The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins
This was a re-read for my book club, but it’s a book I love. The first time I read this book, I was reading it online on Project Gutenberg during my breaks at work. My husband and I were getting ready to move around this same time, and the move date (when we’d be without internet for a couple of days) coincided with my reaching the part where Things Start to Get Really Good. I was also going to be taking a couple of days off work for both the move and my little sister’s wedding (yeah, I know, we have *great* timing), and I could not bear the thought of waiting that long to find out what happened, so I ended up taking time out from packing to run to three bookstores to find a copy because the first two were out.
And I’m glad I did. I think this was my fifth read of this book (yeah, I re-read a lot. I’ll discuss that in another post sometime) and the first time reading it with the specific plan of discussing it with other people, so it was fun to see what themes I picked up on this time that I had missed before or forgotten about.
This book is an early mystery novel of sorts, involving a strange woman in white, two half-sisters, a drawing teacher, a brutish baronet, an invalid uncle, assorted old ladies and a sinister count. Add mistaken identities, lunatic asylums, trained white mice, kidnapping, doomed love, sea voyages, attempted murder, arson, forgery, slander, scandal, and opera-loving Italians of all shapes and sizes to the mix and you have the makings of 400-ish pages of a whole lot of fun.
What can I say? I can’t really sum up the plot of this book succinctly, partly because Collins is anything but succinct. It’s told as a series of first-person narratives, ostensibly so that no part of the story is given second- or third-hand; each part of the story is related by an individual who was actually there to see it or take part. This is great but it means that when Walter is telling the story we have to listen to a lot of extraneous matter about how wonderful and beautiful and perfect Laura is, and when Marian is telling the story we have to listen to a lot of (unconvincing) regrets about how she can’t do anything to save them because she is only a weak woman.
Let me take a break here to say the lady doth protest too much. Wilkie Collins, in Marian Halcombe, appears to have created a character he didn’t quite know what to do with or how to control. She’s smart, she’s sassy, she’s resourceful, she’s basically awesome, but he needed Walter to be in love with Laura instead, you know, for plot reasons, so it feels like he had to keep artificially hobbling Marian to keep her from becoming the main love interest. To do this he specifies that she is ugly (yes, he even goes so far as to give her a bit of a mustache) and keeps having her remind us all that she is only a woman, and what can women do? A heck of a lot, Marian, as you keep showing at every turn. Seriously, Laura’s great and all, but you’re the heroine of this story in my book and only the VILLAIN has the sense to see it. Yeah, you read that right, the hero is in love with bland and actually-helpless and feminine to the core Laura, while the villain has the good sense to fall madly in love with spunky Marian. (Actually, in the not-really-faithful-at-all 1930’s movie adaptation, the filmmakers DID make Marian the main love interest, kind of the same way that people can’t help but tinker with Fanny Price. This was possible because in the movie Marian did not have a mustache.)
Wilkie, your character was too good for you, and I hope you realize it. (I think you do, because you do have Walter, in his brief pauses between rhapsodizing on Laura’s perfections, mention how amazing a person and what a staunch ally and good friend Marian is. And hey, she’s the one he takes into his confidence when plotting! Seriously, the only thing keeping this woman from taking over the show is that tacked-on mustache. In my mind I see it kind of like a Mr. Potato Head accessory; just shoved on there as an afterthought once the author realized that he’d painted himself into the corner where his reader was naturally going to be rooting for the hero to get with the wrong girl.)
But even with these flaws, I still really enjoy this book. It’s long; it’s an investment and fun to curl up with knowing that you’ll be taking a long journey together. And the good news is that (other than the aforementioned rhapsodizing and self-deprecation from our respective main characters), there isn’t much wasted space (okay, okay, so a few of the landscape descriptions could also have been dropped). What I mean is, all the PLOT elements come back together; even what seem like throw-away bits end up being important to the story later.
If you can get past some Victorian stereotypes, can tolerate unnecessary facial hair, and like fun mystery-type stories, I recommend The Woman in White. It’s worth it, I promise. (Seriously. Just wait till you meet Fosco. He must be seen to be believed.) Four stars.