The Woman in White

I love this book. In fact, I would almost go as far to say that this book saved me from the gale force shock of a gloomy, grey November and the meh feeling induced by the not-so-amazing 1Q84. How happy I am with myself for favouring the classic! Perhaps I’m not such a heathen after all…

I’d always heard great things about Wilkie Collins and just never got around to him so I took a punt on a dull looking copy sat in a charity shop a couple of months ago and, as with a fair few books I’ve read this year, am sooo embarrassed it’s taken me so long to get here.

As with many books from this period, it does take a few pages to relax into the wordy, melodramatic prose, but once you do (and it only took me about 3 pages) this superbly old-fashioned mystery novel – considered to be the first of its kind – is absolutely marvellous.

One dark night, following news that he will be moving to Cumberland to take up a post as the drawing master to two wealthy young women, Walter Hartwright chances by a rather strange and frightened young woman on his way into London; dressed, rather unusually, all in white. She is on her way to a safe house in the city and Walter, naturally wanting to help the young damsel in distress bundles her into a taxi and away into the night.

It transpires that this spectre of a woman is Ann Catherick who, as well as recognising the name of the fine house in Cumberland where Hartwright will be spending the next few months, is also an escapee from a nearby asylum who the artist has unwittingly helped escape. The memory of this mysterious encounter remains in the man’s mind as he installs a place for himself at Limmeridge House, where he fosters a great friendship with (and love for) his students; the indomitable Marian Halcombe and her very sweet, very lovely sister Laura. Walter and Laura’s blossoming romance is doomed from the very beginning, with the artist’s sweetheart engaged to an exceedingly wealthy and extremely shady gentleman; Sir Percival Glyde, an arrangement that soon turns sour for all involved…

I will stop here with the narrative for fear of delving too far into the great threats, dramas and mysteries that quickly unravel and threaten our heroines from here on out. I actually missed my bus stop twice whilst reading this book on the way to work, and I think that says it all. Twists and turns are abound; events that will force you to prise your jaw off the floor and read on, both beginning and ending with our woman in white…

This story was first published as a series, something which is betrayed by the separate narrators who join in to relay events every chapter or so. This change of tone and point of view every so often really kept the narrative fresh and engaged me as a reader even further, particularly when we are treated to portrayals of some of the most singular characters in 19th century literature. The rather pathetic, shallow, crippled Mr Fairlie creates just the correct amount of frustration at key moments; as does the appearance of well-written supporting cast such as ill-witted servants and henchmen who appear at just the right moments to thwart our champion Mr Hartwright. The sinister ‘Count Fosco’ is such an elaborate, dangerous character that he could easily have been written for one of the great operas. Indeed, The Woman in White has been transferred onto the stage many a time and with this much angst and melodrama ocurrin’ I’m hardly surprised, although how these adaptations have passed me by I have no idea.

The word ‘mystery’ in relation to the books very rarely has me leaping out of my seat. It’s certainly not my favourite genre in modern fiction, however, perhaps eased along by the period setting and quirky characters, I have genuinely enjoyed being kept in the dark, second guessing and running around in circles with our victims. This book, for a very good reason, has remarkably never been out of print since its publication in 1860. In reading up I actually discovered, much to my amusement, that upon its release the book was such a hit that shops began to market items of clothing and perfumes as ‘Woman in White’ ..bonnets, eau de toilette and the like. Perhaps we shouldn’t all feel so guilty about all of the gaudy Harry Potter toys and sexed-up Steig Larsson films after all!…

A reading and review of The Moonstone will be heading this way very soon….

4 thoughts on “The Woman in White

  1. I love both The Woman in White and The Moonstone! And they are both such perfect winter reads. Hmmm, maybe I'll have to find my old copies and re-read them early in the New Year.


  2. Hi Annalisa!Ooo yes, in January when it's still chilly absolutely. I'm in a classic mood at the mo – have just ordered a couple more Daphne du Mauriers and Susan Hills to get stuck into! Am itching to get started on the Moonstone.


  3. I loved this novel. Mr. Hartright was perhaps a little wordy, but I was engrossed in the plot and didn't care. Perfect for anyone who has finished reading the Brontes and is looking for something similar!


  4. Hi FranceI completely agree. Wilkie Collins completely transports me into another world. Funny you should mention the wordiness though…I have just started on the Moonstone and, although it is usually considered to be the better novel, am struggling with the wordy wordiness. Just need to settle down into it I think!


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