Sunday, January 15, 2017

Up All Night with The Woman in White

Wilkie Collins is one of my favorite authors, hands down. A more perfect mystery than The Moonstone I cannot imagine, and his ideas about writing characters, rather than writing plot, are a strong influence on my own approach to fiction. I finished The Woman in White, over 600 pages, in about half a week. I'll take this opportunity now to sing its praises.

Collins's talent for keeping me up at night derives from the style of his writing- initially published as a serial, he strings you along, and gives you the hint of something dastardly just around the corner. In this way the simplest, most mundane things- the writing and posting of letters, the finalization of legal documents, and the beginning and ending of jobs- keep you on the edge of your seat. He toes the line between the mysterious and the supernatural ever so slightly, setting the mood, and his stories, apart from so many other domestic dramas.

His real strength lies in his ability to create memorable characters with distinctive voices, that adhere so closely to their "types" that the exhibition of perfectly defined habits makes you laugh-- you should expect their behaviors, even if perhaps you don't, and those little ticks and quirks miraculously move the plot forward. In this novel, the narrative is presented as a series of narratives, arranged in chronological order, and told from the various personages who are described as being closest to the crux of the action.

Walter Hartright, a drawing teacher, tells all he can of his chance meeting with the mysterious woman in white on his way to Cumberland, shocked to find the woman to be escaped from an Asylum, and intimately familiar with the members of the Limmeridge household, his ultimate destination. The woman in white's connection with Limmeridge, the reason for her commitment, and the dire warning she carries for Laura Fairlie, the engaged heiress to Limmeridge, comprise the mysteries of this story. Laura's sister Marian continues the narrative after Hartright and the solicitor Gilmore take their leave. The tragedy that unfolds is recounted by a variety of characters, and concludes again with Hartright upon his return to Cumberland.

1871 engraving to accompany the theatrical adaptation. What I wouldn't
give to see a Collins play!

The secrets and deceptions that befall the characters are kept just out of reach, and plumb the depths of villainy at the expense of vulnerable women in nineteenth-century British society. Here's where this book falls a bit short of Collins's other works. Mostly all is revealed by the end of the tale, but some of the revelations, if you've been paying attention the whole time, don't feel as deep or complex as they could have been. This is especially the case for the inquiries into the personal history of the woman in white, and the motivations of Count Fosco and his wife, Ms. Fairlie's aunt. The way in which these characters make their exit is extraordinarily tangential in an otherwise very tightly knit narrative, and left me unsatisfied. In addition, some of the smaller voices of this tale did not grab me as closely as the minor characters in The Moonstone, and The Woman in White suffers by comparison to the work I hold in such high esteem.

I wouldn't recommend it as the first Collins work to read, but I would absolutely recommend it.

K Rating: 8/10


  1. Oh I loved this book! Count Fosco has got to be one of the best villains ever!

    1. I know, so dastardly! I just wish Collins had done more with him in the end.