Book Review: Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White

This isn’t a book that I think I ever planned to read.  It was known (derisively) as a sensational novel, in its day.  Sensational, not in our modern understanding of the word, but meaning provoking intense and myriad emotions.  Collins more or less invented the genre, combining the overly dramatic elements of the French Gothic style popularized in the 19th century with local (re: English) settings.  The formula is pretty simple: Take a helpless maiden, pure and innocent, and put her in some hideous danger. Add at least one lunatic asylum, a deteriorating castle, and at least two false identities.  Write in a manner that will provoke the most clutching of pearls and dropping of monocles.
But seriously, the point of the novels was something akin to a modern soap opera, or miniseries like the Thornbirds. You were meant to go through a range of emotions, from desperate sadness to fear, to hints of the salacious, and usually they end happily.  Or they end in complete ruin.

This book is about a drawing/painting master, Walter Hartright, who goes to the country to teach two half-sisters, Laura and Marion. Walter falls for Marion, but she is already promised to another man.  I don’t want to give up the secrets to this one, because it is a book you read in order to figure out what’s really going on.  In fact, I don’t really feel comfortable saying much else. I will add that the eponymous woman in white is named Anne Catherick, and she escapes from a mental institution in the first pages of the novel, and stumbles upon Walter Hartright as she does so. From then on, a lot of the action revolves around her, though she only wanders dazedly into and out of the book a few times throughout.

I think that much of the ‘sensational’ qualities of the book don’t really hold the test of time, because we are just less likely to clutch our pearls these days. Someone having an affair with a housemaid isn’t going to send me for my smelling salts. I imagine it would have been far more shocking back then, however.

So, my 21st century impressions of the book are as follows:

Collins is very inconsistent when it comes to characterization.  We get to know, very well, the characters of Marion Halcombe, Walter Hartright, and Count Fosco.  Everyone else is a bit flat, and occasionally pretty unfathomable.  I believe the major difference is that we spend large quantities of the narrative being told of events  (through written diary entries & etc.) from the voice of those three characters. We are never admitted into the thoughts of Sir Percival Glyde or Anne Catherick. Even, after all is revealed, we do not fully understand their motivations in some of their actions. It’s strange to me that Collins can provide such a convincing and full account in the first person, but each narrative fails when it attempts to draw the personalities of the other people involved.

The book is interesting, but it is not entirely rewarding.  Add to that, it’s really long (616 pages, for this edition), and it’s not the best value for the time invested. It’s too evil in its evilness, too good in its goodness.  I understand why it would appeal to women in the 19th century, because women were often shielded from emotion over ridiculous notions about their delicacy.  Note to men from 200 years ago: women aren’t that delicate if they aren’t wearing corsets. They don’t faint all the time if they aren’t wearing corsets.

I liked the book for the picture it drew of mid-Victorian era England, because I always want to know more about life in that period. I learn from books like these about things like train schedules, and food, and rampant xenophobia, and distrust of legal procedures.  It’s all going to help me write my novel.  But! If I was not obsessed with Victorian England, and was not researching for a novel, would I find it worth reading?  Hmm.  I hesitate. There are moments I really enjoyed it, and despite my best efforts I could not predict all of the twists and turns–and there is plenty of time to think when you’re reading a 600+ page book.  In that way, it was worth reading.  And I liked the shifting narrative style–we start with the story told by Walter Hartright, but as he exits the action, other narrators take his place. I thought it would annoy me, but it is done seamlessly and does add to the suspense of the piece. All things considered, if given the choice to get the time back, I would still read the book. It’s worth the time, if suspense, the Victorian era, or helpless maidens appeal to you. But…you’d be better off with Dickens.

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