10 January 2011

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

This is me trying to catch up with all those reviews I want to write...

When I was a teenager, I remember watching a movie with a kid and a ghost of a woman in white. I loved that movie, and have always thought that it was entitled The Woman in White. So, I thought that the movie and Wilkie Collins' novel were one and the same. Because of my vague recollections of that movie, it took me until page 100 or so to figure out that both were completely different stories. In the first place, there wasn't a kid in the novel. In the second, there was no ghost either. And so, curiosity finally got the better of me and I googled the movie. Apparently, it was entitled The Lady in White. Not so far off then, was I?

The Woman in White, however, is one of those classics that readers keep saying is unputdownable. Now, I've read my share of classics, and let me tell you, though most of them are beautiful reads, few of them are unputdownable. Then again, most classics are so much the better because you need to put them down and really think about them. I like those kinds of books.

But I also love finding classics that are gripping enough to keep me turning the pages way into the wee hours. And The Woman in White is exactly that kind of classic. Not a surprise, I guess, since I couldn't put down Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone when I read it more than a decade ago. Like that book, The Woman in White is also written from different first-person perspectives, which, admittedly, is a conceit I like in the hands of Wilkie Collins.

In The Woman in White, young art tutor Walter Hartwright meets the eponymous and mysterious woman while on his way to a new post as an art tutor to two sisters in a Cumberland mansion. The woman in white strikes him as a tragic, pitiful, and curious figure, but she disappears soon after they meet that the gentlemanly Walter could not do more for her than he would have wanted. Walter then proceeds to his new job. It is not long before he befriends the older sister, Marian, and falls in love with the younger sister, Laura. Laura, however, is already engaged to the suspicious Count Percival, who may only be interested in Laura for her money. What is doubly interesting is the apparent connection between the woman in white and Count Percival, who seems to have a secret that he wishes to keep at all costs.

The rest of the book is an amazing tour-de-force of plotting. The story moves from suspicions of Count Percival, to the the disastrous "honorable" act of Laura, to the disappearance of the woman in white (who was finally introduced as Anne Catherick), Laura's sad fate, the seeming victory of Count Percival and his friend, Count Fosco, and Walter's eventual return and vindication. Each twist makes sense and is honestly gripping. You see, I enjoy guessing what happens next or where the story will bring me, as I assume other readers do. Yet, this book, aside from its ultimate ending, was hardly predictable. I had an enjoyable time guessing whether Laura would end up with Percival, what Percival's secret was and how Anne was connected to it, how they were to bring down the fantastic schemes of Count Fosco. I went through the usual guesses, but thankfully, none of them were right. I like it when a book surprises me.

And the characters--how lovable they were! Even the villains. Not lovable in the way that Jack Sparrow from  Pirates of the Carribean is lovable. No, as villainous creations, they were fantastic. Percival is the right sort of villain/coward, Count Fosco is the exact sort of intelligent and charming reprobate, his Madame Fosco is a perfect evil Stepford wife. And Walter, who threatened me as a boring character, eventually came into his own and showed some chutzpah. Even the minor characters, Lord bless them, are well-drawn, from Walter's foppish yet surprising best friend, Pesca, to Anne Catherick's amoral mother.

Perhaps my only complaint, though, in this novel would be how the women were portrayed. The two main female characters, Marian and Laura, were amazing creations themselves. Marian is highly intelligent and sharp. Laura is such a pure and honorable soul. But several times I wanted to bonk them over the head. Marian, despite her sharpness, is unbelievably careless and blind at times. For instance, she herself knows the extent of Fosco's wiles, yet she does not suspect anything amiss when the carrier of two important letters was attacked by Fosco's wife. And Laura, poor, sweet Laura. Really, woman, get a clue! There are honorable people in the world, but it doesn't mean that everyone you meet is so.

In other words, both Marian and Laura, and several other female characters in the novel seem to be ill-equipped to handle the evils that men and other women introduce in the world, simply because they don't believe that people are capable of such actions, even when people have shown otherwise. In one part of the novel, Count Fosco even tries to explain the world and the existence of evil in it to Marian and Laura, but they seemed incredulous that evil will prevail over good. In the whole scheme of this novel, this is not true. But, by golly, I wanted to yell, "Yeah, school 'em, Fosco!"

Regardless, I am one with the rest of the people who highly recommend this novel. It may be written in the 1860s, but you would be hard-pressed to find a more tightly-plotted and rousing book. The preface states it is also a book lawyers are wont to examine, what with the explicit inclusion of the law and its workings in it. So, whether you seek more input about 19th century English law or just want an exciting read, I'd say go for The Woman in White. Because, even if you mistake it for another story like I did, it is not going to be a disappointment.


3M said...

I love this one, too. I really need to get to The Moonstone sometime.

Ryan G said...

I have The Moonstone sitting of my shelves waiting for another go at it. I tried it last year but couldn't get into it for some reason. I'm hoping this time around will be different.

I still haven't read The Woman in White either though from what I heard it's a book that I should get ahold of as soon as possible. Thanks for the reivew and the reminder that I need to get going with both books.

fantaghiro23 said...

@3M - You'll love The Moonstone. More of a mystery, but there's still the romance side.

@Ryan - Hi! Hope you do get to read both soon.