic.

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  29. Sounds like a good read. I have yet to read anything by Collins, but I really must!

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  30. I haven't read any Collins but I've been meaning too. This sounds like a great starting point.

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  31. I've also just "discovered" Wilkie Collins.

    I'm reading The Woman in White at the moment, and while it took me about 40 pages to start to really care for the characters, I am so hooked.

    Can't wait to read more from Mr. Collins!

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  32. LOL...I was about to ditto Chris's comment, and then I saw your response to him. You *DO* need to come up with some master plan!!! I swear this book sounds sooooo freakin' incredible to me, and yet the thought of actually reading it just petrifies me. You know, Chris and I just decided to steal yours and Katie's mutual reading challenge idea...well, I think we should do it as well and then you can pick some out for me. :D

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  33. Amy, yes you must! There's so much here that I think would appeal to you :)

    Other Amy: Either this or The Woman in Black or The Moonstone... honestly, they're all so good!

    Jen: Ooh, I hope you love The Woman in White as much as I did! It does take a little bit for the story to pick up, but once it did I couldn't put it down.

    Debi, I'd love to do a mutual challenge with you if you'd have me :)

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  34. Despite my love of The Moonstone and The Woman in White, I still haven't picked this one up. Obviously I need to get on it! :) Glad you are back in action. I missed reading your posts.

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  35. I still need to give Collins a try, I have The Woman in White lined up, but this sounds amazing. I guess it is "wrong" to start with this one, isn't it?

    It's fascinating to me that the "sinful" woman is called Magdalen. Cannot be a coincidence, can it? But that might be because I once wrote an essay on changing perceptions of Mary Magdalen :)

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  36. Ooh, I knew I wanted to read more Collins (WHY did I stupidly leave a copy of No Name on the Vintage Classics shelf when I had a chance to add it to the books I took with me?!) but you have cemented that desire by a) using my favourite word "subversive" and b) writing "And all this in 1862. HEARTS, Wilkie Collins. Hearts."

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  37. Fantastic review! I did love this, which given that I am not the greatest fan of Victorian literature or chunksters, just goes to show how good it must have been. It was the brilliance of the plotting that kept me engaged, even when I passed the 500 page mark!

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  38. "HEARTS, Wilkie Collins. Hearts." Yes, oh how much I love Wilkie's books!

    I know the plots of most of his books. I don't consider that "ruining' them or "spoiling" them because Wilkie's books are all about the journey! (But I know I am a rarity in that.)

    As for this one, which I'm really looking foward to: I think so much of the "indignation" he writes goes back to his own person situation. He fathered three children with his mistress and he was intensely worried about their inheritance after he passed on. He didn't want them to lose out. (Of course, he had debts when he died, no one got much anyway...)

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  39. I'm disappointed that this one doesn't seem to be much of a mystery! I loved The Woman in White and The Moonstone.

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  40. This sounds fascinating, especially what it says about Victorian convetions. I'm going to read The Moonstone as my next Collins, but this one should probably come after that:)

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  41. Trisha: Aw, thank you! And yes, yes you do!

    Iris: That's an *excellent* point about Magdalen's name! I bet it wasn't accidental, and I can't believe I didn't pick up on that myself :P

    Claire: You would love this, I'm sure! That's a pity you didn't pick up a copy, but I'm sure one will find its way to you!

    litlove: Whatever else Collins did, he certainly knew how to tell a story, didn't he? I couldn't believe how well the whole thing flowed.

    Rebecca: That is so interesting about his own personal life! I'd love to read a biography of his, and I dearly wish Dorothy Sayers had finished the one she had planned to write. About the plot, I agree there's a lot to enjoy even if you know what's going to happen in advance, but personally I love the thrill of not knowing and being caught up in the suspense :)

    S. Krishna: It's not much of a mystery but it still manages to be incredibly suspenseful! I hope you'll still give it a chance.

    Bina: The Moonstone is also absolutely brilliant. Enjoy :D

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  42. I really liked this book - very astute writing. Not a mystery, but certainly a social commentary and a thrilling story. BTW, I'm halfway through The Woman in White and greatly enjoying it; but Armadale is still my favourite Collins.

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  43. As I was a "good" girl & skipped the spoilers, I suspect I missed the best of your review, which is wonderful. I believe you are the one who convinced me to read The Moonstone last year. Was hoping to get to The Woman in White this year--no luck yet. And now you've given me another one! Mr. Collins is just that sort of writer, isn't he?
    And so are you!

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.