(Book Review) The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

By Ian G. Wilson

The Woman in White is one of those classic Victorian novels that can either bore you to tears, or, as in this case, delight you with a fast paced plot and great characterizations. I’m sure many of you are familiar with Gothic style fiction, and The Woman in White, though written some forty years after that fad, carries elements of a Gothic romance that even Ann Radcliffe would have approved of. It is a work describing great passion between two people and the travails they must go through to secure a true romance.

I enjoyed this book in part because the character types were all fairly typical of those Gothic Romances. Our heroes are named Walter Hartwright and Laura Fairlie, and two more virtuous surnames I couldn’t imagine. Then there is the tyrannical Sir Percival Glyde, who lives at Blackwater Park (Laura, I think, should have thought twice before going there, just because of the name of the place). And of course, we have to have an evil foreign nobleman, in this case the itinerant Count Fosco. And then there is the steady half-sister of Laura, one Marion Halcombe, a bit plain to look at, according to Hartwright, though he should probably have married her instead of her sister because Marion is much more intelligent and resourceful. And there is also one slightly nutty Italian professor who has a terrible secret.

The plot is simple enough—Hartwright, a drawing-master, is hired to instruct Miss Fairlie and Miss Halcombe how to paint watercolors. Laura takes to it like a duck to water, and Hartwright, entranced by her beauty (which he describes at length) falls in love with her. But their love is not to be; Laura is engaged to the forceful Sir Percival, and she will not break off the arranged marriage, even though Glyde, in his shifty way, gives her the option to back out, knowing she’s too honorable to do so. Walter, heartbroken, sets sail to join an archaeological expedition in Central America, of which we hear little except that he has to escape from hostile natives. (19thcentury “archaeology” could be destructive and lead to thoughtless desecration of cultural sites, so one could understand why the locals may not have been happy with the team.)

Miss Halcombe is permitted to join her sister at Blackwater Park, where Sir Percival’s evil nature becomes apparent. Worried about debts, he and his mysterious friend, Fosco, have a plan to deprive Laura of her inheritance. Hartwright returns to discover this grim situation, and I suppose it wouldn’t be giving too much away to say that the course of true love prevails.

So who is the titular woman in white? This is the somewhat spooky aspect of the book. She is, in fact, Anne Catherick, who was ill used by Sir Percival and shut up in an asylum. She escapes, and does indeed wear white in her enigmatic appearances throughout the first section of the book. Walter first meets her on a lonely road to London, a mysterious figure whom readers (and Hartwright) might be excused for thinking was a ghost. He helps her to escape safely in a carriage before Sir Percival’s men can catch up with her and return her to confinement. She later appears in the graveyard of the small village where Hartwright is teaching the two young women the fine art of drafting. Anne is cleaning a gravestone, and we discover that she has a strong connection to the Fairlie family. She disappears for a time, but her fate becomes clear later in the novel. Anne Catherick adds an interesting dimension to the book, as she represents a true sense of mystery. Who this oddly spoken woman is and what is her connection to events described in the novel? I have heard The Woman in White described as an early British mystery, and although it doesn’t have the trappings of a crime committed by an unknown criminal who must be unmasked, there is a lot of suspense built up as we try to figure out what the villains are planning and how they get away with it, as well as the story of the intriguing Anne Catherick.

The following quote is typical of the dialog style of Collins when he is trying to be breezy (and the book is not beyond humor, albeit of a somewhat dated kind). Marion Halcombe is explaining to Hartwright about how she plans to find out about the woman in white by examining letters which may have pertinent information:

“‘That mysterious adventure of yours,’ she said, ‘still remains involved in its own appropriate midnight darkness. I have been all the morning looking over my mother’s letters, and I have made no discoveries yet. However, don’t despair, Mr. Hartwright. This is a matter of curiosity; and you have got a woman for your ally. Under such conditions success is certain, sooner or later. The letters are not exhausted. I have three packets still left, and you may confidently rely on my spending the whole evening with them.’”

I do admire her confidence and spirit; she’s definitely someone you’d want on your side.

I could endlessly poke fun at the stock character types in a book of this sort, but it is truly an enjoyable read. There are enough cliffhangers to keep it as exciting as an action movie (though more refined than such). The language is quite beautiful in some spots. And, if you can get past the rather gooey attraction between Walter and Laura, the rest of the book is full of heroes and villains, and even some surprises. It’s an interactive book in the way an inveterate viewer of Scooby Doo might loudly advise the TV that the characters are being stupid to split up. This is the same sort of thing—you know the evil that awaits Laura and keep yelling at her not to be so dumb as to place herself in Sir Percival’s hands.

For all that the characters are common enough types, there are some interesting variations, and Collins’ true achievement here is making them sufficiently different from those that might be seen in other similar types of books. Count Fosco, particularly, is unusual for his calm, calculated demeanor, but more so for his habit of keeping tame canaries and white mice, which he allows to crawl all over him while he talks to them. He is much the more sinister of the Glyde/Fosco team, partially because we know he’s evil, but he is so devious about it that we never quite know what his plans are or whom he is going to attack next. His wife is quiet, and he appears to value her opinion, even as she sits next to him rolling his cigarettes endlessly. We only learn the true feelings of Fosco toward Madame Fosco in a chilling oratory:

First question. What is the secret of Madame Fosco’s unhesitating devotion of herself to fulfillment of my boldest wishes, to the furtherance of my deepest plans? I might answer this by simply referring to my own character, and by asking, in my turn, Where, in the history of the world, has a man of my order ever been found without a woman in the background self-immolated on the altar of his life? But I remember I am writing in England, I remember that I was married in England, and I ask if a woman’s marriage obligations in this country provide for her private opinion of her husband’s principles? No! They charge her unreservedly to love, honor, and obey him. That is exactly what my wife has done. I stand here on a supreme moral elevation, and I loftily assert her accurate performance of her conjugal duties. Silence, Calumny! Your sympathy, Wives of England, for Madame Fosco!

The above quote may provide something of a moral to the story, as Collins is clearly dismayed by the treatment of women at the brutal hands of Glyde and Fosco. Laura has little control over her own money (a very common situation at the time) and we see her taken advantage of because of that. The physical and emotional mistreatment of Laura, Marion, and Anne Catherick clearly is an anchor of the story, and though Collins may not have intended it, it could serve as a cautionary tale. Collins was a lawyer by education, and evidently knew the ins and outs of estate and marriage law, whether he agreed with them or not. There are indeed friendly lawyers in the book trying to look after Laura’s interests.

Wilkie Collins was a great friend of Charles Dickens (Dickens’ verbosity may have rubbed off—The Woman in White is over 600 pages long, though its being broken into narratives by the various characters makes for convenient rest stops). Collins frequently wrote for Dickens’ Household Words magazine, and they actually co-wrote a rather good ghost story called “A Terribly Strange Bed” (1852). Wilkie Collins is also credited with an early English detective novel, The Moonstone (1868), which may be his most famous work. Despite the intimidating nature of the page count, I read The Woman in White in three days, and I’m typically a slow reader. It’s very easy to get caught up in the plot of this one.

There’s no shortage of film adaptations of The Woman in White. I was first introduced to it by way of a five-part series from England, broadcast on Masterpiece Theater in 1982. The program encouraged me to read the book for the first time, but I was happy to return to it at this much later date as I knew I had enjoyed both the serial and the novel the first time. There are also other movie versions, past and present.

The Woman in White was originally serialized in Dickens’ All the Year Round in 1859 and 1860 before being published in book form later in 1860. A hardbound copy will be available soon at Greenville Public Library.

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