Review: The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins

So, a couple of months ago I read Bleak House and then after that, I read its spin off, Tom All Alone’s.  Anyway, Tom also stirred in some of The Woman in White for fun and my curiousity was piqued.  To be fair, my curiousity is very piquable.  I got through Bleak House by making big strides forward during the Easter Holidays and for The Woman, it was very much the same except over half term.  I’d actually never read anything by Wilkie Collins before, although I knew that he wrote Victorian melodramas back in the day.  Collins is a famous novelist but not in the same way as his friend and contemporary Dickens – the latter was the Father of the Nation.  Collins is described by my mother as a writer of ‘high quality trash’ … believe it or not she meant it as a compliment.

For people not in the know – The Woman in White is widely regarded as the first ever mystery novel and certainly amongst the fore-runners of detective fiction.  People went nuts over this book when it was first written.  Plays were written, perfumes were concocted, sheet music was arranged, bonnets were made, children were called Walter.  It never entirely went away, there is currently a musical showing somewhere which I actually might go and see … if only to see if Laura Fairlie can be portrayed as someone convincingly alive.  Anyway – yes, The Woman in White was a blockbuster of its day, enabling Collins to finally quit the day job and to go professional with the writing.
Still, people go crazy over some pretty rubbish things (Twilight anyone?) and popularity is no guarantee of quality. It’s pretty impressive that The Woman in White is still popular a century and a half later.  Myself, I really enjoyed it, although there were some sections that dragged a little.  Oddly enough, my Mum was rereading it at the same time for her book group and said that although she had loved it the first time around, she was finding it a real flog to get through again.  I think what I liked best about it though was that Wilkie Collins’ mission statement is so clear – he believed that the ‘primary object of a work of fiction should be to tell a story’.  The Woman in White does not lecture, does not try to be morally improving – hence why my mother called it ‘trash’ – but I disagree, this is not trash, Collins does exactly what he says he will do and does it extremely well.

The original Woman in White – Anne Catherick

The story begins with Walter Hartright, the young artist, being called upon to assist a mysterious woman dressed in white who has escaped from a mental institution.  He gets her to safety and then he leaves to start his new job as a drawing instructor at Limmeridge, teaching half-sisters Marian Halcombe and Laura Fairlie.  But, what’s that?  Laura Fairlie also dresses in white!  Sightings occur of the first woman in white and she is identified as local girl, Anne Catherick who totally looks like Laura.  Marian, Walter and Laura become very close and Laura and Walter fall in love.  But – gadzooks!  Laura is an heiress to the whole fortune and betrothed to another man, plus Walter is extremely poor and NQOCD (Not Quite Our Class Dear).  Basically – they’re star-crossed.

Poor Walter

So Marian hustles Walter off the premises and Laura marries Sir Percival Glyde even though at that stage nobody was forcing her, Laura didn’t even like him and she had been receiving ‘anonymous’ (from Anne Catherick) notes telling her that Sir Percival was a wrong ‘un.  Drip.  Laura alters her will so that Sir Percival gets the lot when she dies and from there on, you just know that things will not end well.  When Sir Percival and Lady Glyde return from their honeymoon, they have with them Count Fosco and his wife.  Count Fosco is a caricature of both an Italian and of a super-villain – he appears to be all pleasantness and jollity, he adores animals and sees how awesome Marian is but … this is Victorian fiction and he is Johnny Foreigner.  Of course, Count Fosco is evil.  Things go from bad to worse.

Wilkie Collins trained as a lawyer although he never practised and this does show in the way that he tells his novel.  It is narrated through a series of testimonies and also Marian Halcombe’s diary, these are all eye-witness accounts.  He takes care over points of legal detail and he has clearly made an effort that his story have a note of realism even though the plot is designed to be sensationalist.  Like I mentioned earlier however, unlike his friend Charles Dickens, Collins is not angling a political agenda.  Dickens might have some rants about the Married Women’s Property Act (except that he wouldn’t be in favour of that judging from his own personal life) but Collins is more interested in human nature.

It’s funny, in my first term of university, I had to study a module called Ghosts and Doubles.  It may or may not be still on the curriculum but I’m not going to check.  Anyway, this module had a lot of stories about dark things happening and various characters who looked vaguely alike.  What puzzles me though is how The Woman in White managed to miss being put on the reading list – it is riddled with doppelgangers, doubles and duality and also has a fair amount of spookiness.  I can only guess that 500 pages seemed a lot when on a one-book-a-week module … although only two years later they tried to make me read Tom Jones.  I didn’t manage it.

Count Fosco

So yes – duality is a strong theme in this novel.  Laura is the fair lady in white while her sister Marian is the dark ugly woman … actually you could just as easily say that Laura is the dimwit while Marian is awesome (more on that later).  Laura is refined and serene and her other half-sister Anne Catherick (yes, spoilers, they’re related) is a madwoman – but yet it does not take so very much to swap the two.  The house at Blackwater Park shows more duality – the sinister old wing and the modern bright one, then its master Sir Perceval who does not live up to his knightly namesake.  Count Fosco’s jolly exterior masks his inner immorality which in turn masks his ‘feelings’ for Marian (poor girl).  It’s a dark and disturbing world …

The Great Big Twist is that … drum roll … spoilers … another drum roll … After failing to do as she is told, Laura is Switched in to the mental institution while Anne Catherick is buried with Laura’s name.  Everybody believes that Laura is dead and even though the redoubtable Marian is able to rescue her, nobody even recognises her in her weakened state.  Luckily, they have Walter to call back from South America for assistance.  Cue some rather improbable manoevring before the inevitable marriage between Laura and Walter and then happy ending.

This was a book with genuinely startling moments.  The part when Marian, fearing for her sister’s life, recounts in her diary how she has gone out on to the roof to eaves-drop on Count Fosco and Sir Perceval reaches a huge dramatic crescendo that becomes almost unbearable as Marian realises that her recklessness has made her unwell.  As Marian lapses into unconsciousness, Count Fosco strolls in cheerfully, taking over the narrative as he explains how interesting a read Marian’s diary has been.  I don’t think that I can remember feeling a heroine so utterly vanquished as Marian was then.  Reading it, I felt actually horrified – not bad after one hundred and fifty years.

Another haunting moment was when the grief-stricken Walter rushes to visit Laura’s grave and discovers Lady Glyde herself looking at her own tomb.  It’s these parts which really show though that this was originally published in serialised instalments – at this point there would be the Dun Dun Dun of the Eastenders theme tune as the Moment of Awful Truth arrived.  I do like a good Moment of Awful Truth from time to time.  Collins is very good at writing to make you want to read on.

Of course, it’s not completely perfect.  The resolution was a bit uneven and borderline racist about Italians – it was a fairly clear deus ex machina which tends to irritate me.  However, my main issue is a surprisingly central one – the women in white themselves. They are deathly dull – as blank and insipid as the colour they dress in. Anne Catherick would have annoyed me less if she had actually been aware of the secret she claimed to know. As it was, I found her a very disappointing Victorian madwoman, particularly when held up against Mrs Rochester. Now, she was an interesting lunatic … Anne Catherick is a little too demure.  Which brings us to Laura Fairlie.  My irritation with Anne Catherick falls away when compared with my contempt for Laura, who is after all supposed to be the romantic heroine.

Laura is the rich twenty year-old heiress, she falls in love with the penniless painter but promised her father on his deathbed that she would instead marry Sir Perceval Glyde, who is in his forties.  She shows a personal distaste for her prospective husband.  She is given the opportunity to rescind her engagement honourably and to live her life as a single woman.  Does she take it?  No! Because as we all know, it is virtuous to condemn oneself to a life of misery when we don’t need to!  Why oh why in the Victorian era was happiness for women seen to be sinful in some way?

Helen Huntingdon could have sorted this …

I read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – another book where a woman marries an unworthy man.  But Helen Huntingdon was naive and had fallen in love – Laura Fairlie doesn’t even like Sir Perceval!  If I had been her sister, I would have given her a good shake and told her not to be so silly.  I completely understand that at that point in the story, it would not have been possible socially for her to have married Walter instead – but she didn’t have to go and marry Sir Perceval!  Not many high born Victorian women could have expected to enter matrimony for love – but actual dislike seems a bit steep.

But Laura more than anything just seems really, really dim.  Things are constantly having to be translated for Laura by her sister Marian, who even seems to have to explain The Facts Of Life shortly before Laura’s wedding.  The two of them can seem almost uncomfortably close at times but Marian cannot save Laura from herself.  Laura is one of the few characters who never speaks in her own voice.  She keeps no diary, has not got Marian’s memory and tends to collapse in a heap when the going gets tough.  When things get really tough, she is no use at all.  I was reminded of the immortal words of Captain Malcolm Reynolds of Firefly when he told a snivelling woman, “If anybody ever tries to kill you, you just try and kill them right back”.  It is not morally commendable to lie back and let everybody tear chunks out of you.  Other Victorian women fought back – in their company, Laura Fairlie is a disgrace.

I ended up actually really liking Walter Hartwright though, he seemed to be a dedicated and likeable hero.  He fought through the perils of South America and came back just in time to come to Laura and Marian’s rescue.  He looks past the sisters’ condescending attitude which had led him being dismissed as a husband for Laura and goes to bat for Laura simply because it is the right thing to do.  He is one of those fictional men that you just wish could be real … and not living a century and a half ago.

It was odd – Laura is supposedly the Angel in the House (although really it’s Marian) and she is ready to be the perfect obedient wife.  Still – Laura’s witlessness (and I mean witless pre-incarceration in a mental institution) makes me think that she would be quite a draining person to share a life with.  Walter however was one of the only fictional men who I can think of who ever seemed to really live up to the values laid out by Ephesians – he was an ideal husband.  To explain – when Ephesians was covered in a sermon series by my church, my egalitarian vicar preached on Ephesians 5:22-33 and it becomes a reciprocal arrangement – Walter truly loves his wife as Christ loves the church, he is willing to die for her even though she has consistently proved herself unworthy of him.

For myself, I thought that the better couple would have been Marian and Walter.  Marian is an interesting and warm female character who can think for herself – none of this can be said of Laura. The thing that I found really weird was that Marian was still stepping in to translate things into LauraSpeak after Walter and Laura had got married.  Yes – so, Walter would tell Marian what was going on and then Marian would explain things for him to his wife.  Heavens above, that’s dysfunctional – it was as if he was married in a more real sense to Marian!  I really wondered what it was that Walter saw in Laura – I mean, I know that his first impression was that Marian was ugly and that Laura was pretty but after such a strong relationship developed, you might have been forgiven for thinking that he might have gotten over it.  Laura so rarely spoke and her relationship with Walter is so scarcely drawn – it is a whisper.  It is not believable.

To get over that though, I rewrote things slightly in my head.  Given that the novel is written in Walter’s voice as a form of ‘testimony’, I have decided that it is acceptable that this is unreliable.  So in my head, just like in the book, Walter recognises that he can only fight for Laura’s reinstatement as the rightful heiress to Limmeridge as her husband.  And because of that, he has to give up on his love for Marian, which he has deep down realised is more true than any flimsy feelings he might have once had for Laura before everything else happened.  Whether or not that is true – in my version, that is what happened.

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The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
Published by Harper on 1873
Pages: 548

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