The Woman in White

The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins (1859)

What it’s about: A thriller set in Victorian England, about Walter Hartright, an artist who takes a position as drawing master at a country estate to two young women: Laura Fairlie, a young heiress who is engaged to Sir Percival Glyde, and Marion Halcombe, Laura’s intelligent free-thinking half-sister. Laura bears an extraordinary resemblance to a mysterious woman in white who Walter had met in London and who has apparently escaped from a lunatic asylum. The woman, whose real name is Anne Catherick, reappears and warns Laura against marrying Sir Percival. Laura and Walter fall in love, but despite her reservations, she marries Sir Percival; a heartbroken Walter leaves England and joins an expedition to Honduras. Sir Percival, who is in financial difficulty, tries to force Laura to sign a loan agreement, backed by his friend the devious Count Fosco. Supported by Marion, who writes to the family solicitor for legal advice, Laura refuses to approve the loan. Marion overhears Sir Percival and Fosco plotting to seize control of Laura’s fortune. Marion falls ill, and Laura is tricked into travelling to London, where she is drugged and detained in an asylum under Anne’s name. Anne, who has since died, is buried in a tomb with Laura’s name, and Sir Percival inherits Laura’s fortune. Marion visits the asylum and arranges for Laura’s escape: they live in hiding in London, with Walter who has returned from abroad. Walter and Marion unravel Percival and Fosco’s plan – Percival is killed in a fire attempting to destroy evidence, and Fosco, threatened with assassination by an underground Italian brotherhood, is persuaded to write a written confession in exchange for safe passage from England. Laura’s identity and fortune are restored, and she and Walter are married.

Why it’s a classic: It’s baffling to me that I sat through an entire third-year university paper on Victorian literature without ever hearing about Wilkie Collins. One of the most celebrated novelists of the Victorian era and credited as the father of the detective story, he achieved huge popular success with The Women In White, first serialised in newspapers (like the works of his good mate Charles Dickens) and later republished as a bestselling novel. I’m predisposed to like him, as he started life as a lawyer, before “being freed by an inheritance from the necessity of earning an income”, leaving him free to write. The Woman in White appears to be better known in the UK, where it’s still a regular of high school and university reading lists. It’s a scintillatingly good read, as gripping as a Dan Brown thriller (and much more intelligently written), with a strong feminist subtext that lends itself well to contemporary feminist critique.

True to his legal training, Collins presents his narrative as a series of testimonies given by the key players, as if presenting evidence in court. As well as increasing dramatic tension, the fractured storytelling gives the novel a strangely modernist edge, as we’re reminded of the fallibility of first-person testimony, and how our understanding of the world is invariably confused by our own prejudices. Collins mixes genres with astounding ease, moving deftly from Gothic horror (the narrator’s first meeting with the Woman in White on a deserted London road is thrillingly scary) and vaudevillian melodrama to romance, shot through with a jolt of proto-feminist polemic. Though Hartright is credited with solving the mystery and uncovering the crime, the true hero of The Woman in White is the splendid Marion Halcombe, an unmarried gentlewoman with masculine facial features and a downy moustache, whose stoicism and courage saves the day and held up as a model of moral virtue.

Bouquet or Brickbat: A five-star bouquet: ridiculously entertaining, beautifully written and politically astute.  Unlike Dickens, who never seems much interested in women, Collins has a genuine sympathy with his female characters, and the narrative burns with righteous indignation at the patriarchal restrictions of Victorian society. Marion is a feminist heroine to cheer for – there’s an especially thrilling sequence when she sneaks onto a balcony in the pouring rain to overhear Percival and Fosco discuss their evil plans in the rooms below – though it’s interesting that Collins needs to describe her as mannish (and unsexual) to invest her with heroic qualities. Count Fosco is a satisfyingly larger-than-life villain, whose cartoonish proportions are grounded by fierce intelligence, indefatigable cunning and his admiration for Marion’s courage even as he’s deceiving her. Though it’s a big book (my Vintage Classics edition clocked in at 624 pages), it rattles along like a train, satisfying all the plot-hungry parts of your brain while making you deeply involved in the characters and their struggles. I haven’t been this compulsively glued to a novel since I devoured Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch.

Quotable Quote: This from the wonderful Marion: “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. And what does the best of them give us in return?”

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