Genre: Sensationalist Novel, Gothic Literature, Detective Fiction
For fans of: Ann Radcliffe, the Brontës
This is the story of what a Woman’s patience can endure, and what a Man’s resolution can achieve.
What a perfect opening line. I’ve had Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White staring at me from my TBR pile for a while now, but it was only after seeing that half of the first issue of Penguin’s literary magazine, The Happy Reader, had been devoted to a feature on the novel that I finally got round to reading it.
The Woman in White is positioned as a legal document with a narrative shared by more than one character in the interests of retelling events exactly as they happened by those closest to them at the time. The story revolves around Walter Hartright, the newly recruited young drawing master of Limmeridge House. On the eve of his departure he has a mysterious run in with a woman in white who seems disorientated, terrified and on the run.
Walter puts the unsettling experience out of his mind upon arriving at his new post, where he soon falls in love with the gentle and beautiful Laura Fairlie and befriends her strong-minded, free spirited half-sister Marian Halcombe. However, societal status prevents his betrothal to Laura – who is instead obligated to marry Sir Percival Glyde. As events unfold it soon becomes evident that Sir Percival and his disconcerting friend Count Fosco have an ulterior motive in Laura’s marriage and the race to find the woman in white (and the key to unraveling the whole mystery) is on.
From the start to the end of this 600 page novel I was held in the grip of Wilkie Collins’ masterful use of suspense. I’m not ashamed to admit that there have been a few nights in the last two weeks when I’ve stayed up a little later than I should have just to find out what Count Fosco had planned for Laura next or whether Walter would return from his intrepid adventure in time to discover the fate of Laura. I think it’s no wonder that when it was first published in the mid-1800s as a serial in Charles Dickens’ magazine, All the Year Round, it apparently caused massive queues of eager readers on publication day, all waiting to find out what happened to Walter and co. next.
The fact that the narration of The Woman in White is shared among multiple narrators is part of the reason it’s so gripping. Yes you become invested in the plot but the vividness with which Collins’ brings to life his characters means at the core of it you’re dying to know whether Walter, Laura and Marian can obtain their little slice of happiness at last. It’s also completely maddening when someone such as Frederick Fairlie takes over the narration and spends much of his section complaining of his hypochondriac tendencies instead of getting back to the central plot!
At times it’s also a little hilarious to consider that what allows Sir Percival and Count Fosco to get away with much of what they do (think kidnapping, blackmail and drugging) is simply social decorum. Out of fear of creating a scandal for Laura, Marian and Walter have to get a little creative with the way in which they prove their villains’ misdemeanors.
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.
From the moment Laura and Marian stepped foot in Sir Percival’s home in Blackwater Park I found The Woman in White unputdownable. My only criticism is that I’m concerned the next novel I read will seem relatively unexciting in comparison! I’ve definitely got a bit of a Wilkie Collins fix now and I can guarantee I’ll be tracking down a copy of The Moonstone in the near future.
Just remember: whatever you do, make sure you don’t read The Woman in White if you’re expecting to get anything done today!