Review: The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0

YTD: 8 

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.

Notable Quotes/Excerpts:

“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.”

23 Comments on “Review: The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

    • Thanks, Nevey! I’m glad my reviews are well-received. 🙂

      I think you’ll enjoy The Woman in White – and don’t you have it on one of your challenge lists for this year? It was on my TBR Pile Challenge list – I’m already on my 7th book of 12 from that challenge (so happy with the choices I made for this year!!).


      • It is on my list but I need to buy a copy because indeed I have lost a bag full of books and my mobile phone on the feast’s eve; it been awful & that’s why I have been away from reading and blogging.

        I will buy a copy tomorrow and see what I can do; I’ve not read any of my classics for TBR Pile Challenge list -done 2 of the YA books only-…

        Still, I love the way you do your reviews.


  1. This book has been on my “readar” for some time now, and if I didn’t have too many other things on my plate I’d be participating in the TWIW readlong at Reading Rambo. I so enjoyed your review, which perhaps will prompt me to move this title closer to the top of my TBR list.


    • Oh, I hope you can get to it soon – I definitely think you will enjoy it!

      Is that the read-along that’s being hosted in April? I’ve seen a few people talk about it – but I’m so booked with things this year, it’s crazy. I just have to get in what I can get in, when I can get it in! Lol


  2. Great review! I’ve had this one on my shelf for a while and am going to tackle in in April, as well.

    I’ve heard such good things about it from a variety of sources, but I’m trying to keep my expectations from skyrocketing, to avoid disappointment.



  3. This is a great book, isn’t it? I agree that Count Fosco is a brilliantly drawn character – I read this book about three or four years ago and haven’t forgotten him. I’m glad you enjoyed it too.

    I have The Moonstone out from the library at the moment, can’t wait to start it.


    • I own The Moonstone as well – will definitely be reading it sometime in the not-too-distant future!


  4. I was only 15 when i first read this. I picked it up again at about 20 and loved it again! You’ve reminded me about how much I enjoyed this read i may just pick it up again soon. Great review :@)


    • I definitely need to read The Moonstone! I own that was as well (was actually the first Wilkie Collins that I bought), but I got this one as a gift and everyone recommended it most, so I went with this as my #1.


  5. Count Fosco was a great villain. He ranked up with Cathy from East of Eden, and yes, HH from Lolita. I really liked Marian as a narrator – her sections were my favorites. I’ve read three Collins books at this point, and this one by far is my favorite.


    • Marian was an absolutely wonderful character! Such a strong female presence (and not in a tongue-in-cheek kinda way) from a male, Victorian author was incredibly refreshing!

      Cathy from East of Eden will forever be my #1 favorite villain. Along with Dolores Umbridge from HP.


  6. Great review! I love this book, but I read it years ago, so maybe it’s to read it again! 🙂 And I agree, Dickens is amazing, but Collins have more complex characters.


  7. I can’t wait to read this! My plan is to read this in the fall–it seems seasonally appropriate. (It’s on my TBR Challenge list, too.) I’ve heard so many good things about it, and I do love Collins, although I haven’t read any of his books in years, save for The Haunted Hotel which I just started today. So far, so good.


  8. The Woman in White is one of my favorite Collins. As you discuss, Collins surpasses Dickens in brilliance of characterization: Count Fosco, an attractive villain, and Marian Halcombe! I heard that Collins received letters from men who wanted to make marriage proposal to Marian. ( Marian is attractive even for female readers of course!) The Woman in White appeared in the same edition of All the Year Round as the last instalment of A Tale of Two Cities ( 26th of Nov. 1859) and sales of the magazine increased when the former succeeded the latter. I can imagine how this stimulated rivalry between two great writers. Thank you for a great review!


  9. I loved Count Fosco. He is the perfect character to love to hate. And Marian is one of my favorite female characters from the Victorian Era. I loved her section of narration the best. 🙂

    I agree with you about the footnotes-I hate having them be at the end. It just ruins my flow of reading when I have to flip back and forth. We should mandate that all publishers put them on the same page.

    Glad to hear you liked this one!


  10. This is one of my favorite classics. When I read the book, I checked out the only copy our library system has. I read it as much as I could in the 3 weeks I had it, and when I went to renew it, somebody else had requested it. So I had to take a 3-week break from reading it. When it came back, I picked up right where I left off.

    I find the character Count Fosco the most interesting of all in the book, and I also enjoyed the fact that women are written about by a man, and he does it so well!

    Thanks for your great review of this book. And I agree, it was not boring to read this Victorian novel!


  11. Thanks for your great review.
    I read this book a couple of months ago and also loved it. The next Collins I intend to read is No Name, and I have The Moonstone also on my TBR-list.


  12. It must have been neat (but I can see why it would also be jarring) to have notes about things Wilkie Collins got wrong. I’ve only ever had a noteless edition of The Woman in White, which is amazing (mine has color plates! woo!), but does not tell me fun facts.


  13. It took two attempt of trying The Moonstone before I could finish it and love it as much as I do. I’m wanting to read this one as well, Ijust need to get my butt in gear and get it.


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