Original Publication Year: 1860
Genre(s): Fiction, Gothic Mystery
Narrated by: Ian Holm
There are two sisters (half-sisters really), one is beautiful, sweet and rich and the other is ugly, smart and poor. They are devoted to each other and they are mostly on their own in the world since their uncle/guardian is quite useless and self-absorbed. Enter a handsome young drawing master, hired to instruct the young ladies. Inevitably, the young drawing master (Walter Hartwright) falls in love with the pretty, sweet sister (Laura Fairlie) and she with him but alas, they are of different social classes and she is already engaged to the dashing older Sir Perceval Glyde. Unfortunately, while Sir Glyde is doting and charming, a strange letter arrives that hints at hidden and unpleasant depths to his character which produces foreboding amongst all who care for Miss Fairlie. Oh, the foreboding.
Throw in a mysterious and somewhat mentally unstable doppelganger for Miss Fairlie who always wears white and you have the beginnings of a dramatic and rollicking tale. I was not expecting this book to be such a page turner but it had pretty constant drama and action. There are several mysteries that drive the plot forward at a cracking pace. It definitely doesn’t feel like a 672 page book except when I reflect on all that happens it is not surprising it is on the longer side. The narrative moves around through several different perspectives with Walter Hartwright’s being the primary one but also contributing are Marian, the Fairlie’s solicitor, and the young ladies’ invalid uncle.
Collins’ characters are also pretty amazing. The invalid uncle is a indulgent, narcissistic hypochondriac to beat all others. My favorite characters were undoubtedly Marian Holcombe (the ugly, smart sister) and I somewhat more controversially love Count Fosco (not least of which because he is the only man in the story to have the good sense to fall head over heels in love with Marian). More on Marian later but Fosco is a larger than life character; an intelligent and charismatic villain. He is much more menacing then Percival Glyde and some of his monologues are epic.
Another thing I wasn’t expecting to see strongly messaged throughout the book was some pretty serious mid-nineteenth century feminism. There seem to be a lot of messages here about the inequality between men and women in society and marriage. Count Fosco even states in his ultimate letter confessing his dastardly deeds…
“What is the secret of Madame Fosco’s unhesitating devotion of herself to the fulfillment of my boldest wishes, to the furtherance of my deepest plans? I might answer this by simply referring to my own character, and by asking, in my turn, Where, in the history of the world, has a man of my order ever been found without a woman in the background self-immolated on the altar of his life? But I remember that I am writing in England, I remember that I was married in England, and I ask if a woman’s marriage obligations in this country provide for her private opinion of her husband’s principles? No! They charge her unreservedly to love, honour, and obey him. That is exactly what my wife has done. I stand here on a supreme moral elevation, and I loftily assert her accurate performance of her conjugal duties. Silence, Calumny! Your sympathy, Wives of England, for Madame Fosco!”
And then there is Marian who continually says things implying the weakness of women but then proving in her actions and her intellect that she is the equal if not the superior of most men. And she also has some things to say about marriage:
“No man under heaven deserves these sacrifices from us women. Men! They are the enemies of our innocence and our peace - they drag us away from our parents' love and our sisters' friendship - they take us body and soul to themselves, and fasten our helpless lives to theirs as they chain up a dog to his kennel. And what does the best of them give us in return?”
I vividly felt, as Marian and Laura’s position in Sir Glyde’s household became clear, the fear and helplessness they must experience as women of that era. Powerless and at the mercy of the men in their lives.
As a cherry on top, Ian Holm’s narration of the book was perfect in every way. He expertly captured the different voices as well as the exaggerated drama and foreboding that I think firmly makes this a Gothic novel.
It missed getting five stars because sometimes the manipulation of the reader was a little too blatant. I’m not sure this was a fault of the author but is probably just a characteristic of Gothic literature but I sometimes was imagining a tiny orchestra in my head going “Dun, dun DUN!” Also, I have to say I was a little put out that Marian’s prescribed life and path is as her sister’s companion and doting Aunty to Laura and Walter’s children. She says this is what she wants and we must take her at her word but I don’t quite believe it. For all the feminism run rampant in the novel, of COURSE Walter chooses the pretty, sweet one over the super duper awesome smart but ugly one. She has to settle for Fosco’s admiration.
And finally the BIG question!! Collins or Dickens? I feel like I’ve heard a few people of late claim that Dickens has wrongly been exalted as grand English literature while Collins has wallowed in the background. They claim that Collins is in fact the better writer. I have to say The Woman in White was a pretty serious page turner of a book and while I love many of Dickens’ books, I wouldn’t say they are always page turners. However, they do feel a bit more substantive, perhaps. I see why the two writers would be compared – writing at the same time and they each employ satire, especially in the form of some of their characters, to poke fun at institutions and certain types of people they despise. However, I don’t know that it’s fair to compare them. Dickens to me has more of a distinctive style but maybe that’s just because I have read way more of his books? Regardless, the jury is still out as far as I am concerned and may forever be out. Where do you come down on the matter?
Final Verdict: A page turner of a mystery with an interesting cast of characters and suitably Gothic storytelling. 4 out of 5 Stars! ✪✪✪✪