The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful.
Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White is widely accepted to be one of the first –and best- mystery and sensation novels. The main character, Walter Hartright, is also considered to be one of the earliest literary detective characters – one who later inspired the development of mystery/detective genres (Hartright’s investigative techniques, for example, are later employed by private detectives in mystery novels that followed this one). The story revolves around a few characters who are at first drawn together by chance, but then become involved in an elaborate plot of deception, orchestrated by the ingenuous Count Fosco and his cold-as-ice wife, who just happens to be the slighted aunt of our main character’s love interest, Lady Glyde. Lives are threatened, identities are stolen, and more than one man’s (and woman’s) place in the world is in jeopardy. How are Lady Glyde and Anne Catherick’s (The Woman in White) destinies intertwined – and why do they look so strikingly similar? When Lady Glyde and Marian are doomed by the devious count, will Walter – a simple art teacher with no resources and no friends- manage to piece together enough evidence to vindicate the unfortunate women – before it’s too late?
4 – Characters extraordinarily well-developed.
The range and depth of characters in The Woman in White is impressive, to say the least. If Collins has one advantage over Dickens, it is that his characters are a bit richer – a bit more interesting and realistic than Dickens’s characters, who often become grotesques. Count Fosco is perhaps one of the most brilliantly drawn characters in literature – ranking along-side Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert in the perverse, unpleasant yet satisfactory enjoyment he brings to the reader’s experience with the story. Collins has a way of creating characters that are downright evil, but with intermittent, surprising bits of good – or genuinely good, with moments of badness. He writes truly human characters, flawed but perfect in the same breath. Drawn thusly, the mystery aspect of the novel is further richened because one can never be entirely sure that we are seeing the true nature of any character at any given moment – after a few hundred pages of wondering just how dastardly a character can get, he suddenly surprises the reader with a moment of genuine sensitivity or compassion. Minor characters, too, such as Anne Catherick’s mother and Mr. Fairlie, Lady Glyde’s uncle, bring additional elements – like comic relief or historical significance, to Hartright’s narrative, increasing the complexity of the story while simultaneously further committing the reader to the main characters and their destinations. Ultimately, the dénouement –beautiful as it is – could not have been achieved without clever assembly of characterization throughout the entire story, which is finally realized in a final letter, written by Count Fosco himself.
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.
In my experience, 600-pages of Victorian literature can amount to one of two things: transcendent literary genius, or a mentally exhaustive torture device. In the case of Collins and The Woman in White, the prose was far from prosaic (Haha… get it?). Okay, jokes aside, this is one of those pieces of literature you could recommend to someone who doesn’t read literature. The style and language are just that good, and the story just that engaging. The pace is well-measured, so even though there is plenty of description and flushing out of details, the story rarely, if ever, stalls. Something in the way Collins has designed the tale (perhaps in large part due to the multiple narrators, who pick up the story as ‘main character’ while it advances) makes these 600-pages flash by as if there were half as many. The narrative voice(s) is engaging, the language is substantive without being overwrought or lofty – finishing this book is like having enjoyed a piece of gourmet cheesecake, garnished with just the right amounts of fresh fruit and chocolate sauce, and maybe even a dash of warm caramel (getting hungry yet?). Each bite is a delight to be savored and the story as a whole, when finished, is satisfying – so much so that the reader might be licking that dessert plate clean.
Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.
First – one minor issue. The edition I read was the Penguin Classics Clothbound edition, pictured above (which, incidentally, I won in a giveaway from the awesome Allie at A Literary Odyssey). I love the edition and I love the footnotes (although I do much prefer footnotes to appear at the bottom of pages, rather than in the back – I hate having to flip back and forth). What I discovered from the footnotes, though, was that Collins, while a fantastic writer and an even better storyteller, was not too concerned with historical and/or legal accuracies. This is a common pitfall with serial novels that often needed new installments to be completed quickly, to meet magazine/newspaper deadlines. So, there were frequent mentions of things Collins got wrong, usually because certain things he described (laws, inventions, etc.) were not yet in place at the time the story takes place. Now, without the footnotes, I would not have known the difference – so it is a small complaint and not much to dwell on, considering none of the “mistakes” impacted my enjoyment of the story. That aside, the elements that were interesting and which added to the story include: the examination of the rights (or lack thereof) of women in the 19th century; perception of foreigners by English natives; isolation; identity theft and the legal process (thank goodness for the discovery of DNA!); fine arts and the craft of writing; hereditary rights to income and property; secret societies and politics; and, of course, love – revenge – and the nature of family. What makes a good story a great story is not just that it is enjoyable or entertaining, not just that it is written well, with interesting content, but that all of these elements come together seamlessly – that the reader can learn about a time, place, or culture while also being entertained. The Woman in White achieves all of this, and how.
Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Adult
Interest: Epistolary novels, Victorian literature, Gothic novels, Sensation novels, Mystery/Amateur Detective novels, Law and justice.
“Where is the woman who has ever really torn from her heart the image that has been once fixed in it by a true love? Books tell us that such unearthly creatures have existed – but what does our own experiences say in answer to books?”
“Our words are giants when they do us an injury, and dwarfs when they do us a service.”
“I sadly want a reform in the construction of children. Nature’s only idea seems to be to make them machines for the production of incessant noise.”
“Let the music speak to us of tonight, in a happier language than our own.”
“Any woman who is sure of her own wits, is a match, at any time, for a man who is not sure of his own temper.”
“The woman who first gives life, light, and form to our shadowy conceptions of beauty, fills a void in our spiritual nature that has remained unknown to us till she appeared. Sympathies that lie too deep for words, too deep almost for thoughts, are touched, at such times, by other charms than those which the senses feel and which the resources of expression can realise. The mystery which underlies the beauty of women is never raised above the reach of all expression until it has claimed kindred with the deeper mystery in our own souls.”
“The best men are not consistent in good– why should the worst men be consistent in evil.”