‘The Woman in White’ by Wilkie Collins

1985, 646p.

I can remember this book being on the shelves at my high school library, but I was never tempted to read it. Perhaps its length was off-putting then, and that’s probably just as true today at 640 small-print pages. (My Kobo estimates a reading time of 22-24 hours). Who has time to read such a lengthy book? But – oh, what we would miss out on!

The Woman in White was serialized in 1859-60 and first published in book form in 1860. It is pure Victoriana, with its grand houses, fortune hunters, madness, swapped identities, secrets, dastardly deeds, swirling fog and graveyards. It uses a favourite Victorian technique of doubles: two sisters; two houses; two villains. But it also comes over as quite modern with its multiple narrators, evoking the structure of a court case, with its steady accumulation of evidence and witnesses. It starts with a young drawing-master, Walter Hartright (is that a pun?) who helps a distressed young woman, dressed all in white, on a dark country road. When he is later appointed as a vacation art tutor to two sisters, he notices the similarity between the youngest sister, Laura, and the unknown Woman in White. He falls in love with her, despite the differences in their social standing, but Laura is already promised to Sir Percival Glyde, a man many years her senior. Sir Percival is not all that he seems, and Laura is the unwitting victim of a conspiracy to defraud her of her inheritance. And I’ll stop here….

It is easy to dismiss as “Victoriana” the concern with inheritance, and women’s financial powerlessness until the passing of the Married Women’s Property Act in 1870 in the UK. But the heiress kidnappings, and the ‘gas-lighting’ of women to the point of insanity were not just literary plot devices: they were real. In fact, Collins dedicated the book to Bryan Proctor, the Commissioner for Lunacy, who had championed Louisa Nottidge, whose real-life story encompasses many of these themes. Although an utterly evil, decisive bout of murder might have solved all the plot machinations, Collins maintains enough ambiguity about his characters – even the baddies- that as a reader you’re glad that the author hasn’t taken such a bloodied step (besides, that could finish the book in 200 pages, instead of 600!) He is a very visual writer, and although his language is convoluted, the accretion of small details helps the reader to ‘see’ the characters and setting. Although it was serialized, its careful plotting right from the start means that you don’t have whole chapters of ‘filler’ and implausible false-leads as you sometimes get in Dickens.

He sustains the tension so well over these 600 pages, so much so that I could hardly put it down at the end and kept sneaking away to snatch covert 15-page reads whenever I could. It has been described as a melodrama, but I prefer to think of it as a thriller, with mounting suspense and a sense of dread, ratcheted-up as the story proceeds. There’s nothing hard-boiled about it at all: instead, it is intricate, verbose, lush, formal – and a damned good read. Even at over 600 pages.

My rating: 9/10

Source: CAE bookgroup (aka The Ladies Who Say Oooh)

5 responses to “‘The Woman in White’ by Wilkie Collins

  1. So true, the ‘discovery’ of gaslighting in our age just shows how little reading people do. The classics were very good at bringing attention to the treatment of women and to other social problems.

  2. One of the best ways to get a real peek into the history of a place is to read the literature OF that time and place. I love the classics especially those from England and Ireland but also from France and Scandinavia and many other places – the US for one but all over the world. I don’t read them as often as I would like. I did read The Woman in White many years ago – maybe I feel a little urge to do it again – I just finished Pride and Prejudice for about the 3rd time. Thanks!

  3. And a damn good movie! There’s an old B&W movie starring Sydney Greenstreet and Agnes Moorhead worth hunting down. I saw the movie first and even though there are differences between it and the book, Sydney Greenstreet’s face haunted my subsequent reading of the book, in a deliciously sinister way!

    • I’ve never seen the movie, although I know that there have been several screen versions. Agnes Moorhead- I only knew her in Bewitched.

  4. Pingback: Six degrees of separation: from ‘Notes on a Scandal’ to… | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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