Sunday, November 10, 2019

The Woman in White: Wilkie Collins

This book is one of the first sensation novels. First published in 1859, it tells the story of a young woman  (Laura Fairlie) who marries unwisely and the man (Walter Hartright) who loves her and tries to rescue her from the clutches of an evil man.

First sentence:
This is the story of what a Woman's patience can endure, and what a Man's resolution can achieve.
And a few paragraphs later, the author tells us how the story will be told:
When the writer of these introductory lines (Walter Hartright by name) happens to be more closely connected than others with the incidents to be recorded, he will describe them in his own person. When his experience fails, he will retire from the position of narrator; and his task will be continued, from the point at which he has left it off, by other persons who can speak to the circumstances under notice from their own knowledge, just as clearly and positively as he has spoken before them.
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...

Walter Hartwright is seeking a job, and his good friend Pesco suggests a position that will fit him perfectly – drawing instructor to two young women. He seeks and gets this position. The two women he will be tutoring are half-sisters, Laura Fairlie and Marian Halcombe; they live with Frederick Fairlie, Laura's uncle and owner of Limmeridge House in Cumberlands.

One night before he leaves for his new position, Walter meets a mysterious woman in white who has a strange connection to Limmeridge House.  Once he arrives at his new home, he seeks more information about this woman, with little initial success.

That is the set up for the story and I did not even know that much when I started reading the book. I liked going into the story with little knowledge, so I will not elaborate on the plot any further.

I enjoyed this novel, very much more than I expected to. I had resisted reading The Woman in White for years. Even though it is a well-known crime fiction classic, I did not think I would enjoy the old-fashioned story (how wrong I was!). Even then I might have tried it if it had not been so long (in various editions, 600-700 pages).  Finally I overcame my prejudice when Judith at Reading in the Wilderness blogged about how much she enjoyed it.

As noted above, the story is told from various points of view, and that includes some incidents described in diary entries. I liked that approach. William Hartright starts out the tale and is one of the major players, but at times he is only on the fringes of the story.

My favorite character was Count Fosco, an Italian man with a mysterious past, and a close associate of Laura Fairlie's fiancé. Marian Halcombe is a very strong character, determined and loyal. I really hated Laura's uncle, Frederick Fairlie, who lived in his own private world and cared only for his own wants and needs. The author was successful at evoking strong reactions to the characters and their actions.

I liked the edition that I read, published by The Modern Library. There was an introduction by Anne Perry, which I read after I finished the book. The notes by Chris Willis were very useful to me.


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Publisher:   Modern Library, 2002 (orig. pub. 1859)
Length:      643 pages
Format:      Trade Paperback
Setting:      England
Genre:       Classic Mystery; Sensation novel
Source:      I purchased my copy.

21 comments:

  1. Is there a slimier character in mystery fiction than Count Fosco? Truly one of the most enjoyable villains in the genre. The great Sydney Greenstreet played him to a T in the 1948 film.

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    1. Count Fosco is a wonderful character, Jerry. I did not know that Sydney Greenstreet played that role and he does sound perfect for it.

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  2. Thanks for an interesting review. I have read Wilkie based the book on a real life story he found in a book about French crimes.

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    1. Bill, that is very interesting that this could have been based on a real event. Although I should not be surprised, I am sure similar things did happen.

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  3. Well I too have been resisting reading this one for years and still haven't. But, based on how well I'm doing with Moby-Dick, the length and rambliness of it etc., I will no longer resist and get to it very soon. You and Judith have persuaded me. (Judith is such an enabler with books. LOL) It won't be my first Wilkie Collins, I read The Dead Secret some years ago and have also read some of his ghost stories. All of those were good. I have The Moonstone to read too and a couple of others. Nice review, Tracy!

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    1. Thanks, Cath. I had not planned to read The Moonstone but I think I will read that too. Someday. I had noticed there were multiple versions (some abridged?) so want to make sure I get the right version.

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  4. I saw a series based on this not long ago. Should reread THE MOONSTONE too but I probably will never get around to it.

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    1. I had not realized that there were adaptations of this book, Patti, I will have to look into them.

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  5. So glad you enjoyed this as much as you did, Tracy. Many people think this is Collins' best work. I don't know if that's objectively true, but it's certainly a groundbreaking novel.

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    1. Reading this certainly opened up possibilities for reading other books written in that period, Margot. I have not read much Dickens and my husband is a big fan and encourages me to do that. He also encouraged me to read The Woman in White long ago and I should have listened to him.

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  6. One of those books about which I have heard much, but will probably never read. If I read any Collins, it will be The Moonstone, but even that seems unlikely.

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    1. The length is my only complaint about this one, Rick, and The Moonstone is also long, but about a 100 pages less. I do want to read that but don't have a copy so it will be a while. No rush.

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  7. I'm so glad that you were surprised by how much you enjoyed The Woman in White. So was I! It's truly gripping and so well told. Collins' plots are beautifully constructed and he is truly a master of creating suspense and getting you to root for the heroes and heroines and wishing vile ends for his odious villains. If you ever come across Armadale by Wilkie Collins you should try that book. It was reprinted in a Dover Classics paperback back in the 1980s and crops up in used bookstores every now and then. Libraries used to buy those Dover books by the truckload so it may be in local library out there in your part of California. Armadale is a reversal of The Woman in White. Instead of two men who are light/dark opposites as in the case of Laura and Marian there are two men in the protagonist roles. And in place of Count Fosco and Percival Glyde there are two female villains. It's my favorite of all of Collin's books. Lydia Gwilt is the misanthropic vengeful woman of Armadale who seems thoroughly amoral until the final chapters. What Collins does is masterful in getting the reader to change their opinion of Lydia. A stupendous novel that I think is better than both The Moonstone and The Woman in White.

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    1. It was indeed a very pleasant surprise to find this book so enjoyable, John. I thought it would take me a while and I read it very quickly. I will keep a lookout for Armadale and hope to find a copy someday. Thanks for the recommendation.

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  8. Laura, the love interest of the artist, is ineffectual, inept, weepy, and subject to the vapors. But her weaknesses are balanced by the brave and reliable Marian Halcombe. As it was published as a serial, Collins reports that single male readers wrote to him, asking who was the living model on which Marian’s character was based, so that the writers could propose to her.

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    1. I was interested more in Marian, myself, Major, and wondered why the hero was so attracted to Laura. But love is strange, and Marian was a very effective character.

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  9. Hi Tracy,
    Thank you so much for the mention.
    I am looking back on the time I spent reading The Woman in White nostalgically. What a wonderful reading experience. Now I must read The Moonstone, though I am apprehensive about it because when I tried to read it in my 30s, or was it my 40s, it didn't grab me and I let it go. But I was so busy then, and had only the half-hour before falling asleep to read, so I'm going to give it another try sometime soon.

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    1. That is the problem I have with reading now, Judith, I can only read before bed and sometimes am too tired to give it my full attention. But soon, I will have more available time. I am so glad you motivated me to read The Woman in White.

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  10. From the teaser you put at the top, Tracy, I thought it might be one to pass, as any review I tried would have to be done straight as straight can be, else some of my strict as strict can be feminist friends on Facebook would be sure to find something offensive in a nuance or absence of nuance and take me to task. But your review has me intrigued nonetheless!

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    1. I have had a prejudice against reading stories written in the 1800s, Mathew, thinking I would not like the style or the attitudes, but I am going to have to stretch myself and read more books from that time. This one was worth reading for me. I am sure it is easily available in ebook, so can be sampled easily.

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  11. Wow, another long book. Not one for me though.

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