Classic Literature / Highly Recommended / Historical Mystery

Review: The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

I read The Woman in White because so many bloggers listed it among their favorites.  I’m glad I did.  The Woman in White is a Victorian mystery and a love story, and is full of drama, action, and fascinating characters.

Written in 1859, the story begins with Walter Hartright, a struggling artist who obtains a post as an art instructor to the wealthy Fairlie family.

The title character enters the story as Walter is walking home late at night.  She is alone, flustered and upset, and needs directions to London.  Chivalrous man that he is, Walter helps her get to her friend’s house.  Later he discovers she’s an escaped inmate of a mental institution.  He still feels he was right to help her, as it’s unclear whether this woman is sane and needed to escape, or whether she is insane and should be returned.

After this incident, Walter goes to live with the Fairlie family at Limmeridge House.  There he tutors Laura Fairlie, the wealthy niece of Mr. Fairlie, and her half-sister Marion Halcombe.  Walter falls in love with Laura, and she with him, but she is already engaged to Sir Percival Glyde.  She could break the betrothal but refuses because she’s loyal to the wishes of her deceased parents, and because Walter is not of a class that she could marry even if she wanted to.

Into this turmoil comes a mysterious letter warning Laura not to marry Sir Percival.  The family believes that this letter came from Anne Catherick, the Woman in White.  Anne, whether sane or insane, is trying to protect Laura because she loved Laura’s mother.  Sir Percival is investigated by the family attorney but they find no evidence to prevent the marriage.  Walter goes away, heartbroken, Laura and Percival marry, and Laura and Marion move to Percival’s home along with his very strange Italian friend Count Fosco.  And this is where the story really begins.

Laura and Walter are fairly uninteresting as main characters.  Laura, as are many heroines in classic literature, is almost a caricature of a woman: weak, fluttery, demure but beautiful and wealthy.  Walter is kind and a generally good guy but not terribly interesting.

But then you have the other characters: Anne Catherick is passionate, brave, and loyal, although never fully fleshed out as a character.  Her mother is even more intriguing.  Count Fosco is the ultimate villain – dastardly and clever, passionate even in his evilness.  And Marion Halcombe has to be one of the strongest women I’ve read about in Victorian literature.  She’s intelligent, strong, courageous – she is described throughout this book as being like a man, and that’s meant in this context as a compliment.  Too bad she is also ugly and poor.  Our arch-villain Count Fosco actually loves Marian for all of her wonderful qualities, while Walter respects her but still loves the beautiful, wealthy, delicate Laura.

As a reader I found myself cheering on Count Fosco for this reason, despite how deliciously evil he is.  He is somehow both sympathetic and terrifying at the same time.  I’m not sure how Collins pulls that off.

This book starts out a bit slow during Walter’s initial stay at Limmeridge, but quickly picks up steam and doesn’t pause.  While I found Laura to be a little annoying I was genuinely terrified for her as she becomes trapped in marriage.  Wilkie Collins makes clear just how helpless women are at this time, without strong guardians to protect their interests.  And even then, once married, a woman is basically owned by her husband.

The book is unusual in that many different characters narrate sections of the book.  This builds suspense because the reader is limited to certain facts, but it enhances the story because the reader gets to view characters from many different perspectives. Each of the narrators is somewhat flawed so the reader has to figure out where they are right and wrong.  Collins creates a unique voice for each narrator.

Collins’ writing is vivid and incredibly descriptive and this book was great fun to read.  Does he overdo it sometimes?  Maybe, but I’m not complaining – this book may lack the subtlety of Middlemarch, but if you want suspense, action and emotion, it’s definitely worth a read.

One last thing I loved about the book.  It reminded me of one of my favorite paintings, Symphony in White No. 1, by James McNeill Whistler, which in fact was painted a couple of years after the book’s publication.  In my head this is what Anne Catherick looked like.  Is there a connection? I doubt it, but Whistler painted a series of women in white and maybe he was inspired by this book.  The painting hangs in DC’s National Gallery, and even though she is considered flat and expressionless, when I see her I always think she is going to walk right off the wall. I don’t know why she interests me so much — maybe the frizzy hair or the pensive expression, or the fact that she looks so different from most portrait subjects.  She looks both fuzzy and real at the same time.  I love the contrast between the dark red hair, the all white dress, and the richness of the rug she stands upon (somehow the dead animal looks less trapped than this woman). This link has an interesting description of the painting.

I know, I’m digressing.  I’m no art critic although I always think it’s fun to look at the different paintings they use for classic book covers.  Favorites anyone?

I hope you’ll read The Woman in White and let me know what you think.

One thought on “Review: The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

  1. Villains are so often more interesting than the good main characters. I love that character is complex enough to love a character otherwise poor and ugly and therefor unwanted in the society, yet is evil. I may need to add this to my queue.

    Your question about book cover paintings made me think of the book I Am Madame X by Gioia Diliberto. It’s a fictional telling about the painting Madame X by John Singer Sargent and the unnamed Madame of the painting.

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