I read The Woman in White (TWIW) by Wilkie Collins in January and have been wondering how to do justice to it in a post, because it’s a real chunkster of over 700 pages. (For a summary of the plot, with spoilers see the article on the book on Wikipedia.)
It’s one of the first if not the first ‘sensation novel‘. A ‘sensation novel‘ is one with Gothic elements – murder, mystery, horror and suspense – within a domestic setting. Since reading TWIW I’ve read The Sensation Novel by Lyn Pykett, which describes such novels as a ‘minor subgenre of British fiction that flourished in the 1860s only to die out a decade or two earlier.’ They have complicated plots, are set in modern times, and are reliant on coincidences, with plots hinging on murder, madness and bigamy. They exploited the fear that respectable Victorian families had of hidden, dark secrets and explored the woman’s role in the family. There is a pre-occupation with the law – wills, inheritance, divorce and women’s rights over property and child custody. They are emotional dramas about obsessive and disturbed mental states, with villains hiding behind respectable fronts, and bold assertive women, as well as passive, powerless and compliant women.
These issues and more are present in TWIW. It has several first person narrators, who are each not in possession of the whole story. Their accounts from letters, diaries and formal statements are limited to what each one knew or had experienced, and are not always reliable. It begins with Walter Hartright’s meeting with the mysterious Woman in White, as he is on his way to take up the position of drawing master to Marian Halcombe and Laura Fairlie at Limmeridge House, in Cumberland.
There, in the middle of the broad bright high-road – there, as if it had that moment sprung out of the earth or dropped from heaven – stood the figure of a solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in white garments, her face bent in grave inquiry on mine, her hand pointing to the dark cloud over London as I faced her.
Just who she is only becomes clear much later on the story. During their conversation she reveals that she knows Limmeridge House and its occupants. Walter helps her, but then is filled with guilt when he is told that she had escaped from an asylum.
Laura and Marian are half-sisters, living with their uncle, Frederick Fairlie, a weak, effeminate invalid. Walter is immediately struck by the beauty of Marian’s figure, but astonished when he saw her face:
The lady is ugly! …
The lady’s complexion was almost swarthy, and the dark down on her upper lip was almost a moustache. She had a large, firm, masculine mouth and jaw; prominent, piercing, resolute brown eyes; and thick coal-black hair, growing unusually low down on her forehead.
Marian, clever and assertive is in complete contrast in both appearance and character to the lovely Laura. Walter falls in love with Laura, but she is pledged to marry Sir Percy Glyde, a marriage arranged by her dead father. Matters are complicated by the fact that Laura and the Woman in White look remarkably alike, which is central to the plot. Sir Percy attempts to gain total control of Laura’s money and property, aided by the villainous Count Fosco.
I found it a book of two halves – slow to get going, full of descriptive writing and I was beginning to wonder when something was actually going to happen. Then in the second half the pace increased, the action was fast and complicated, with plenty of tension and melodrama. I enjoyed it, although I do prefer The Moonstone.
- My Rating: 4/5
- My copy: free download from Project Gutenberg