- Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Books"
You can generally tell when my budget situation is getting tight by the way I start reviewing “classic” books, downloaded for free to my Kindle. And so we come to one of the first English mystery novels, Wilkie Collins's 1859 book, The Woman in White.
I enjoyed The Woman in White, but found it frustrating at the same time. The story's compelling, the characters wonderful, but (although I think I'm better suited to handle old fiction than most readers today) I found the Victorian conventions aggravating. Also, like any pioneering work in a genre, the author isn't entirely sure how to handle his material, and does things which later writers, working in an established tradition, would never waste time on.
The Woman in White centers on two women who physically resemble each other, leading to tragic consequences. The first is Anne Catherick, who, when the hero, artist Walter Hartright, first encounters her, has recently escaped from an insane asylum. Hartright, unaware of this, chivalrously helps her find her way in London. The second woman is Laura Fairlie, a prospective heiress for whom Walter is soon hired to be drawing tutor. He falls in love with her without delay. But Laura is betrothed to a man of “her own class,” who eventually turns out to be an utter scoundrel. And so the foundation is laid for a diabolical plot to deprive her of her fortune and (perhaps) her life.
There's much to praise in The Woman in White. The characters, especially, are (for the most part) fully rounded and vivid. Wilkie Collins was a friend of Charles Dickens, and the characters in this book could be dropped, without any dissonance, into the best of Dickens's works.
And that's part of the problem. The Woman in White is slow. This is an epistolary novel (presented as a transcription of diaries, letters, and affadavits from various characters), and each of these characters is given time to do his star turn on center stage, like performers at a recital. I love characterization, and rarely talk this way, but I didn't want to know all these characters this well. Get on with the story, I kept saying. Scores of pages could have been ripped out completely without any loss to the narrative.
One of the most memorable characters in the book is the sinister Count Fosco, friend and co-conspirator of Laura's husband. Anyone who's read the book will retain a vivid image of that remarkable figure. And yet he's actually the most artificial character in the book. It would be unjust to call him melodramatic, but he's certainly operatic, the perfect embodiment of all the 19th Century Englishman's prejudices about Italians—charming, devious, amoral, and self-dramatizing.
Another weakness—to the modern reader, even to a sexist like me—is that any sensible person would have seen from the beginning that Walter Hartright's best choice of a mate would have been, not Laura (whose only virtues seem to be beauty and a sweet nature), but her half-sister and companion, Marian Halcombe. Marian is smart and courageous, and her poverty and lack of a title would have made her an ideal partner for a poor drawing-master. But we're told she's “ugly,” and so is made unsuitable to be the heroine of a book. And, of course, if Walter had been sensible in that way, there'd be no story.
The Woman in White offers many rewards, if you don't mind spending a lot of time with a book.