Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

The Woman in White has been on my to-be-read list for well over a year, and it will now be near the top of my list of recommended classics for years to come. I suppose this is not a surprise since Dorothy Sayers reawakened my love of mysteries, and Wilkie Collins was one of the pioneers of that genre.

I must refrain from providing a summary of the novel, for it would be too easy to reveal key points of the mystery and spoil the fun of unravelling it oneself for future readers. I will say that I had figured out many of the key points about half way through the narrative, but I was still surprised with several plot twists. Collins masterfully crafted the way in which the pieces of the puzzle were searched for and found by the protagonist and gave us a happy ending, too! I have a great admiration for an author who can envision such a complex story, such a number of vivid and varied characters, and follow a number of different threads to bring the narrative to a consistent and satisfying conclusion. (The Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries are fine examples of this, as are, I might venture to add, the Harry Potter series.) I can only imagine how suspenseful it must have been to read this in its original serial form. I know I would have rushed to get my copy of All the Year Round or Harper's Weekly as soon as it came off the press from November 1859-July 1860! If one wanted to put oneself through such torture (and I will tell you that many chapters end with such suspense that I just had to keep reading) there is a fascinating project commemorating the 150th anniversary of The Woman in White by making the original publications available on a weekly basis via the web or e-mail. Check it out here. They are only on the 9th installment as of this writing, so it would be fairly easy to catch up and read it in its original form, although I'm sure I would not have the forbearance to wait a whole week to find out what happened next.

I am sorry that I couldn't make the 6 hour drive to discuss this book with Captive Thoughts Book Club this week. It sounds like they spent some time discussing the way women were depicted in this novel*, and I must say that that issue did not even cross my mind as I was reading. Collins' portrayal of women seems fairly diverse and accurate for the time period, actually - not so satirical as Jane Austen's subtle critiques of society, nor so jaded with fatalism as Thackery or Hardy. We have the beautiful and innocent Laura Fairlie; the insightful, logical, and practical Marian Halcombe; the sad and mysterious Anne Catherick and her fallen but proud mother; the spiteful and opportunist aging aunt; and the trusting and faithful housekeeper, among others. Marian, in fact, seems to defy the stereotypes of a 19th century spinster (especially those presented in Cranford), for she is very firm in her thinking and actions and quite capable of taking matters into her own hands when the circumstances demand it. Those are simply my initial reflections, but I must admit that I tend to get caught up in the unfolding story of a mystery and sometimes lose sight of more overarching issues.

With that said, however, I would be interested to know if anyone who has read The Man Who Was Thursday and The Woman in White observed any similarities. I wonder if Chesterton crafted Sunday (who was portrayed as a villain, only to be shown otherwise) somewhat after Collins' villain here?

I will definitely be adding several more of Collins' works to my to-be-read list, including The Moonstone and the short story A House to Let, which he co-authored with Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Adelaide Proctor.

*Further conversation clarified that they were talking about weakness of constitution, that is, easily succumbing to illness or emotional trauma, not weakness of character. My misunderstanding shaped the comments above, though they still reflect my assessment of the women characters.


hopeinbrazil said...

I'm listening to this audiobook right now and am really enjoying it! Glad you liked it too.

Carrie said...

I am excited to read this one for myself at some point in the next few months! It's high on my TBR list and your review just makes me all the more antsy to get to it!

Emily said...

The Chesterton/Collins connection never occurred to me, and I read both books last year, I think. But I can see the similarity. Sunday is much more mysterious and was hard for me to figure out.

ibeeeg said...

I have been interested in reading this book for some time. I really hope to read this year, at some point. I am going to check out the link you provided for reading it on a weekly basis...I shall see.
Your review has more excited to start this read...

Framed said...

I really liked The Woman in White. It will be interesting to see your take on The Moonstone which I liked even better. It's been my experience that people ususally like best the first they read of these two. I thought Wilkie created some memorable characters.