Title: The Woman in White
Author: Wilkie Collins
Genre: Mystery/Thriller, Literary Fiction
Stand alone or series: Stand alone novel
Why did I read this book: As the first part of our feats of strength, Ana dared me to read this novel. It is one of her favorite novels of all time, and, in the spirit of Smugglivus, I had to accept.
Summary: (from Amazon.com)
“There, in the middle of the broad, bright high-road—there, as if it had that moment sprung out of the earth or dropped from the heaven—stood the figure of a solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in white garments.”
Thus young Walter Hartright first meets the mysterious woman in white in what soon became one of the most popular novels of the nineteenth century. Secrets, mistaken identities, surprise revelations, amnesia, locked rooms and locked asylums, and an unorthodox villain made this mystery thriller an instant success when it first appeared in 1860, and it has continued to enthrall readers ever since. From the hero’s foreboding before his arrival at Limmeridge House to the nefarious plot concerning the beautiful Laura, the breathtaking tension of Collins’s narrative created a new literary genre of suspense fiction, which profoundly shaped the course of English popular writing.
Collins’s other great mystery, The Moonstone, has been called the finest detective story ever written, but it was this work that so gripped the imagination of the world that Wilkie Collins had his own tombstone inscribed: “Author of The Woman in White.”
On a warm summer night’s walk, young drawing instructor Sir Walter Hartright walks through Regents Park on his way to make his latest commision and sees a solitary woman, dressed from head to toe in white. The mysterious woman asks for Walter’s help and, intrigued, he provides it. Only later does Walter learn that she has escaped from an Asylum, and though he believes that their surreal meeting that evening will be the last he ever sees of the nameless woman, he cannot rid her from his mind.
Walter’s commission takes him to Limmeridge House in the countryside, where an eccentric, hypochondriac Lord Fairlie has hired him to be drawing instructor for his niece, the young and beautiful Laura Fairlie, and her half sister Marian Halcombe. Idealistic and heroically naive, Walter befriends both women, earning the frank trust and good opinion of the brilliant Marian, and the affections of the sweet and innocent Laura. Unfortunately for these two young would-be lovers–both of whom are too noble to act on their shared affections–Laura is betrothed to Lord Percival Glyde, a baronet, as her father’s dying wish. Though heartbroken, Walter accepts the inevitable…until the mysterious woman in white makes a reappearance in his life, and the lives of Laura Fairley and Marian Halcombe, bearing warning of Percival Glyde’s wicked duplicity. Lord Glyde rushes to the scene and tries to assuage any fears on his fiance’s part, and procures a hasty wedding between himself and Laura, a scant month before she is legally of age to control her tidy inheritance. Slowly it becomes clear that the woman in white’s warnings about Lord Glyde were completely true, and with his dastardly friend Count Fosco, Laura’s future is in desperate straits.
Considered the first proper Mystery Novel, The Woman in White is a thrilling read. Told from alternating narratives, from Walter Hartright to Marian Halcombe and all the lawyers, housekeepers and doctors in between, this is an exquisitely written novel and one I thoroughly enjoyed reading. Initially, The Woman in White was told in a serialized format and published in All The Year Round (Nov 1859-July 1860), and this comes through in the novelized collection–it’s the granddaddy of nail-biting cliffhangers. The plot is tantalizingly laid out in different episodes, and I can only imagine the heightened suspense of having to wait until the next issue’s publication to continue the story. Though this is a dense work and is extremely wordy (this is Wilkie Collins after all, good friend to the master of verbose novels, Charles Dickens), the fantastically executed plot and excellent characters make this a hard to put down read.
Mr. Collins writes brilliant, vivid characters–everyone from the noble Walter to the disgusting Percival are layered and well written. My personal favorite of all the characters, and of all the narratives for that matter, would have to be the fiery Marian. Her journal entries are frank and forthright, just as she herself is, and shows her devotion to her younger, innocent twit of a sister and Marian’s courage to protect Laura. The other standout character would have to be Count Fosco himself! The fat, terrifyingly unscrupulous Italian villain. For all his ruthlessness–in Marian’s narrative, she relates how she knows Fosco is the true brains and power behind the plot against her sister–Fosco is such a colorful character, from his obsession with his little pet birds and mice, to his strange relationship with his cold wife, to his loving admiration of Marian’s gutsy behavior. Despite his being the most foul of villains, he is give such interesting characteristics here, I could not help but reluctantly admire him and his scheming in this novel. These two vibrant characters were so much more admirable to me than say Laura or Walter, the star-crossed lovers of the tale. Laura, as with so many beautiful delicate English flowers, spends a lot of her time collapsing and trembling hopelessly, and Walter is just a tad melodramatic for my tastes (at least initially, as his second and final narrative rolls around, I could not help but care for the incorrigible young hero).
I must say that I’m not a huge fan of 19th century English literature, and I certainly don’t share Ana’s passion for English history. And yet despite my reluctance to read The Woman in White, I found myself enjoying this novel immensely. Definitely recommended for anyone who wants to curl up with a good historical mystery novel.
Notable Quotes/Parts: From the narrative of Walter, on the end of the Woman in White…
So the ghostly figure which has haunted these pages, as it haunted my life, goes down into the impenetrable gloom. Like a shadow she first came to me in the loneliness of the night. Like a shadow she passes away in the loneliness of the dead.
Additional Thoughts: Very strange timing, but whilst reading this novel, I found that one of my favorite authors, Dan Simmons, will be releasing a book in 2009 about none other than Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens! Here is the synopsis for Drood:
On June 9, 1865, while traveling by train to London with his secret mistress, 53-year-old Charles Dickens–at the height of his powers and popularity, the most famous and successful novelist in the world and perhaps in the history of the world–hurtled into a disaster that changed his life forever.
Did Dickens begin living a dark double life after the accident? Were his nightly forays into the worst slums of London and his deepening obsession with corpses, crypts, murder, opium dens, the use of lime pits to dissolve bodies, and a hidden subterranean London mere research . . . or something more terrifying?
Just as he did in The Terror, Dan Simmons draws impeccably from history to create a gloriously engaging and terrifying narrative. Based on the historical details of Charles Dickens’s life and narrated by Wilkie Collins (Dickens’s friend, frequent collaborator, and Salieri-style secret rival), DROOD explores the still-unsolved mysteries of the famous author’s last years and may provide the key to Dickens’s final, unfinished work: The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Chilling, haunting, and utterly original, DROOD is Dan Simmons at his powerful best.
Drood is in stores February 9, 2009. I cannot wait!
Verdict: An excellent mystery, with an engaging plot and superb characters. Though it is a classic, The Woman in White is not a dry read in the slightest! Definitely recommended.
Rating: 8 Excellent
Reading Next: Part 2 on the Feats of Strength–Desperate Duchesses by Eloisa James