The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

Rating: 5/5 stars. I love this book!
Length: 569 pages
This is exactly the kind of historical fiction I like to read: Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White is a detective story where we uncover the events of the book through the testimonies of different characters.  The first page of the book summed up what Collins was trying to achieve perfectly:

Thus, the story here presented will be told by more than one pen, as the story of an offence against the laws is told in Court  by more than one witness–with the same object, in both cases, to present the truth always in its most direct and most intelligible aspect; and to trace  the course of one complete series of events, by making the persons who have been most closely connected with them, at each successive stage, relate their own experience, word for word.

The main characters are Walter Hartright (a drawing master), Laura Fairlie and her sister Miss Halcombe. The woman in white is Anne Catherick, whom Walter meets in the middle of the night in a strange circumstance while on his way to the Limmeridge House to teach drawing to Laura and her sister.

The way Walter meets Anne is so odd that he can’t stop thinking about it, but as soon as he arrives to Laura and Miss Halcombe, he finds that there is a connection between the girl and the two sisters. Walter then falls in love with Laura, but since he is only a drawing master, he has no hope of having her as his wife. Because she will inherit Limmeridge in the event her quirky uncle dies, she must marry someone of her station, however much she loves Walter back.

Laura is engaged to Sir Percival Glyde, whose friend, Count Fosco, is probably one of the most fascinating characters I’ve had the pleasure to read. Count Fosco is devious and ingenious; crafty and menacing all at the sometime. You know that whenever he’s on the page that he’s up to no good, but you can’t prove it because he is so fine a villain. If I were up against Count Fosco, I’m unsure if I’ll have the smarts to go up against him. But then again, I’m a woman so there’s very little that I can do in those days.

I don’t want to reveal too much of the plot because I don’t want to spoil it. You know that the main characters will prevail in the end, but it’s the journey there that is important. Plus, I want everyone to read it for themselves and share the joy I got from the prose: Victorian language is wordy, but damn if it isn’t intelligent! Descriptions come alive and you will get deep inside the heads of the characters from the way they present their stories. What’s more, you will get a sure grasp of the limitations on women back then. No feminist arguments here, but I come away from this book very much appreciating how far society had come.

Quotes and Passages.

Here’s a sample of Collins’ descriptions. This excerpt introduces Mrs. Vesey, a minor supporting character. The narrator is Walter.

When I entered the room, I found Miss Halcombe and an elderly lady seated at the luncheon-table.

The elderly lady, when I was presented to her, proved to be Miss Fairlie’s former governess, Mrs. Vesey, who had been briefly described to me by my lively companion at the breakfast-table, as possessed of “all the cardinal virtues, and counting for nothing.”  I can do little more than offer my humble testimony to the truthfulness of Miss Halcombe’s sketch of the old lady’s character.  Mrs. Vesey looked the personification of human composure and female amiability.  A calm enjoyment of a calm existence beamed in drowsy smiles on her plump, placed face.  Some of us rush through life, and some of us saunter through life.  Mrs. Vesey sat through life.  Sat in the house, early and late;  sat in the garden;  sat in unexpected window-seats in passages;  sat (on a camp-stool) when her friends tried to take her out walking;  sat before she looked at anything, before she talked of anything, before she answered Yes, or No, to the commonest question–always with the same serene smile on her lips, the same vacantly-attentive turn of the head, the same snugly-comfortable position of her hands and arms, under every possible change of domestic circumstances.  A mild, a compliant, an unutterably tranquil and harmless old lady, who never by any chance suggested the idea that she had been actually alive since the hour of her birth.  Nature has so much to do in this world, and is engaged in generating such a vast variety of co-existent productions, that she must surely be now and then too flurried and confused to distinguish between the different processes that she is carrying on at the same time.  Starting from this point of view, it will always remain my private persuasion that Nature was absorbed in making cabbages when Mrs. Vesey was born, and that the good lady suffered the consequences of a vegetable preoccupation in the mind of the Mother of us all.

This is a wonderful, wonderful book. I can’t say anything bad about it. If you love Pride and Prejudice, you’ll love Woman in White. It’s smart, with a great set up (the combination of characters’ narrations), has a twisty plot and great, poetic prose, and ultimately, it’s a love story. How much more can you ask for? 5/5 stars.

4 responses to “The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

  • Man of la Book

    I also thought this was an excellent book. I cannot believe how many people have never heard of Wilkie Collins.

    Here are my thoughts of The Woman in White:

    By the way, I found you through bookblogs.ning

  • Owl

    I was forced to read The Moonstone for English class. Normally Wilkie Collins would be right up my alley, but the shock of sitting in class and trying to figure out the mystery before we finished the book and putting it through strenuous lit. analysis killed off my Collins love. I’ll have to try WW though!

    • W

      I want to read that! It’s on my list for awhile now. Thankfully I won’t have a lit. analysis class to pressure me into coming up with genius (though strenuous is more likely) insights. You should pick up Woman in White. I think you will like it.

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