Monday, 4 March 2013

Book #8

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

The Woman in White famously opens with Walter Hartright's eerie encounter on a moonlit London road. Engaged as a drawing master to the beautiful Laura Fairlie, Walter becomes embroiled in the sinister intrigues of Sir Percival Glyde and his 'charming' friend Count Fosco, who has a taste for white mice, vanilla bonbons, and poison. Pursuing questions of identity and insanity along the paths and corridors of English country houses and the madhouse, The Woman in White is the first and most influential of the Victorian genre that combined Gothic horror with pyschological realism.

I loved this little classic. It's a wonderful novel filled with intrigue and intricacies. I must admit I was slightly disappointed to begin with, as I expected this to be a creepy novel. For some reason, I had thought the woman in white would be some sort of spectre, and was incredibly disenchanted when I realised she was living and breathing. This is more of a mystery novel than a horror; not to be confused with The Woman in Black.

I usually struggle to empathise with female characters in classic novels. Although I realise the social constraints of the time allowed them to do little more than sit about until one of the males wanted a wee tune on the piano, I just cannot accept this at all. I hated Laura most of all for how pathetic she was, how other characters decided to keep things from her in case she fainted or started crying, and  how she had to keep the smelling salts no more than an arm's length away in case she was startled by a noise; she was just so disgustingly feminine that I loathed her entirely.

Collins compensates entirely for Laura's uselessness with the characterisation of her half-sister, Marion Halcombe. For a woman in the 1850s, she's a bit of a maverick, and possibly one of the best classic women I've ever experienced. Although she is aware of the social expectations of her, describing herself as only a woman, with all the weaknesses associated with womanhood, she says these things in such a cutting, sarcastic way, that it really hits a nerve. Marion realises over the course of the novel that she is in a desperate situation, takes it all into her own hands, and emerges victorious. Bitches get shit done.


I loved Collins' use of different characters in the narration of the novel. I particularly enjoyed one character interrupting another's narrative to say, "hello, I have stolen this journal, and this is what I think about the entries, thank you very much." This allows Collins not only to show us the story from different angles, but also to present to us the notion of an unreliable narrator; at least more than one of these were untrustworthy at some point during the novel. Once the realisation hits that you may not be hearing the truth, you start to distrust the narratives you trusted previously.

The first two thirds of the book were wonderful, and I really enjoyed finding out the mysteries of the conspiracy, and the reasons behind the strange goings on. After this point, Walter Hartright picks up the narrative again, and it all becomes quite dull. We know what's happened, and Walter is going about trying to prove it all. His narrative is incredibly dull compared to good old Marion's journal entries, and everything falls into place a bit too conveniently for my liking.

This is an absolute must for classic lovers and mystery lovers alike. It delves into so many different avenues of fascination that it's almost impossible to leave the characters behind and go on with your daily life. I plan to read another Collins novel, The Moonstone, in the near future.

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