Wednesday, 17 April 2013

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

The Woman in White is a gem of a novel - creepy, dense, menacing, and always intriguing. For a long time, the reader isn't quite sure what is going on, only that it isn't good - and it's to Collins' credit that when the plots are revealed, they are as interesting as anything I was supposing.

The book is long, but immensely readable, and if a few sections dragged, I just reminded myself that this was written as a newspaper serial, and authors tend to get paid by the word. Those sections were few, as it turns out, but there were a couple of places where the padding showed.

I also enjoyed the way the story was told, by multiple narrators with their own tales ranging from a page or two to vast swathes of the novel. This fractured narrative works well for the purposes of the novel, and the multiple narrators allowed Collins to hint at the mysteries from several different angles.

I just started a brief synopsis about three times - how to say what this book is about? Let's try again: Just before leaving London to take up a post as drawing teacher in the country, Walter Hartright helps a mysterious woman in white escape from those pursuing her. She will reappear through the story, catalyzing most of the unnerving events. Once at his new post, Hartright falls head over heels for one of his students, the beautiful Laura Fairlie. Laura, however is engaged to be married, and she and Walter are far too honourable to break her engagement. So he leaves. And the man Laura marries turns out to be a brute, and finds herself in great danger from him and his close friend, Count Fosco.

But while that does mention the unnerving presence of the Count, who always thinks two or three steps ahead of his opponents, it fails to mention the most vivid character in the book, Marian Halcombe, Laura's half-sister. Marian is intelligent, bold, and, in one of the best known descriptions from the book, ugly. But her outward appearance makes no difference to Marian, who sizes up the dangerous situation her sister finds herself in, and attempts to help her break free of it.

It is amazing how much of the tension in this book results from the simple constraints on women's opportunities and behaviour in Victorian England.

Marian is such a vivid, interesting character that I was disappointed when she dwindled as a presence, and became a mere background character when Walter took up the tale again - Walter is a serviceable protagonist, but he's something of a non-entity, and Marian is so much more interesting.

But despite this, I enjoyed The Woman in White a great deal, and was always eager to curl up in my rocking chair and read some more.

Read as part of the BBC Big Read

2 comments:

  1. Hi, I stumbled upon your Review by chance -

    I am right now in the midst of reading "The Woman in White", picking it up on its beautiful cover alone (thanks to the Penguin Clothbound editions, which are wonderful!). It is my first time reading a Victorian novel, if you could call it that, but it has surprised me for the better (!).

    While some novels can be dreary in the long run, I think that the fact it being run as a weekly series in a newspaper might have helped in also keeping the tension going -

    I will definetely be looking into more of your Reviews, I find them lively and inviting :)

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    1. Thanks for the kind words, Johanna! I really did enjoy this one.

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