Literary Corner Cafe

Monday, November 7, 2011

Book Review - Classics - The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

There’s not much I love more than a Victorian mystery. An intricate mystery, whose resolution I can’t guess from the first third of the book. Wilkie Collins’ wonderfully labyrinthine book, The Woman In White is just such a mystery. Brilliantly paced and brilliantly plotted, The Woman in White, first published in serial form in 1859, is also packed with wonderfully complex, fascinating, and fully realized characters.

The book begins with Walter Hartright’s eerie encounter with the strange and enigmatic “woman in white” on a moonlit London road. Hartright assists the mysterious woman in departing the city, and subsequently learns that she has escaped from the asylum. Hartright is intrigued, knowing there is far more to the story, and wishing to learn the details. But Hartright, himself, must depart London.

A drawing master, Hartright has been engaged to tutor two students at Limmeridge House in Cumberland, one of them the beautiful heiress, Laura Fairlie, who is engaged to marry the baronet, Sir Percival Glyde. Hartright and Laura soon fall in love, but rather than give in to her feelings, Laura asks Hartright to leave Limmeridge House, as she intends to keep the promise she made to her deceased father as well as to her fiancé, Sir Percival, despite the fact that a mysterious “woman in white” warns her against the marriage, telling her that Sir Percival is “evil.” Laura’s determination sends her, her half-sister, Marian Halcombe, and Water, as well as the reader, into a spiral of danger and intrigue that doesn’t let up until the last page has been turned.

I usually dislike books written in the first person, finding it too affected, but I really enjoyed The Woman In White. Though it’s written in the first person, Collins switches from one narrator to another with each chapter. (Narrators include Hartright, the Glyde family lawyer, Marian Halcombe, an eccentric invalid uncle, the housekeeper, an over-the-top Italian, etc.) This has the added advantage of making it near-to-impossible for any reader to figure out the mystery, as the reader only learns information as the various narrators learn it. This also makes the leaving of clues almost impossible. Each narrator adds a piece to the puzzle the prior narrator did not know or twists the information already imparted by a previous narrator.

The characters in The Woman In White are incredibly well drawn. Walter Hartright and Laura Fairlie seem almost too good to be true, though, and a little bland, but most of the other characters are a mix of good and not-so-good, and for that reason, are very realistic. I found Sir Percival’s “charming” friend, the Italian Count Fosco, a man who likes white mice, poison, and vanilla bonbons, especially interesting.

Personally, I thought this book’s plot contained a lot of really good twists. I put that down, in part, to the fact that it was first published in installments, the way most of Collins’ and Dicken’s work was published. I’ve read that when it was initially published in 1859, people lined up to buy the current installment, wondering what would happen next. As Julian Symons points out, William “Gladstone canceled a theatre engagement to go on reading it.” I think I might have, too. I thought the pacing was wonderful, and for me, there were no “slow parts” even though the book is quite long at close to 700-pages.

The writing itself is brilliant. Collins was a master of suspense, and The Woman In White is wonderfully creepy. Surprisingly, it’s also very witty and, at times, humorous, as well. It is also, as the excerpt below will show, quite brave:

She had not heard my entrance into the room; and I allowed myself the luxury of admiring her for a few moments, before I moved one of the chairs near me, as the least embarrassing means of attracting her attention. She turned towards me immediately. The easy elegance of every movement of her limbs and body as soon as she began to advance from the far end of the room, set me in a flutter of expectation to see her face clearly. She left the window—and I said to myself, The lady is dark. She moved forward a few steps—and I said to myself, The lady is young. She approached nearer—and I said to myself (with a sense of surprise which words fail me to express), The lady is ugly!

The “lady” in question is Marian Halcombe, and really, she isn’t ugly, though she many have seemed so to a Victorian gentleman conditioned to respond to blonde hair, a creamy complexion, a sweet voice, a rosebud mouth, and a voluptuously petite frame. Marian Halcombe, though possessing none of the qualities above, was honest, truthful, strong, warm, loyal, and independent. A man could not wish for a more steadfast partner.

Readers who have trouble allowing themselves to be transported back to Victorian times, and who are heavily invested in the equality of the sexes, might find this book tough going. Independent though she is, it is Marian, herself, who often raises the question of the shortcomings of the fairer sex. And modern readers might wonder what Walter Hartright sees in the vacuous Laura, when the resourceful and intelligent Marian is also available. The book’s sexism didn’t bother me. I know things were different in Victorian times, and if truth be told, men today respond to beauty more often than brains, at least initially. The happiest couple in the book are Count Fosco and his wife, who before marrying her husband was loud and obnoxious. The Count, we are told, “fixed all that” and now the Countess Fosco obeys her husband’s every command, and she does it quite happily as well.

Bottom line, this book kept me enthralled from the first page to the last. It raises questions of identity and insanity, and it takes the reader into the dark recesses of the English country manor and the madhouse, seamlessly combining Gothic horror and psychological realism. It’s a classic that richly deserves to be called a classic. I reread this book every year or two, and each time, it’s as fresh and wonderful as it was the first time. I recommend it to all lovers of Victorian literature and all lovers of mysteries alike.


Recommended: Yes, to all lovers of Victorian literature and to all lovers of good mysteries. The only readers I think should keep away are those who are going to be upset by the book’s Victorian sexism. The sexes definitely were not equal during Victorian times, and if readers can’t accept that they weren’t, this book might be upsetting for them.


Sarah Allen said...

I've meant to read some Wilkie Collins for a long time. I might just have to pick this one up.

Sarah Allen
(my creative writing blog)

mystery girl on the train said...

Hi Literary Corner,

I don't know if you still blog your book reviews anymore but I just wanted to agree with you on this review. I have just read the Woman in White and I also found it to be a wonderfully exciting book. I find Marian Halcombe the most enchanting character.

I think you are right that the inequality of the sexes within the book will be jarring for the modern day reader. However, for the period I think Marian's character is still going some way towards pushing for more equality. Although Marian might lament herself that she has "only a woman's courage", she is in-fact shown to have positive so called ‘masculine characteristics’ and demonstrate them to a greater degree than some of the male characters in the book (thinking of the terrible Sir Percival). Marian also rants to Laura against society’s convention whereby a woman must submit to her husband: "Are you to break your heart to set his mind at ease? No man under heaven deserves these sacrifices from us women. Men! They are the enemies of our innocence and our peace - they drag us away from our parents' love and our sisters' friendship - they take us body and soul to themselves, and fasten our helpless lives to theirs as they chain up a dog to his kennel."

I shared your view that it seemed so strange that Walter could prefer the damsel in distress of Laura instead of the courageous Marian.

A great read nonetheless. :)