Friday, January 13, 2017
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins: A review
This is another of those books that I've long intended to read but somehow never got around to. My resolution for 2017 is to rectify some of that neglect.
The Woman in White is in the grand tradition of the densely plotted Victorian novel. It is, in fact, downright Dickensian or Jamesian in its wordiness. Modern readers who have not been exposed to the circuitous descriptions and verbiage of such writers may falter over its 600+ pages. But lovers of the language may find themselves drooling, as I did, over its skillful use.
The story starts with a young drawing master, Walter Hartwright, encountering a mysterious woman dressed all in white as he walks along a moonlit London road. The woman is in distress and asks for directions which Walter gives her and sends her on her way. Soon after, he hears a policeman asking if anyone has seen the woman, who, he says, has escaped from an asylum. Walter keeps quiet and the policeman's search is unsuccessful.
Walter has been engaged to teach drawing to two young ladies at Limmeridge House in Cumberland; Laura Fairlie, fair, gentle, pretty, guileless orphan whose guardian is her uncle, the hypochondriac/narcissist Frederick Fairlie, and Marian Halcombe, Laura's elder half-sister and companion, dark, strong-willed, intelligent and resourceful.
Over the next few months, Walter and Laura fall in love, but Laura has already been promised (by her deceased father) to Sir Percival Glyde, Baronet, and she is determined to honor that commitment. Marian, understanding the impossible situation, advises Walter to leave the country to get over Laura. With the help of a friend, he secures a position with an archaeological expedition headed to South America.
Laura, much to her sorrow, marries Glyde. It is clear from the beginning that Glyde is a villain, although it isn't certain at first just what his villainy entails.
When the honeymooners return from a trip to Italy, they have Count and Countess Fosco in tow. Count Fosco is Glyde's closest friend and his wife - surprise, surprise! - is Laura's aunt, who was estranged from the family over the matter of a bequest.
It soon becomes clear that both Glyde and Fosco are "embarrassed" financially and their only hope of redeeming themselves is to call on Laura for a loan from her inheritance. Her husband attempts to pressure her into signing papers that would authorize the funds, but, with Marian supporting her, she refuses.
How can the nefarious duo get the funds they need? Well, if Laura were dead...
Collins' complicated plot over the next few hundred pages explicates very clearly the inequality in law of women and men at that time. A woman was under the control of her father or her guardian until she married and, once married, she was under the thumb of her husband. A married woman could hardly do anything without her husband's consent. She had little recourse in the courts of the time.
Wilkie Collins was trained in the law and he understood this very well. He created a strong and empathetic female character in Marian Halcombe and yet, resourceful as she was, she had little hope of combating the villainous Glyde and Fosco without the manly assistance of Walter Hartwright. Perhaps I was particularly sensitive to this theme, having just completed reading The Bell Jar, but it seemed to me that this book could be read as a 19th century feminist treatise.
Collins effectively uses the multiple narrator strategy of telling his story by offering witness statements from all of the principal characters, much as would happen in a court of law. In spite of its length, its complicated plot and its 19th century verbiage, this is a real page-turner of a book. I found it hard to put down and I could not wait to see where the twists and turns of the plot would take me next.
As an early example of the mystery novel, with Walter Hartwright standing in as the everyman detective, this sets a high bar for later writers of such novels to reach. Indeed, this has been included on some lists of the greatest novels of all time, and I would not argue with that assessment.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars