"There, in the middle of the broad, bright high-road--there, as if it had that moment sprung out of the earth or dropped from the heaven--stood the figure of a solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in white garments." Thus young Walter Hartright first meets the mysterious woman in white in what soon became one of the most popular novels of the nineteenth century. Secrets, mistaken identities, surprise revelations, amnesia, locked rooms and locked asylums, and an unorthodox villain made this mystery thriller an instant success when it first appeared in 1860, and it has continued to enthrall readers ever since. From the hero's foreboding before his arrival at Limmeridge House to the nefarious plot concerning the beautiful Laura, the breathtaking tension of Collins's narrative created a new literary genre of suspense fiction, which profoundly shaped the course of English popular writing. Collins's other great mystery, The Moonstone, has been called the finest detective story ever written, but it was this work that so gripped the imagination of the world that Wilkie Collins had his own tombstone inscribed: "Author of The Woman in White."
The story itself concerns Walter Hartright, a young drawing master who takes a job at Limmeridge House and there meets Miss Halcombe and Miss Fairlie. He falls in love with Miss Fairlie and, because of his lower social status, he leaves and joins a dangerous trip to South America in an attempt to forget her. Laura is married to the nefarious Sir Percival, who is, naturally, only after her money. Included in this tale is a desperate woman Walter meets one night as she escapes from a mental asylum and whose fate is tied to Laura's. There's also a colorful Italian Count, who is the most interesting and villainous of men. And present every step of the story is Miss Halcombe, who protects Miss Fairlie, solves the mystery, fascinates the Italian Count, thwarts the bad guys and keeps Walter Hartright pointed in the right direction.
There's something to be said for those wordy, Victorian authors. The Woman in White is the most suspenseful novel I have read in a long time. Wilkie Collins takes his time setting the scene, and then he slowly increases the tension, never allowing the reader the easy satisfaction of a quick resolution. Rather, the reader endures what the characters must; long moments of uncertainty, hours trapped without knowing if all was yet lost. It is a credit to Collins' writing that this strategy stands the test of time. Even in our era of instant gratification, I was more than willing to allow this book to hijack my days.
Please be warned there are spoilers in this review, though I've tried to play coy on the really big ones.
Collins masterfully keeps his readers turning the pages. Feverishly, I might add. I can't imagine reading this in serial form — well, maybe I can (it would be rather like watching an addictive and gripping TV show every week, wouldn't it?). Even though Collins puts Marian's big discovery fairly early, the tension is still incredible. It's ironic that the Masterpiece Theatre adaptation of this story would move that discovery back to make it more of a dramatic climax (rather than revealing it so quickly as Collins does) and still manage to be insipid next to the novel. I've watched it twice and the second time was just as disappointing as the first, whereas I thoroughly enjoyed my second time reading the book and will eventually reread it yet again.
Collins' characters are rich and varied. Marian Halcombe deserves top billing as one of the strongest female characters to emerge in Victorian literature. Highly intelligent, forthright, not given to weeping or fainting, and physically unbeautiful, Marian is the kind of character you read a little faster to get to. Much of the story is told in her voice and it's fascinating how she and the other characters perceive her strong qualities as decidedly masculine; she is constantly described as "mannish" and whenever she does display any kind of weakness, she puts it down to being a woman. I suppose it gives feminists fits, but despite the language Marian really is an incredible character and the Victorian audience simply wouldn't have understood her in terms other than "masculine" and "mannish." Perhaps Collins himself couldn't articulate her nature differently.
And you just have to love Collins' foreigners. I think my favorite is still Herre Grosse from Poor Miss Finch, but Professor Pesca is delightful too. "Right-all-right!" Count Fosco is, of course, a foreigner too but he wears his foreignness in much less noticeable ways. He's learned to polish it up and use it only when it is to his advantage. Enormously fat, utterly charming, and endlessly cunning, Fosco is a complex character whose motives are as puzzling as his methods. Sir Percival Glyde is his foil, of course, and Glyde's clumsy villainy only makes Fosco's deep scheming all the more worrying. Collins once said that he imagined Count Fosco as an excessively fat man in order to defy the then-current convention of the skeletally thin evildoer. The ability to be a bad guy isn't limited to a single body type!
If you've been wanting to try a good Victorian novel to see if they really are all that, The Woman in White is a great place to start. Once you get into it you'll find it hard to put down. For sensational fiction, the Victorians still hold their own with any modern author, and Collins more than most. This is a thoroughly enjoyable read and one that I recommend frequently. Gothic wonderfulness!
I had a feeling I would like the book from just the preface.
I have always held the old-fashioned opinion that the primary object of a work of fiction should be to tell a story; and I have never believed that the novelist who properly performed this first condition of his art was in danger, on that account, of neglecting the delineation of character....
What’s this, Wilkie? Story? Character? Are you telling me that the point of writing isn’t the creation of artistic effects? The flaunting of one’s stylistic virtuosity? The use of obscurity to simulate profundity? How ... refreshing.
The Woman in White is a good old-fashioned story, told with directness, clarity, and force—but also, it may be said, a good deal of talent. Collins was clearly a master of his craft.
I will not say much about the plot, because I do not want to spoil anything for new readers. It is labyrinthine, sometimes bewildering, full of twists and turns. And it is positively engrossing, so engrossing that I read it in only a week, while still working and taking college classes—and it is not a short book!
One of the things that impressed me about the book was Collins’s ability to create distinct narrative voices. Many authors attempt this, and few truly succeed. Walter’s introductory description of “the weary pilgrims of the London pavement … beginning to think of the cloud-shadows on the corn-fields” drips with a Romanticism and love of nature that none of the other narrators could muster—certainly not Mr. Gilmore, the lawyer given to aphorism: “There are three things that none of the young men of the present generation can do. They can’t sit over their wine, they can’t play at whist, and they can’t pay a lady a compliment.”
What is really at work here is Collins’s genius for character, and there are some great characters in The Woman in White. Most notable are the unconventional heroine, Marian Halcolmbe, and the dastardly Count Fosco. Some readers take exception to Marian’s equation of weakness with femininity, and the fact that her strength of character is, like Dracula’s Mina Harker, supposedly due to the fact that she has (to quote Stoker) “a man’s brain and a woman’s heart.” But Mina is a doofus who contributes nothing aside from some nice secretarial work, whereas Marian braves countless dangers to solve the mystery of Anne Catherick and thwart the villains’ schemes. As to her supposed weaknesses, methinks the lady doth protest too much.
Fosco is a sinister yet charming villain, a larger-than-life figure who leaps off the page. In many ways he is the original of The Maltese Falcon’s Fat Man. Indeed, there seems to be a 1948 film in which Sydney Greenstreet plays the Count; I imagine he is brilliant.
Even if you do not think Victorian fiction is your thing, I recommend The Woman in White, a true page-turner with a fine literary pedigree.
This novel is described as the first of the English “sensation novels”, what we would call in the U.S. a thriller. If Collins invented this format he was a genius. This novel has the elements we identify with a thriller. Its only weak points are its treatment of women as a somewhat helpless and inferior species, but I could easily say the same thing of Dickens. Even though one of the female characters (Marian) is instrumental in thwarting the plot Count Fosco (what a name for a villain) it is left to the male character to actually resolve things.
But it’s a great read, actually a lot more approachable than some of the Dicken’s novels. I wish that, as a high school junior, I had been given this to read instead of “A Tale of Two Cities”.
Wilkie Collin's epistolary novel is filled with all the components which make for a great and timeless classic. The characters are memorable, enter Mr. Fairlie and his anal but hilarious ways, Marian Halcombe, a heroine who can stand solidly on her own two feet; the drama is gripping as we discover the identity of the woman in white and her secrets; the love of Mr. Hartright for his beloved is swoon worthy, and the issues such as class struggles and marriage woes, are universal.
Part romance, with a dollop of mystery, and a dash of crime, and a generous portion of entertainment, this classic was one that has never been out of print since it's first publication date, and once read, the reason behind its success is evident.
It wasn't until after I'd finished, and started to think about things more, that certain aspects started to bother me. Probably the main problem that I had was with the character of Marian being awesome but consigned to the role of spinster. Why does Marian have to be ugly and only appreciated as a woman by the Count, who is probably the primary villain in the novel? To make that even more annoying, you then have Walter Hartright, who is in love with Marian's rich blonde sister, Laura, who is sweet but doesn't seem to have any real personality. She's just a cardboard cutout. I guess that's just a reflection of women at the time this was written? A strong independent woman was too scary to be desirable?
Despite the simplicity of some of the characters, however, The Woman in White is worth the read as a page turning mystery thriller. You just have to accept it for what it is and not hope for it to challenge any conventional Victorian paradigms.
The book exposes a practice that was frighteningly not uncommon at the time, that of committing sane individuals to lunatic asylums arbitrarily and sometimes in order to silence them or get them out of the way; the introduction describes Edward Bulwer Lytton doing this to his wife. It also highlights the trend of mesmerism, as embodied in Count Fosco, who exerts a power over many of the characters in the novel.
I liked this particular edition as it provided a lot of the context, the original illustrations, and some interesting footnotes. Example: the one on cigarette smoking in England; Bachman/Cox point out that in the 1860s it was new, having been introduced via Turkish allies in the Crimean War, as an alternative to traditional pipe-smoking. Also: despite a rise in crime accompanying industrialization, the creation of police forces being gradual, and requiring a mandate from Parliament in 1856. I did, however, strongly disagree with their view that the exchanges between Marian and Laura could possibly support a lesbian reading; I believe their error to be that of using a modern-day lens to view 19th century behavior.
“The poor weak words which have failed to describe Miss Fairlie, have succeeded in betraying the sensations she awakened in me. It is so with us all. Our words are giants when they do us an injury, and dwarfs when they do us a service.”
On the younger generation; I find in reading books throughout the ages the older generation frequently comment on the failings and degeneration of the young:
“I had been favourably impressed by Mr. Hartright, on our first introduction to one another; but I soon discovered that he was not free from the social failings incidental to his age. There are three things that none of the young men of the present generation can do. They can’t sit over their wine; they can’t play at whist; and they can’t pay a lady a compliment.”
On law enforcement:
“’It is truly wonderful,’ he said, ‘how easily Society can console itself for the worst of its short-comings with a little bit of clap-trap. The machinery it has set up for the detection of crime is miserably ineffective – and yet only invent a moral epigram, saying that it works well, and you blind everybody to its blunders…
The hiding of a crime, or the detection of a crime, what is it? A trial of skill between the police on one side, and the individual on the other. When the criminal is a brutal, ignorant fool, the police, in nine cases out of ten, win. When the criminal is a resolute, educated, highly-intelligent man, the police, in nine cases out of ten, lose. If the police win, you generally hear all about it. If the police lose, you generally hear nothing.”
On the poor, and prisons:
“Is the prison that Mr. Scoundrel lives in, at the end of his career, a more uncomfortable place than the workhouse that Mr. Honesty lives in, at the end of his career? When John-Howard-Philanthropist wants to relieve misery, he goes to find it in prisons, where crime is wretched – not in huts and hovels, where virtue is wretched too.”
On women; I love this quote:
“Women can resist a man’s love, a man’s fame, a man’s personal appearance, and a man’s money; but they cannot resist a man’s tongue, when he knows how to talk to them.”
And lastly this little bit of ogling, 19th century style:
“…after following Marian to the Inn at Blackwater (studying, behind a convenient waggon which hid me from her, the poetry of motion, as embodied in her walk)…”
I actually really liked the book when I was reading it. I loved it, in fact. My references to it finally getting good wasn’t so much a pronouncement that it was not good, just my expectation that a big revelation was coming. Wilkie Collins sure knew how to create suspense, but it a more quiet and subtle way than today’s thrillers often do. I loved the author's long windedness and his drawing out of events. I loved his use of language and his ability to pull me into the story. I felt like I got to know each of the characters and was standing right there beside them in every scene. I could predict how certain characters would react to certain events because I had come to know them so well. I could visualize perfectly the various places in which the story took place. I liked the format the author used to tell the story and appreciated the buildup of anticipation.
My impatience and desire for the book to go faster was purely based on selfish reasons, and not a reflection on the book. The Woman in White is one of those novels that requires the reader to slow down and appreciate the finer points. My timing in reading the book was off. I wasn't in the right mind set for reading a book that required my full attention and time, not to mention I had been ill while reading some of it. Once I was able to devote more time to the novel, I found the right reading rhythm, and the book seemed to move along at a more acceptable (to me) pace.
Published initially as a serial from 1959 to 1960, Wilkie Collins' novel was a great hit. So much so that it became a stage production (although unauthorized) within three months of the book's publication. My copy of The Woman and White included excerpts of letters and reviews written around the time of the book's release, which I found quite interesting. While the book garnered much praise, others were less impressed: “Had the story been wrought out in the old-fashioned way it could have been told far more effectively and in less space . . . A novelist who aims at being natural, and writes seriously, should refrain from reminding us of so broad a farce as Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors.” [Excerpt from the Dublin University Magazine, February 1861]
Wilkie Collins' The Woman In White is told in multiple narratives, a collection of letters and journal entries used to document the events surrounding the mystery of the woman in white and that of Laura Fairlie, a lady of society whose own life and fate are intertwined with that of the title character.
From the Barnes and Noble website:
The story begins with an eerie midnight encounter between artist Walter Hartright and a ghostly woman dressed all in white who seems desperate to share a dark secret. The next day Hartright, engaged as a drawing master to the beautiful Laura Fairlie and her half sister, tells his pupils about the strange events of the previous evening. Determined to learn all they can about the mysterious woman in white, the three soon find themselves drawn into a chilling vortex of crime, poison, kidnapping, and international intrigue.
The novel is filled with an intriguing cast of characters. While the novel is plot driven from the start, the characters are well developed, from the least significant character who appears only for a page or two to the most important. My favorite of the characters will come as no surprise to those who have read the novel. Marion Halcombe is a strong and intelligent protagonist. Marion reminded me a bit of Mina Harker from Bram Stoker's Dracula. Both could rival any of the strong female leading ladies of today. There are several characters from the novel I would love to explore further: Count Fosco and Pesca in particular. They both have pasts that would make for interesting reading.
The Woman in White may be a quiet thriller at its start, but by the end, events unravel so quickly that the reader's knuckles may turn white trying to keep up. It is obvious that Wilkie Collins planned out his novel with great care, each thread carefully sown into the greater story. It is a true gothic novel at its core: dark, gloomy, romantic and thrilling. I could say so much more about this novel than I have, but I will let you experience it for yourself if you haven’t already.
In order to avoid spoilers, I am not going to describe the plot in any great detail. It is intricate, well thought out and presented in an original way. I admit it took me almost the first hundred pages to really get into the story. I found the first narrator’s tone overly sentimental and flowery, but as other narrator’s took over, and the story was revealed layer by layer, I found myself quite absorbed and captivated by this book.
Wilkie Collins gives us a handful of characters, both true to their time yet original. A couple really stood out to me, Marian Halcombe, with no real rights of her own, destined to spinsterhood, yet independent of nature, brave and extremely protective of her sister. Also the sinister Count Fosco, the arrogant, controlling foreigner, whom both Marian and her sister call a “Monster” is one of the best drawn villains I have ever read about.
The Woman in White is a Victorian Melodrama of the highest order, and I enjoyed my time spent lost in it’s pages.
If the plot of The Woman in White seems familiar, that is because it is. As the first of its kind, it has been oft-imitated, borrowed, and retold in multiple ways. A strange encounter with a mysterious woman with an enigmatic message, a hapless and poor hero, a dashing heir, a gorgeous but docile sweetheart, her trusty sidekick, a nefarious foreign villain – these are all elements of very popular stories, especially of the soap opera variety. However, their familiarity does not breed contempt in this case. If anything, a reader can better appreciate the first time they were ever used as plot devices. Not only that but Mr. Collins’ writing stands the test of time and remains as enjoyable and intense as it was when the novel was first released in serial form.
It is always important to remember the context in which a novel was written, and this is especially true of something as historical and iconic as The Woman in White. As was appropriate for the era, women, their abilities, and their rights are severely limited. Marian, the trusty sidekick, is more than capable of taking on the Big Bad but is unable to do so because of her gender. Laura is the epitome of the docile, beautiful china doll – sweet but fairly incapable of being anything other than a decoration. Countess Fosco, for all her descriptions of being a volatile feminist before her marriage, is completely ruled by her husband, so much so that she does not act or talk without his permission. It can be troubling for modern-day readers to see the female sex degraded to such levels, even while a reader can appreciate how much things have changed since the book’s release in 1860. The key is to not get caught up in what used to be but rather to appreciate the story for what it is – a twisty mystery thriller and the first of its kind.
Once one realizes that this book does not contain the supernatural elements that define Gothic novels, and once one recovers from the shock and/or horror at the portrayal of women in the novel, the reader can sit back and appreciate what Mr. Collins did. Walter Hartright doggedly follows what few clues he can find, determined to get answers and right wrongs. He does this with very little money and a large amount of stubborn fortitude. Remarkably, even though the story is told in epistolary form, as affidavits of events by key witnesses after they happened, a reader never feels separated from the action. In fact, there is something surprisingly intimate with the format used, as it allows readers to get into the mindset of each of the narrators, allowing the reader to pick and choose among their stories for the most important clues and nuggets of information to help resolve the mystery.
The mystery itself is a fun and simple ride with the requisite mistaken identities, mysterious figures, hereditary and monetary dealings, and one in which each character introduced plays a key role in the unfolding drama, in true Dickensian fashion. This is more indicative of the influence Charles Dickens had on Mr. Collins and his work. Predictable and familiar, The Woman in White retains a freshness that is due to Mr. Collins’ skill at creating characters and building scenes. While it is not the spooky read initially thought, it still remains an enjoyable thriller and excellent flashback to a time where hereditary titles and social rank were still extremely important to the functioning of society.
How can I relate to some 'art teacher' who falls in love with some glorified simpleton even though he hasn't said more than 14 sentences to her?
And I'm tired of all the freaking spinsters... either women are insane, or they are spinsters and in some cases they are particularly ugly which is what makes them spinsters. I'll bet the men of that era were quite the stud-muffins with their body stink and rotten teeth.
The story takes place in London and Cumberland, England, where Walter Hartwright has been hired to serve as drawing instructor to a wealthy eccentric's nieces, Marian and Laura. Hartwright falls in love with Laura, but because he is below her station in life, he is dismissed from his position, and Laura goes ahead with her arranged marriage to Sir Percival Glyde, a man she cannot stand.
It soon becomes clear that Sir Percival is only interested in Laura's money. Once he realizes she may hold a secret of his that could ruin his reputation, he and his friend, Count Fosco hatch a plan to get rid of her. Unexpected twists and turns ensue, involving mistaken identity, spies, theft and forgery.
Though it was written hundreds of years ago, the book is very accessible and relevant to today's reader. Few novels are as equally engrossing and tightly formed. I can't find one flaw
with The Woman in White, and encourage others to indulge in its rare satisfaction.
I read all 600 pages of this book in 3 days before and after work - I did not want to put it down! Admittedly Laura is probably one of the weakest female characters I've ever come across and some of the twists aren't all that unexpected, but I just kept wanting to know the end to find out whether the deductions I'd made throughout the story were correct!
I'll certainly be looking for more Collins over the next few months - an absolute pioneer of the 'sensationalist genre'. If you like Sir Conan Doyle, I highly recommend the Woman in White.
In a word: Enthralling
So begins Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, a Victorian piece of classical literature with a Gothic feel.
The novel begins with Walter Hartright’s strange nocturnal encounter with a mysterious woman, dressed head to toe in white. The woman refuses to tell him why she is out at such an hour, and with no one to escort her–merely asking Hartright to direct her to London, which, as a gentleman, he does gracefully. Hartright fetches her a coach and sees her off, then continues on his way home. A few moments later, he is stopped by a policeman, asking if he had seen a woman dressed completely in white garments. When Hartright inquires as to why, the man responds that the woman had recently escaped from a nearby asylum.
This is the first of several events that take Hartright down a long, dangerous road, full of deception and treachery, threatening all that he holds dear. As drawing master to the beautiful Laura Fairlie, Hartright becomes even more entangled in the plots of her fiancee, Sir Percival Glyde, and his foreign friend, Count Fosco. This novel is a classic case of “things aren’t always what they seem,” as it becomes difficult to tell who is friend and who is foe.
The novel is told in epistolary form, that is, through the letters and narratives of several characters. This not only provides a change of view, making the book more interesting, but also helps to fill in all the little details that having only one narrator could not achieve.
While this book, like many classics, took me longer to finish then many of my other selections (being mainly young adult fiction), it was definitely worth the time. The Woman in White is definitely one of the best classics I’ve read so far, and I’ve read quite a few of them. It is full of suspense, plot twists, and excellent characterization. I was also extremely impressed to see such a strong female character such as Marian Halcombe present in a novel that was published in the 1800s.
For all of you literary buffs out there, I would definitely recommend that you read this book when you get a chance. It provides a very satisfying read for those of you who are willing to give classical literature a try.
The prose style is more to my liking than what I expected from a contemporary and friend of Charles Dickens. Not preachy or treacly, though the book is a bit more formal, yet more emotional (some might say melodramatic), than what I'd expect from a contemporary style. The writing is both graceful and very readable. The novel features an unusual structure: a string of first person narratives, diary entries, documents and letters by various characters. The voices are great, even minor characters are very distinct, and at one point you learn how and why the narratives came to be assembled and it really works. By avoiding third person omniscient Collins also made me wonder how much we should rely on the various narratives, and if something different were happening than the obvious on the page. I won't say more because it would head to spoiler territory, but it's all so well done.
It all begins one moonlit night when Walter meets a "woman in white," Anne Catherick, escaping from a private asylum. Romance, ghostly apparitions, intrigue, treachery, madness, hidden and mistaken identities, secret societies, twists and turns follow. I saw one reviewer accuse the novel of being sexist. It sounded like the reviewer was just trotting out the old "Dead White Male" canard, because I don't believe the creator of Marian is a sexist, but more than that, given how the plot deals with the perils of a system that treated adult women like minors, and the scary consequences, I'd instead suspect Collins to be a proto-feminist. All the more reason to suspect him of that given the contempt heaped on the idea of an obedient, dutiful wife in the person of Countess Fosco. The novel is a delicious nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat page-turning confection that's fun to consume. This novel certainly puts Collin's Moonstone on my to-read list, and after reading this I put The Woman in White on my virtual favorites list.
The last fifth of the novel seem anticlimactic though, with a deus ex machina plot solution that seemed an overgenerous gift of the storyteller to his beleaguered characters.
On page 400 or so I probably would have given this 4 or even 5 stars, but because of these weaknesses, on sum I give it 3.
I agree with all that has been written about Laura's insipidity. Walter should have been pursuing a woman like Marion. Poor Marion. She ends up with no one and gets to be described as "ugly." Collins should have found a kinder word. The uncle, Mr. Fairlie, is annoying but richly drawn. One character says of him: Getting married and fathering a child is the last thing that is likely to happen to him. So, he's gay, but in 19th century England, Collns couldn't say that.
Too bad the plot is just too complicated to fit into a standard movie. The BBC film version I watched after reading the novel used some of the main action but rewrote the whole story. All the fun was lost.
There are plenty of twists and turns in this gothic tale. I didn't love it quite as much as Rebecca or Jane Eyre, but I think that's because it has a rotating narrative that often feels more informative than captivating. The telling of the story sometimes has a sterile feel, as if the tellers want to leave their emotions out of the equation.
An art instructor, Walter Hartright, travels to Limmeridge house to teach a young woman named Laura Fairlie, whom he falls in love with. Laura, an heiress, is engaged to Sir Percival Glyde. Intertwined in their story is Anne Catherick, the mysterious Woman in White, who has escaped from a mental institution. She makes appearances at the most inopportune times, forcing the main characters to wonder if she is mad or if there is truth buried in her warnings. After Laura marries Sir Percival she quickly realizes he is a cruel, selfish man who only wants her money.
My favorite character was Marian Halcombe, Laura's half-sister and companion. Where Laura is beautiful, but weak, Marian is resourceful and clever. She loves her sister dearly and is willing to do anything to protect her. Sir Percival's devious friend Count Fosco is also delightful. He is cold and calculating where Percival is short-tempered.
My only major disappointment was Marian Halcombe's ending. She was such an intelligent, caring woman and I felt like she deserved more than just becoming Laura's nanny. I do think she was happy, but I wanted more for her. Her happiness seemed so overlooked in the book.
One of the things I loved about the book was the delicious supporting cast. There's Laura's uncle, Frederick Fairlie, a hypochondriac with an obvious disdain for everyone he meets. Then we have Hartright's friend Pesca, an exuberant Italian, and the chilly Mrs. Catherick. There are so many wonderful creations. Also there are some great lines in the book...
"... then, with that courage which women lose so often in the small emergency and so seldom in the great..."
"It is very hard for a woman to confess that the man to whom she has given her whole life is the man of all others who cares least for the gift."
This story is complicated and impossible to summarize fully without giving away numerous spoilers. As the footnotes doing so were one of the disappointments for me reading, I've tried to avoid doing so here. The format of the book is interesting: several people's accounts tell the events in a semi-chronological order. I enjoyed it at times, but was often frustrated with how very long the narrator (particularly when it was Hartright) took to tell me something very simple. Identity is a major theme in the novel: Who is the woman in white? Who is Sir Percival or Count Fosco? And once someone's identity is stolen, how can it be restored? I liked Marian Halcombe, but Hartright struck me as very like young David Copperfield and less aware of his own melodramatic tendencies. Laura Fairlie was very childlike and never seemed very real to me. The Moonstone was more to my taste.
objective correlatives, all handled with such subtlty.
Collins is like Dickens, with a touch more of the gothic about him. The Woman in White is a story of treachery, love, deceit, power, mystery....Awesome. Creepy. Engaging.
The narration of the novel is shared by several characters, who run the gamut between virtue and vice, sincerity and subterfuge. These are rich characters, and their story is emotionally and mentally gripping.
I’m thrilled to be able to say that my fears were unfounded. The Woman in White was better than I remembered. A brilliantly constructed and executed tale of mystery and suspense, written with real insight and understanding.
The story begins with Walter Hartwright, a young drawing master, unable to settle the night before he is to leave London to take up a new post in the north of England. The hour is late, but he decides to take a walk. The streets are quiet, the city asleep, and yet a woman appears before him. She is dressed entirely in white and she is distressed, afraid of someone or something. He offers her assistance, helps her on her way to what she believes will be a place of safety.
Walter takes up his new post, tutoring two half-sisters at Limmeridge House in Cumbria. Laura Fairlie is beautiful, and she is an heiress. Marion Halcombe is neither of those things, but she is bright and resourceful. She needs to be. Walter recognises names and places spoken of by the woman in white. Her plight is linked to the family at Limmeridge House and the secret she holds will have dire consequences, for Laura, for Marion, and for Walter.
That is just the beginning, but it’s all I’m going to say about the plot. Wilkie Collins asked reviewers not to tell too much, and I think he was right to do so. If you’ve read the book you will understand why, and if you haven’t you really, really should!
I was held from the first page to the last and, though this is a big book, the last page came very quickly. Because there were so many twists, so many questions, that I had to turn the pages quickly. It’s lucky that Collins writes maybe the most readable prose of all the Victorian greats!
The structure was intriguing. This is an account put together after the events, with testimonies from a number of narrators who were witnesses to different events. It worked beautifully, and with none of the fuss or distraction that sometimes seems inevitable with this device. All of the voices were engaging and distinctive. And their appearances varied in length, so I was always curious to know who would be coming next, when they would appear, and what forms their testimonies would take.
And it was the characters who made the story sing. Each one beautifully drawn, enough to keep the story moving but not so many that it becomes difficult to keep track.
There are two standouts. Marion Halcombe is the finest heroine you could wish for, accepting of her position, doing whatever she can to help the situation, and wise enough to know when it is time to step back and allow others to take the lead. And she is capable, but not invulnerable. And, on the other hand there is the most charming villain you could wish to meet. Count Fosco knows that, used together, charm and intelligence can take you a long way in life, that little foibles add to the charm, and can be a wonderful distraction.
And then, in the background, there is Frederick Fairlie, Laura’s uncle and master of Limmeridge House. An invalid, whose obsessive, selfish concern for his own well-being provides welcome light relief, but also has terrible consequences. And Mrs Vesey, Laura’s former nurse, who seems to be a dependent, but could maybe, maybe be a rock when she is needed. And many others, each with something important to offer, bringing light and shade to the story. But I am saying too much.
This is a very human story, and that gives it such strength.
There is another thing that I must say, that the relationship between Laura and Marion is wonderful, one of the best portrayals of sisterly love that I have read.
And that their stories, and the story of the woman in white, say so much about social inequality, the treatment of those who could be labelled as mentally unstable, and the subservient role that wives were expected to play in 19th century Britain. All of which is done, to great effect, without ever compromising the storytelling.
I could quite easily go back to the beginning and read this all over again. But I have all of Wilkie Collins’ major works to hand, so I think maybe I should put this one back on the shelf and consider which of his books I should re-read next …