Hooked me as a teenager.
A woman dressed in white befuddles a man she meets at night on a road. She’s just escaped from an insane asylum. The man, an artist (sensitive sort, you know), meets another woman who could be her almost-twin. Love, betrayal, honor, belief, madness, evil, and much, much more intertwine in this novel. A wonderful book: a mystery, a “sensation” (as they were then called in 1860), and a simple pleasure to read. The writing might strike the modern reader as somewhat florid, and the beliefs and behaviors of the characters will definitely seem odd to today’s post-modernist (post-truth?) mind.
I love mysteries and why it took me so long to read this classic is my mistake. The twists and turns in this 19th century mystery are many. As a 21st century woman I struggled with the concept of how little control women had over their lives and financial security. Wilkie is adept at weaving the concept of men controlling women’s lives adeptly into this mystery.
An exceptional mystery - full of twists and turns!
I have finally gotten around to “The Woman in White,” which is considered one of the earliest detective novels and which has been sitting on my to-be-read shelf (shelves!) for years. It is very much in the style of Charles Dickens; and Wilkie Collins was a contemporary and friend of Dickens, who published it first, in serial form, in one of his periodicals. Although there is clearly the element of detection, it’s just as much a “period piece.” I found it generally sensational and melodramatic but can recommend it to those who, like me, have “always wanted to read it.”
My favorite passage is actually rather comic: “Some of us rush through life, and some of us saunter through life. Mrs. Vesey sat through life. Sat in the house . . . sat in the garden . . . sat in unexpected window-seats in passages . . . sat (on a camp-stool) when her friends tried to take her out walking . . . sat before she looked at anything, before she talked of anything, before she answered Yes, or No . . . A mild, a compliant, an unutterably tranquil and harmless old lady, who never by any chance suggested the idea that she had actually been alive since the hour of her birth. . . . Nature was absorbed in making cabbages when Mrs. Vesey was born, and that the good lady suffered the consequences of a vegetable preoccupation in the mind.”
I read this as an ebook, in bits and pieces over the course of several months. Probably that does not do it justice, but I suspect that if I’d tried to read it through, I would have got tired of it and quit. It’s written in a leisurely 19th century style, often stopping to explore and comment on a character’s thoughts and emotions, which greatly slows the pacing. I can imagine it being read aloud in a drawing room after supper, with the family enjoying the different voices, gasping in horror at the villainy of some of the characters and cheering on the plucky heros. This is probably how Wilkie Collins expected it to be read, and it would probably work best as a melodramatic entertainment with a good reader. (Apparently there are 15 versions of this at Audible.com.)
To enjoy this kind of pacing, I think there has to be more going on than the simple, if mysterious, plotting in this book. But the characters are one-dimensional and the themes are obvious. There’s not really a lot to think about here. In that sense, it’s a bit like a superficial television detective serial. Entertainment, perhaps but mindless and not very engaging.
What is interesting to see is the moral absoluteness of the heroic characters. The heroes are gentlemen of honour, who would not consider going back on their word, or questioning another gentleman’s honor. Women, to them, are sacrosanct, gentle beings to be elevated and protected. This makes the bad guys particularly villainous when they abuse their wives or deceive others for money. They all speak in restrained, elevated language, making the weakness of the one who loses his temper quite unspeakable. Fortunately for the English readership, the most evil of the bad guys is Italian, explaining his absolute lack of moral character and his odd habits.
The characters of the few women are also interesting, except perhaps for the central object, one of two women in white. She, the object of the hero’s attention, is helpless, frequently sickly, and doting – the Victorian stereotype of the adored, delicate, angelic female. By contrast, her poor half-sister is energetic, intelligent, resourceful and strong. She does draw the admiration of the males, but only the most villainous of the bad guys is attracted to her, and in spite of her evident love for the hero and his admiration of her, she loses out to the cute one. If this book doesn’t have the outright racism of Collins’ Moonstone, it makes up for it in sexist stereotyping.
Along with these black and white human values are the social and political values implicit in the text, such as the repeated references to the unimpeachable British systems of justice and democracy (especially when the villainous Italian Count Fosco extols their superiority). The highest values are reserved for the educated upper classes, while the lower classes are described as ignorant and crude.
These same faults are common in other writers of 19th century fiction. Dickens drags out exposition, examines his characters thinking, deals in idealized stereotypes – but he does it with greater substance and style. His depth of detail and character – even for exaggerated characters – draws a reader in, and his emotion creates sympathy. This is lacking in Collins. So for me, this is enough of Wilkie Collins – when I want a leisurely 19th century read, I’ll turn to Dickens, George Eliot or one of their contemporaries.
I read this book on a recommendation by Nora Ephron, and it didn't disappoint. It's not only a page-turning mystery, but it has a rip-roaring villain and a great female protagonist -- both somewhat rare in Victorian literature.
I returned this book to the outdoor curbside drop on or about Jan 29, 2014.
As with other works that were first published in serialized installments (from Dickens to Armistead Maupin), the episodic quality is part of its appeal. Piecing together a puzzle through multiple viewpoints; wrongful incarceration in a mental institution; a dastardly evil count; and volatile family secrets are some of the other attractions. I also liked the characters of Walter and Marian very much, even though Laura Fairlie seemed too weak and insipid to have inspired such devoted love and loyalty from them.
I haven't yet finished the epub ebook I downloaded from the Gutenberg Project but I've been surprised how well this book wears for an 1860 serialized novel labelled as one of the first mysteries. Really worth a read. I'm intrigued to read on Wikipedia of Collins' "bohemian" lifestyle choices and the real life inspiration for the title character in a panicked woman in the street whom he went on to live with (the first of two common-law wives, who were equal heirs of his estate.) There certainly are lines that scan like a book 150 years old--it would be very surprising if Collins did not reflect his times and tastes at all, Still, he did a great job, I think, owing to the focus on character to round out the invevitable plot twists helping, no doubt to lead magazine readers on to the next installment. Very interesting but not shocking, that George Eliot was his friend and the model for Marian's character (Eliot's real name was Marian Evans.)
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