The Woman in White (1859) – Wilkie COLLINS

I think I may have already mentioned my love of the new Vintage Classics range, and this one has been sitting on my shelf since the beginning of the year, looking forlornly at me, waiting for me to pick it up. And I needed something big and brash to cheer me up from all those little books I have been reading lately. What better than a famous, wordy Victorian Gothic thriller?

After being saved from certain death by Walter Hartright, an art teacher, Professor Pesca decides to reward him by offering him a job at Limmeridge House – the ancestral home of the Fairlie family. There he meets Marian Halcombe and her beautiful half-sister, Laura Fairlie, with whom he promptly fall in love. Their love, however, is interrupted by Laura’s engagement to Sir Percival Glyde, who has a terrible secret. And what of the mysterious woman in white that seems to follow them around? And who is Count Fosco, really?

At over 600 pages, I was expecting this book to take forever to read. But somehow, I really raced through it – though I think that uni holidays helped with that. Even though Collins writes like every other Victorian novelist (slowly, with the need to explain every single thing that ever happens in great detail), the plot has enough drive to get past this, and power through. It tends to drag a little in the middle, when everyone is mysteriously falling ill, but really picks up in the last act, where everything becomes a desperate race to stop the true villain. Collins has created enough mystery and intrigue to keep even the most cynical readers interested.

I know that Laura Fairlie is supposed to be the woman that everyone wants, but really, she’s a bit of a wet blanket. She has the personality of a young child, and doesn’t seem to be able to make any decision of her own without either crying or fainting. Granted, she has a few moments, but it is really Marian that is the strong, independent woman that I really identified with. It is she who realises much of what is going on, and has the inteeligence and strength of mind to not scream at every opportunity. Both women do suffer, however, from the fact that they are female characters in a Victorian novel, and thus have the tendency to proclaim that they are “only a woman”, and therefore can’t possibly be as good as the men surrounding them. And considering that there are very few good men in this novel – even Walter is a bit boring, and tends to hysterics – it annoys even me.

This is apparently one of the first novels to consist of a collection of letters and recollections of each character – like in Dracula, called an epistolary novel, for those interested – and it works really well here. It helps that you never know who is going to make it and who isn’t – each of the narrators could just as easily be killed, because someone else can just tell the story. And Collins has enough in him to create unique styles for each of his characters – clearly a writer at the top of his game.

This book is a pretty clear explanation of why Collins was so popular during his time. It’s got almost everything you could want – thrilling plot, (fairly) interesting characters, intrigue, and a smattering of commentary on contemporary social issues to make yourself feel good while you read it. And, it’s stood the test of time, and is still a ripping good yarn.

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