Book: The Woman in White
Author: Wilkie Collins
Genre: Novel, Mystery
Rating: 4/5 stars
I participated in the last Classics Club spin (#20) and it chose Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. This is my second Classics Club read. For more about the Classics Club, go here, for the background about the spin, here.
The Woman in White was published in 1860 after first being serialized the year before. It is kind of a mystery, and has strong gothic vibes. I say kind of, because unlike in Collins’ later work The Moonstone, which is trying to uncover a jewel theft, this novel begins by exploring mysterious circumstances and only really deals with solving A Mystery in the last third. The gothic vibes come from a gloomy estate home called Blackwater Park, mistaken identities, mysterious disappearances, and even more mysterious deaths, among other things.
Walking home in London from visiting his mother late one night, Walter Hartright helps a young woman, dressed all in white, who has just escaped from an insane asylum, and where, she claims, she has been falsely imprisoned. He helps the woman to a cab and does not become further involved, but the encounter lingers in his mind, especially because the woman mentions Limmeridge House, and Hartright happens to be leaving the next day to become the drawing tutor for the ladies who currently live at Limmeridge. When he arrives in the country, Hartright asks one of the young women, Marian Halcombe, to help him try to identify the mysterious woman, and finds himself drawn into a mystery that involves not only the woman, but Marian’s half sister, Laura, and Hartright himself. There are secrets to uncover, lies to counter, lives to save. It’s hard to say more without spoiling things, but the story was very eventful and entertaining. I read about 300 pages in one sitting, over the middle of the book, because I just wanted to read “one more chapter.” You know how it goes.
Although I was eventually sucked in, I was glad to have a deadline while reading this book because it took me quite a while to get into the story. Very early on, Walter falls in love with Laura Fairlie, and she is of course blonde and beautiful and fresh and innocent and it had me rolling my eyes. Laura is engaged to someone else, however, and the story really gets going after she is married to Sir Perceval Glyde, one of the novel’s villains. Once I got to this part of the story, about 200 pages in, I was hooked.
Despite my initial hesitation, I ended up enjoying the major characters a lot. Laura actually demonstrated that she was a perceptive, strong woman, which I appreciated. Marian, her half sister, is another strong woman, loyal, brave, determined, resourceful, and clever, and I’m so glad I met her. Walter also improves on acquaintance. His loyalty to Laura and Marian and his determination to do whatever he can to help them, even if there is no gain for him, helped me get over his predictable love interest. The villains are excellent, particularly Count Fosco, who I will remember for a long time. He was actually very charming and likable, which made his villainy all the more terrible, and it was great.
The story is told in as a compiled narrative, with various characters narrating the portion of the story about which they had the most experience. The frame is that after everything was over, Walter wanted to tell the truth, so gathered material from those who were involved and then wrote about his own experiences and arranged everything chronologically. So, while Walter begins the story, when he is not with Marian and Laura, Marian’s journal continues the story. There are also letters and other memoranda that are used to give various perspectives and details. It’s kind of like a dossier. Collins also does this in The Moonstone, but there is more movement between voices in The Woman in White, and I think I enjoyed that better.
While I mostly read The Woman in White for entertainment, and wasn’t looking for themes, it does raise some interesting questions about mental illness, and particularly around the lack of freedom women had when it came to being committed by their male relatives. I just spent last semester taking a course on 19th century American representations of mental illness, so these themes really stood out to me. Also, after finding out that Dickens tried to have his wife Catherine committed during their very nasty break-up in 1858 (the family doctor/friend told him “Don’t you dare!”), this felt a little like Collins was digging at Dickens with the “false imprisonment” plotline. I don’t really have anything profound to reflect on, although if I were to ever revisit works that feature mental illness for a writing project, this book would be on the list.
Overall, The Woman in White was a great book. I would recommend it to those who like mysteries, Victorian fiction, Dickens’s novels, a good plot, or who want a lot of action in their classics (just be aware that it’s action heavy for a Victorian novel; there’s still a lot of talking).