Wilkie Collins: The Woman in White (review)

I really wanted to read a novel by Wilkie Collins after reading the Dan Simmons novel Drood where Collins is the narrator. Collins talk a lot about his books and how they compare to Charles Dickens’ novels in this book so I wanted to see for myself. I choseThe Woman in White since I’ve heard a lot of good about it. So I got it from the library and I’m so glad I did. I ended up reading more than 350 pages in a day just to figure out what happened (and after having kids, that doesn’t happen often).

Collins doesn’t waste any time in this novel. The novel begins with Walter Hartright being engaged as a drawing teacher to two young women, residing at Limmeridge House. Afterwards, he walks home from his mother’s late at night and meets a strange woman dressed all in white. This woman starts the mystery in this book – on page 23. Walter helps her to get to London where she gets in a cab and drives away. He later overhears two men talking about her and how she has escaped from an insane asylum.

When he arrives at Limmeridge, he gets kind of a shock when he sees the young lady he’s supposed to teach how to draw. This young lady, Laura Fairlie, turns out to have a striking resemblance to the woman, Walter met on the road to London. Walter then confides in Laura’s half sister, Marian Halcombe, and tells her about the woman in white – especially because the woman mentioned having at one point been happy at Limmeridge House.

Now Marian isn’t your typical heroine. She has the most beautiful figure – but an ugly face with a mustache. Marian is almost masculine and spends the entire novel making excuses for her sex. My favorite one: ‘Being, however, nothing but a woman, condemned to patience, propriety, and petticoats for life /…/’ (p. 198). I’m not quite sure what Collins wanted to say about woman with this novel – yes, Marian is resourceful, intelligent and wonderful – but she’s ugly and masculine, almost a man. And Laura, her beautiful sister, is sweet and kind, but weak and without the courage to do much for herself. So his view on women doesn’t seem to be too positive – nevertheless, he created a heroine that men lined up to marry when the novel was first published.

Walter of course falls in love with Laura, but unfortunately, Laura is engaged to marry Sir Percival Glyde. Of course, Sir Percival Glyde turns out to be somehow involved with the woman in white – and in fact, she tries to stop Laura from marrying him. But there’s no proof that there’s something wrong with Sir Percival so even though both Laura and Marian feels something is off, the marriage takes place.

And now the action really goes into overdrive. Who is the woman in white and what is her connection with Sir Percival? What is Sir Percival’s secret that he’s doing everything in his power to protect? How is Count Fosco involved – besides being Sir Percival’s best friend?

I must admit that I just fell under the spell of this novel. The actual secret and much of the plot, is nothing new. But the way Collins does it, just drags you along for an exciting and excellent ride. I really loved this book. There were twists and turns and even though I did guess some of the twists, I was still intrigued enough to just read, read, read. No wonder people where queuing up to get each new installment as they were published weekly originally! I’m glad I didn’t have to wait but could just read whenever I could find the time.

This is a epistolary novel. It’s written from the points of view of various characters – some have a lot to say (especially the two main characters Walter Hartright and Marian Halcombe). They write journals, diaries, letters, tombstones – and all this comes together and creates a mystery where we are constantly trying to keep up with what’s actually happening. We don’t know more than the characters do. Writing in this way, gives the character the opportunity of speaking for themselves. We are creating the story out of the various testimonies and eye witness accounts we receive.

I’ve read some review stating that there are several narrators who are unreliable. And yeah, there are definitely some narrators who don’t tell the truth as we get to know it – or at least as we think we know it. But they believe they tell the truth – they tell the truth as they saw it. They are not (all) trying to mislead, they simply don’t have all the information we do. For instance, the housekeeper thinks one of the guests in the house is all nice and friendly – and as long as he is kind to her, how should she know otherwise? I know I can’t trust all these, but my definition of an unreliable narrator has probably hitherto been that it was someone who was either deliberately trying to mislead or who was influenced by drugs, alcohol or suffering from mental illness. I guess I need to change my definition – since I definitely can’t trust all of these! One can even question to what extent it’s possible to trust Walter Hardright himself, the main narrator. He gets the chance of a lifetime to dispose of his rival – and the question is whether he takes it or not, whether he tries to save the man or not. Also, he doesn’t try to get justice from a legal standpoint. He becomes a regular vigilante and goes after what he thinks is justice. Can we trust what he says? Is he just trying to justify that he took action in this way?As a first-time reader, I at least was so caught up in the plot that I trusted Marian and Walter completely and just read and read and never looked back. I think this novel will benefit greatly from a reread where I’ll be more able to look beneath the layers of deceit and look behind all the action to try to discover what’s really going on.

In some ways, this remind me of the movie The Ususal Suspects. When I first saw it, I doubted everything about who Kaiser Soze really was – when I saw it the second time, I had no doubts. If I see it a third time, who knows what I’ll think? I think it will be the same with this one – your perception of it will change by where you are in life at the moment, you sit down and read.

For some reason, this is my year of reading epistolary novels. I read We Need to Talk About Kevin earlier this year – loved it – and I’m reading Clarissa right now. Both written completely in letters. I didn’t plan for this to happen but I think this way of writing a novel really works. You feel like you get under the character’s skin, you feel that you are part of their lives. I think that this way of writing is not used as much anymore – and it’s a shame, which We Need to Talk About Kevin is a perfect example of. In this novel, you really got to understand the mother’s frustration and doubt about herself when faced with her son being a high school shooter. But this was a one way communication. In Clarissa, we get letters from several parties and thereby, we get to see the thought processes of several characters. And although I’m only a little way into this huge novel, I love it so much so far. The Woman in White is another take on how to write an epistolary novel – with a combination of letters, diary entries and more with not all characters being enthusiastic about having to write down what they think and remember. Another way to gain insight.

Besides being an epistolary novel, this is also generally regarded as the first sensation novel. It combined the ‘thrills of Gothic literature with the psychological realism of the domestic novel’. (p. xiii) The scary things from the Gothic novels was suddenly present in the well-known middle-class Victorian England. Home isn’t exactly a happy place – which is very true for the characters in this novel. Home is a place where you get poisoned, drugged and insulted. It’s not a safe place.

This edition of The Woman in White has three appendixes. Two of which I didn’t find very interesting – the first was theatrical adaptions of the novel, the third was how the novel was serialized in Dickens’ paper All the Year Round. But the second appendix had an interview with Collins where he talked about the novel, how he works by first finding a central idea, then the characters. Then the incidents comes from the nature of the characters and finally, he just starts at the beginning. In this case, he was inspired by a letter he received about a real or supposed wrongful incarceration at a lunatic asylum as well as he heard about an old French trial about substitution of persons. From there, the rest came.

This appendix kind of gives a peak into an author at work which is rather rare with an author writing in the 1800s. So I found these few pages extremely fascinating.

To end this rather lengthy review, I just want to mention my Dickens-Drood thing (obsession, some might say). Now this novel doesn’t shine any additional light on the question about who killed Edwin Drood (The Mystery of Edwin Drood) but what it does do, is give additional information in the appendix about Wilkie Collins and the hints in Drood to The Woman in White gives the Simmons novel a level more. I really like how it gives so much extra when you read several books by the same author and about the same theme. I’ve really gotten a lot out of focusing on Dickens and his Drood mystery.

  • Title: The Woman in White
  • Author: Wilkie Collins
  • Publisher: Penguin Books
  • Year: 1999 (original 1860)
  • Pages: 672 pages
  • Stars: 5 stars out of 5

Related posts – the Dickens-Drood angle:

Related posts – the epistolary novel angle:

2 thoughts on “Wilkie Collins: The Woman in White (review)

  1. This review reminded me of how much I loved this book when I read it, which was a lovely feeling. I need to revisit it at some point 🙂

    And yes, I think you would love The Moonstone as you enjoyed this one so much. Thanks for the Drood recommendation too, when I read the introduction to The Moonstone I was thinking that I would like to learn more about the friendship between Collins and Dickens. Another one for the mammoth TBR pile! 😛

    • Drood is definitely a great book if you want to read about the friendship between Dickens and Collins from Collins’ point of view – and in a fictionalized way. I think it will be one of my favorite books of the year. And I think it would have been even better if one had read Moonstone first.

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