Lit 101: The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

Lit 101 is a monthly feature of See Michelle Read wherein I'll spotlight and review at least one book considered to be 'classic literature' each month. These books will be the ones everyone should probably read at least once in their lifetime and namely the ones that I've personally never gotten around to reading and wish I had.

I'm not a huge mystery reader, but when I do sit down to a who-dunnit, I like my time period to be Victorian, my heroes to be relentless, and my villains to be seemingly unstoppable (care for a Lady Julia Grey mystery anyone?). When hearing that Wilkie Collins' most popular novel The Woman in White basically pioneered this genre, I knew it was one to go to the top of my TBR list and after reading it, I can only kick myself for not coming across it's brilliance previously.
This is the story of what a Woman's patience can endure, and of what a Man's resolution can achieve.
Thus begins the narrative of Walter Hartright.

As Walter is walking home late one evening he comes across a mysterious woman, dressed head to foot in white garments, in desperate need of aid. Walter helps her willingly (ever the gentleman) even though he is plagued by strange impressions of the woman as he continues on his way as he is expected to leave the next day to for his new job as drawing master for two young ladies in the country, Miss Laura Fairlie and her half-sister Miss Marian Halcombe. Even though Laura and Marian are as close as two sisters could possibly be, they are distinctly different: Marian is dark and unattractive and very, very smart while Laura is blond, delicate and extremely beautiful. So guess which sister Walter falls in love with? Of course, he is smitten from the first with Laura but behaves like a gentleman at all times (naturally). Once Marian learns that Laura returns his affection, she feels bound to reveal that Laura has already been promised to another man, Sir Percival Gylde, upon which, Walter leaves heartbroken for an extended journey in Central America.

Enter Sir Percival: he's the man Laura's dead father wished her to marry and has been nothing but proper but is now hoping to finally set a date to their marriage. Even though Laura is still heartbroken over Walter's departure, she agrees and the couple is soon married and leaves on their honeymoon to Italy before Marian knows what to think. But when the couple returns, Marian finds Sir Percival to be very different from the man he previously appeared to be - brutish and almost cruel to Laura. Sir Percival has also returned with his good friend Count Fosco and his devoted wife, who happens to be Laura's estranged aunt. It quickly becomes obvious that Sir Percival is experiencing extreme financial difficulties and that the oddly charming yet disturbing Count Fosco has some sort of manipulative sway over the man. Together, they have planned one of the most audacious, most brilliant crimes involving Laura, Marian and even the illusive woman in white encountered by Walter so many months before. Laura and Marian quickly discover that Sir Percival and Fosco will stop at nothing to get what they want and that they have no one to trust but each other and the resourceful Walter Hartright - who is determined to see justice done.

Published in 1860, The Woman in White is said to be one of the first mystery novels ever written in the Gothic style - it's success primarily due to having a likable amateur detective as hero, Walter Hartright, matched with a highly unorthodox villain, Count Fosco. Lies, surprising secrets revealed, amnesia, intrigue, and manipulation all combine to make this an engrossing read. Written in a modified epistolary form from the perspective of multiple characters, I wasn't sure I would enjoy a novel written by several different narrators but each separate account combined to create a chilling story where the puzzle pieces slowly fall into perfect place. Each voice was distinct and unique - from Marian's forthright and intelligent account to Mr. Fairlie's openly condescending (yet often hilarious) impressions as the family invalid.

I've alluded to this already, but the best part about this novel has to be the characters - and I'm not just talking about Walter and Laura (boo! no one likes a pretty doormat!). On no, there is a full and distinct complement of secondary characters who give background, realism and strength to the story. Let's go over a few of my favorites, shall we?

1. Two words: COUNT FOSCO. Count Fosco is everything you could ever want in a villain - the man is creepy, totally smart, can be utterly charming when he needs to be. Perhaps the greatest point in his favor is that he saw past Marian's ugliness and fell in love with her for her MIND unlike everyone else who trailed after the spineless Laura. Add in that the man has confidence in spades, and you've got yourself a winner.

2. Marian Halcombe is the ugly, poor half-sister to the lovely Laura but without her, Laura would have never achieved any sort of future or happiness. With limited resources she gets the job done, understands the meaning of subtly and has the memory of an elephant.

3. Lastly, in the time-honored tradition of Victorian literature Wilkie Collins presents us with a masterpiece of an invalid in Mr. Frederick Fairlie. Acting as Laura's guardian, he's selfish, despotic and has some of the best lines in the entire novel - usually when he wants people to leave him alone and so begins to wax poetic about some random subject or other. For example, here he is trying to understand why a woman would cry when she is upset:
I distinctly object to tears. Tears are scientifically described as a Secretion. I can understand that a secretion may be healthy or unhealthy, but I cannot see the interest of a secretion from a sentimental point of view.
The Woman in White may be full of Victorian language and legal descriptions but it quietly builds into a world class thriller, which left me clutching the book, dying to find out what would happen next. Each storyline is carefully planned out with each individual thread crossing and connecting in multiple directions - it's obvious Wilkie Collins was a master craftsman in his genre. Such storytelling, with some unforgettable characters, I was totally hooked.

Yeah, but is it a classic? Yes!! I'll make room for it on the shelf for good.

What about you? Have you read it? I'd love to hear your reaction.

Because Everyone Likes a Second Opinion:
Books Bytes review
Jandy's Reading Room review
Musings of a Bookish Kitty review
Reading, Writing and Retirement review

December Lit 101 feature: The Awakening by Kate Chopin

book source: purchased

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