Little reviews on little (and big!) books

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

on December 8, 2014

Well, here it is! The review I know a lot of you have been waiting for 🙂 You’ve seen my previous reviews on novels that fit within the Sensation fiction genre, but this is one of the main stories often cited along with Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret and Ellen Wood’s East Lynne. It was Collins’s first Sensation novel and was regarded as sensational through not only its style and structure, but its immense popularity with the reading public.

Published in 1860, Collins’s first venture into the genre brought him unheard of popularity in Victorian times. As discussed in earlier pieces (see What is Sensation Fiction?), the genre itself divided critics. It was seen by some as the sign of the times and a cry for change in reading material; others treated it with severe disdain and disgust. However, nobody can deny that what Collins created was a real work of genius! The Woman in White was the book that introduced me to Sensation fiction, and for that I’ll be forever in its debt 🙂 To detail absolutely every event which takes place in the novel would take a very long time, so I think I’ll only focus on a couple of things. I know most of you will have already read the book so I don’t want to bore you with just repeating the tale! Rather, I would like to analyse a few points in the novel which you may or may not have picked up on through your experience with The Woman in White.

To start, I’ll briefly mention Collins’s style and structure of the novel. It’s very different, but really makes the most of the story. In his 1860 preface, Collins states:

‘An experiment is attempted in this novel, which has not (so far as I know) been hitherto tried in fiction. The story of the book is told throughout by the characters. They are all placed in different positions along the chain of events; and they all take up the chain in turn, and carry it on to the end.’

He believed that ‘the substance of the book, as well as the form, has profited by it. It has forced me to keep the story constantly moving forward; and it has afforded my characters a new opportunity of expressing themselves, through the medium of the written contributions which they are supposed to make to the progress of the narrative.’ This view is reiterated in Collins’s Preamble before the story begins. I love that he included a section called the Preamble! 🙂 Collins writes:

‘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 be the narrator. When not, 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, Collins compares this to a court of law where he claims a story is generally told by more than one witness in order to make it credible. What a great idea! Pass the storytelling on to whoever is in the best position to tell it. When you think about it, it’s actually quite a clever idea – how are we ever meant to know what’s going on with Marian and Laura when Walter is absent? If he is our only narrator, we would never hear every side of the story. Therefore, the mantle would pass to Marian Halcombe, for example, to inform us exactly what occurs within her household. We get narratives from both major and minor characters, even if it is just something as simple as a death notice, a housekeeper’s perspective or a doctor’s report. As I just mentioned, the narrative is started by Walter Hartright, the hero of the novel. He is employed as a drawing-master to two ladies who live at Limmeridge House (Marian Halcombe and Laura Fairlie). One evening, before he departs for the house, he takes a walk and finds himself on a by-road where he encounters the woman in white of the novel. Walter writes:

‘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…’

After a brief interaction, Walter points her in the direction of London. Later, he is stopped by a carriage desperately seeking a woman who fits her exact description and is told that she has escaped from an asylum. This is really where the story begins!

Walter can’t forget his experience with the woman, and is shocked when he reaches Limmeridge House to find that the young and beautiful Laura Fairlie is the spitting image of his escapee woman in white. Walter instantly falls for Laura, but not for Marian who he describes as ugly. Walter states: ‘Never was the old conventional maxim, that Nature cannot err, more flatly contradicted – never was the fair promise of a lovely figure more strangely and startlingly belied by the face and head that crowned it.’ He notes that she has a kind of moustache and a ‘large, firm, masculine mouth and jaw.’ This kind of description is notable – as we progress further through the novel, we see that Marian is the one to take action in order to help Walter solve the mystery of the woman in white. She sees her half-sister married off to Sir Percival Glyde who she is sure is not all that he seems so takes it upon herself to discover the truth about his conspiring with the suave Count Fosco. I won’t go into great detail about the background of every character – I don’t think this review would ever end! 😛 I will leave you to discover the many plots of the story! Anyway, back to Marian…

She is one of the strongest female characters I have come across in literature. Not only is she sensational in her appearance (i.e. she is the complete opposite to what proper Victorian femininity dictated), but she is also sensational in her actions. At one point, the reader even sees her outside of the house, hanging onto the roof in the pouring rain in order to eavesdrop on a conversation between Glyde and Fosco! She is therefore the embodiment of pure determination. Marian subverts gender roles and doesn’t really fit into what physical attractiveness should be. She seems perfectly dissatisfied with her lot in life, simply because of her gender. She claims that she answers men ‘more because my tongue is a woman’s, and must answer.’ However, one thing she is utterly sure of is her dominance over men in her presence. She states: ‘Any woman who is sure of her own wits is a match at any time for a man who is not sure of his own temper.’ Marian knows how intelligent she is, even Count Fosco tells her so on more than one occasion. What I really didn’t like was her resignation in the plot. After her roof escapade, she becomes ill and is effectively locked away to get better. The Marian we see after this, I certainly felt, wasn’t the same one. She once dominated over Walter; instead we see her cast to the sidelines in a more domesticated role. We see her flaunt the typical female position and want to be taken seriously, but we don’t hear her talking in the same way about her displeasure with her status as we do in earlier moments in the novel. Granted, she still wants to get involved in Laura and Walter’s life, but I got the impression that her independence was cut back somewhat – but maybe that’s just me!

Collins’s novel is littered with the supernatural, but then reality is always prevalent. Events that happen always seem to be easily explained instances to brush them away and this seems to turn the supernatural into the domestic. The ghost-like woman at the start of the novel who just simply disappears (she must be a ghost!) – No, she’s just escaped from an asylum. This then brings Henry Mansel’s idea of ‘preaching to the nerves’ into play. He believed that Sensation fiction was just filled with shock and suspense resulting in no real content. As a result, the genre should be dismissed. However, the popularity of the texts exceeded expectation, ending in what Mansel believed to be a ‘morbid phenomenon.’

Finally, I would like to briefly mention the Woman in White herself – Anne Catherick. Locked away in an asylum, she escapes at the beginning of the novel. When she was younger, Laura’s mother showed her great kindness and the only way Anne feels she can repay this is by warning Laura not to marry Sir Percival and become Lady Glyde. Of course, Laura marries anyway, and Anne is eventually kidnapped and held by Count Fosco. Glyde is in severe financial difficulty and plots with Fosco to switch the identities of Anne and Laura, so that they can pass off that Laura is dead (when really it is Anne who has passed away) and Glyde can inherit all of her money. Conspiracy! What they didn’t bank on was Marian Halcombe hanging off a roof and hearing every word! The similarities between Laura and Anne are also eventually cleared up in that there is the distinct possibility that Anne Catherick is an illegitimate daughter in the Fairlie family.

I didn’t want this review to be too long! There’s so much that happens in The Woman in White that I really didn’t want to spoil it for anyone that hasn’t yet had a chance to read it 🙂 It’s a great read! Lots of suspense and twists and turns – I think my favourite moment has to be just before what Collins named The Third Epoch where Walter is in the graveyard next to Laura’s grave! I’ll definitely not leave any spoilers here! Just go and read it or re-read it as the case may be 🙂


10 responses to “The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

  1. I re-red this last year, but now you have me wanting to read it again.

  2. heavenali says:

    I re- read this last year, and lovex it all over again. I really enjoyed the different narratives it kept the story moving for me.

  3. Helen says:

    This was the first sensation novel I read and probably still my favourite. Marian Halcombe is such a wonderful character – I loved the roof escapade too!

  4. Tamsin says:

    The Woman in White is actually not my favorite sensation novel (I know, I’m probably the only person on the planet to hold that opinion), but the combination of this post and the fact that I just read Fingersmith (which seems seriously indebted to The Woman in White) has me thinking I should maybe revisit it. We’ll see–so much to read, even without rereading novels!

  5. bookarino says:

    This is one of the books that I’ve been meaning to read for ages, but haven’t got round to. I haven’t read many sensation novels, so I’m curious to see how this compares to them. I love the Vintage edition cover!

  6. I love Wilkie Collins for coming up with this idea. Do we know if that experiment HAD ever been attempted before, using the multiple viewpoints? Or is he really the first one to try that genius idea that I totally love?

  7. Oh dear, I feel the need for a re-read coming on! Not that it’s a bad thing 🙂 I’m currently reading Wilkie’s The Guilty River, so perhaps I’ll slide straight into this afterwards. Great post, Emma!

  8. I love this book – it’s such a page turner! May I correct you on something? I think you’ll find it’s not his first novel, he wrote Antonina, Basil, After Dark, the Dead Secret all in the 1850s. Maybe you meant his first “sensation” novel.

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