The Woman in White

The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins, is a fantastic and wonderfully suspenseful novel, originally published as a whole manuscript in 1860, though it was serialized for publication from 1859-1860. It is considered to be one of the first mystery novels and a leader in the detective novel genre. There are Gothic themes running throughout to make things spooky and eerie, but ultimately we're dealing with a novel where all the characters are flesh and blood and there are sound explanations for everything. In his introduction, Collins posits that this might be one of the first novels of its kind, written using multiple narrators. Wikipedia calls this an epistolary novel, though I'm not entirely sure I'd use such categorization. The novel is constructed using accounts of events from various people, which alludes more to Collins's legal background. Collins writes in the introduction that "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."

The basic plot (though I honestly think you should just dive in without much knowledge) focuses on strange appearances, forbidden love, inheritances, marrying for money, murder plots, spies, asylums, forgeries, secrets, and revenge. Seriously, how much more do you need to know? Just start reading! My friend described this book as being full of "the best parts of Dickens" and that's somewhat apt. Somehow, one is constantly propelled through this novel without Collins dropping the ball. Every now and then, when I came up for air after burying myself in this book for hours, I would wonder how Collins could possibly keep such momentum. I'm still not sure how he managed, but I never felt as though things were dragging along even for a moment.

Walter Hartright has taken a position as a drawing teacher to two young ladies at the country home Limmeridge House in Cumberland, owned by a Mr. Farlie. Before leaving London for Limmeridge House, Walter encounters a strange young woman in white at a very late hour, alone and practically materializing from thin air. Walter offers to escort her to a taxi or fly, which she accepts, and he has the feeling that she thinks she is being pursued by someone. This might all be strange enough, except that when he makes conversation and mentions his upcoming trip to Cumberland, the woman in white says that she was once happy there -- at Limmeridge! She particularly mentions the late Mrs. Fairlie, but Walter can get little else out of her. After seeing her safely into a fly, Walter overhears two men ask a police officer if he has seen a woman who matched the description of the woman in white -- and when the policeman asks why they are seeking her, the men respond that she has just escaped from their asylum! After such a strange evening, Walter leaves London and makes his way to his new position. He first meets Marian Halcombe, who at appears to be a stunning figure of a woman initially... yet turns around and reveals that she is quite ugly, though Walter does ultimately find her to be charming, clever, and devoted to the well-being of her half-sister, Laura. Laura Fairlie is the heiress of Limmeridge House, and the niece of Mr. Fairlie. She is fair and beautiful, quiet and demure (everything that might have seemed perfect in a woman then... and makes the modern female reader wish to bash her over the head).

While Laura might be the beautiful one (and everyone can see that Walter is besotted with her from first glance), Walter truly seems to befriend Marian. He tells her about his encounter with the woman in white and Marian looks through her late mother's letters to see if they can identify the woman... which they manage to do by a detail that Walter did not identify until Marian reads it aloud from the letter -- that the woman in white (Anne Catherick) and Laura Fairlie look almost exactly alike! Such coincidences! Of course, this seems to fall a bit to the side when Walter's overpowering love for Laura becomes an issue. He's perfectly aware that the difference in their stations renders it an impossible match and this is confirmed when Marian, who has observed their growing affection for each other, counsels Walter to leave Limmeridge House for his own sake as well as Laura's. Laura has been engaged for the past two years to a Sir Percival Glyde, a match sanctioned by Laura's father before he died and for that reason only, Laura would never call it off. Never fear, dear reader... our main plotline is not "let's get Walter and Laura together." We watch Laura marry Sir Percival despite deep misgivings, we come back to the woman in white, we learn more about why we just don't like that Sir Percival cat, and we get introduced to some pretty awesome foreign characters. I could keep talking about the plot, but I won't. This is all just the beginning. It gets good. Go read it.

Not to bask in my own awesomeness, but I selected this book for my book club and I'm quite pleased with myself. I devoured it in a handful of days and believe that I'll spend a great deal of time thinking about this one -- long after my book club has gone over it with a fine-toothed comb. Marian Halcombe is a brilliant character and Count Fosco is ridiculous and amazing. There was a moment in the book where I knew what was coming, and then Collins followed this up with something so brilliant that I gasped out loud. I'm sure that I could be more eloquent about my praise for this book, but perhaps I'll update this review once I have my book club meeting, so I can incorporate some of that insight here, too.

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