It’s a Mystery to Me:
The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins
Reviewed by Marilyn Green Faulkner
Mystery novels and detective stories are so much a part of our literary landscape that it is hard to imagine a world without them. The beginning of this genre can be traced to a wonderful author named Wilkie Collins. William Wilkie Collins was born on 8 January 1824 and died on 23 September 1889. In those 65 years he wrote 25 novels, more than 50 short stories, at least 15 plays, and more than 100 non-fiction pieces. His work fit into the genre known at that time as “Sensation Fiction,” but was actually the beginning of the Mystery and Detective fiction so popular today. Collins’s best-known works today are The Woman in White and The Moonstone, but he wrote many other novels and short stories, as well as plays for the stage. T.S. Eliot described The Moonstone as “the first, the longest, and the best of the modern English detective novel.” The Woman in White was a literary sensation in its day, and still has few equals among novels of suspense.
A close friend of Charles Dickens from their meeting in March 1851 until Dickens’ death in 1870, Collins was one of the best known, best loved, and, for a time, best paid of Victorian fiction writers. The Woman in White was first published in serial form in Dickens’s publication, All the Year Round, in 1859-1860. It followed Dickens’s publication of The Tale of Two Cities, an immensely popular novel, and outsold it issue after issue. The eerie tale of a young man pulled into a family scandal by a mysterious woman in white caught the imagination of the public and made Collins a famous man. William Thackeray sat up all night to read it, and it was praised by such public figures as Gladstone and Henry James. Plagued by illness (brought on by a rather depraved lifestyle) and dictating much of the manuscript from his sickbed, Collins followed a few years later with The Moonstone, also published in serial form, which was an even greater success.
Anne Perry (mystery author extraordinaire and Meridian columnist) says in the introduction to The Woman in White: “this classic mystery thriller features two of the most memorable creations in Victorian fiction: Count Fosco, the mesmerizing, corpulent Napoleonic villain, and Marian Halcombe, the resourceful heroine who is his rival for power and knowledge.” (Penguin Classics Edition, p. vi) Ms. Perry rightly points to these two endlessly interesting characters as the reason for the enduring success of this classic. Count Fosco is a delicious villain: massive in body, intellect and ego, he relentlessly pursues Marian’s sister as the means to financial security. He has a sensitive side; however, that makes him fascinating. He loves animals, revels in nature’s beauty, and develops such a fondness for his rival Marian that he cannot bring himself to harm her when he should. We are both attracted and repulsed by the Fabulous Fosco.
More Than a Pretty Face
A recurring motif in literature is the plain face that hides a beautiful soul. From Cyrano de Bergerac to its modern film versions, Roxanne and The Truth About Cats and Dogs, the sensitive, brilliant, homely person is a favorite with authors. Marian Halcombe, our heroine, is a perfect example of this type. She has everything one looks for in a woman (even an attractive figure) except a pretty face. Her half-sister Laura, whom she adores, seems to have little more than that. So of course, our hero, Walter Hartright (what a name, like Dudley DoRight!) falls for the pretty face, but relies completely on the sensible, courageous Marian to make sense of their lives. The two sisters come as a package, and one has the definite impression that Walter and Laura could not be a couple without Marian to facilitate matters. On the occasion of his proposal to Laura (which is actually done by Marian) Marian sums up their friendship in a poignant tone: “You and I are together again; and the one subject of interest between us is Laura once more.” (573) There is a certain element of sadness in the great love that Marian has for both her sister Laura and her friend (and eventual brother-in-law) Walter. It is a selfless love, yet one wonders if she sees how much better suited she herself is for the bright, resourceful young man. She is destined to be the spinster aunt, observing, rather than enjoying, a fulfilling relationship.
Well, if I am speculating about the innermost thoughts of imaginary characters, this is proof that Collins has done his job well. The Woman in White is peopled with a host of fascinating figures who are all the more real because they each take a turn at telling the story. Collins had been visiting a famous trial and got the idea to have the different characters in the novel take turns narrating, as if they were witnesses on the stand. In this way the information builds in the same way as evidence accumulates at a trial: each witness adds his or her testimony in a unique voice, which leads the reader toward certain conclusions. However, as in criminal proceedings, certain evidence may be suppressed or given in a misleading fashion, and the reader must sort out the clues as they come, taking into account their various sources.
It’s All in Your Point of View
Thus, in The Woman in White, we see the case one way through Walter’s eyes, another way through Marian’s, and yet another through the eyes of the villain, Count Fosco. A host of other characters lend their voices. One of my favorites is Laura’s invalid uncle, Frederick Fairlie. He makes my skin crawl! Collins writes like a dramatist: his dialogue is always fresh and believable, and he often uses it to advance the action of the story. He has a tremendous talent for description as well. Notice how this description of the woman in white, when Hartright first encounters her, contrasts the brightness of his current road with a darkness gathering over the road ahead, foreshadows her death by employing a play on the word “grave,” and gives us a general sense of calamity springing up, or descending, out of nowhere:
“There, in the middle of the broad, bright high-road – there, as if it had that moment sprung out of the earth or dropped from the heaven – stood the figure of a solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in white garments; her face bent in grave inquiry on mine, her hand pointing to the dark cloud over London, as I faced her.”(18)
After Collins’s death, his reputation declined as Dickens’s bloomed. Now, however, he is being given more critical and popular attention than he has for fifty years. Almost all his books are in print, he is studied widely, and new film and television versions of some of his books have been made. I had trouble choosing between The Woman in White and The Moonstone as a recommendation. The Woman in White will remind you a little of Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier. It has the same eerie, sinister building of the plot. The Moonstone is more like an Agatha Christie novel, only longer and with more elaborate characterization. I thoroughly enjoyed them both, and hope you will too.
The Woman in White is the May selection for the Best Books Club, an informal gathering of readers that discuss the classics via the Internet. Our selection for June is a little-known gem titled My Brilliant Career, by Miles Franklin. Send your comments about these or any other books you enjoy to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Readers Comment on Best Books Club Selections
The Woman in White
I have just completed the “Woman in White”. I enjoyed it from page one through all 600-plus pages. It is a very good read. The author accomplished telling a beautiful love story and a mystery with out any bedroom scenes that I find disgusting. This is also a story told using good language and no swear words which I find offensive. Thanks to who ever suggested this book.
I read your article on Meridian; “Atlas Shrugged vs. Cold Sassy Tree”. It caught my attention because I enjoy reading Ayn Rand. I found Atlas Shrugged more thought provoking than The Fountainhead, but enjoyed both. I found through Atlas Shrugged I was able to see the truth and error of compulsive behavior illustrated. Galt speaks of “self preservation” and explains how we do this. He gives an example of charity to a beggar and claims in most instances we give to satisfy our own need to feel generous therefore acting on self-interest. Is this not why we live the life we do as members of the church? Our goal is to obtain celestial glory with our families. Is this not a form of “self-preservation”? In Mosiah 2 King Benjamin explains our indebtedness to God. Whenever we follow His counsel we are blessed above and beyond what we deserve, thus increasing our “debt”. . I strongly disagree with the “Godlessness” of Rand, a passionate self proclaimed atheist. I disapprove of Rand’s morality expressed in Atlas Shrugged as well as in The Fountainhead, Anthem and other writings. With the philosophy of Rand I find it interesting that she did not come to the same point as say C.S. Lewis, another self proclaimed atheist, who in his philosophy, trying to disprove Christianity became converted.
Thank you for the article. I plan to explore your web sight and find thought provoking enrichment within.
I wanted to share a good book I recently read. Out of America by Keith Richburg is an account of a black American journalist’s experiences and observations while on assignment in Africa. Although a gruesome account, it is a very interesting book to read about the history of Africa and its people. Their political struggles, tribalism, war-lords and economic woes are described in depth while the various states in Africa are compared on these and other accounts. Keith Richburg’s view as a black man in Africa is stunning. A good read and an educational one as well.
Book Club Members: I’m currently taking suggestions for our July – December reading list. Here are a few I have received – what would you like to read together?
Thanks for the e-mail. I love Taylor Caldwell. Another good book of hers was about Paul called Great Lion of God. Mrs. Mike by Benedict and Nancy Freedman is a great book. Also, A Lantern in Her Hand by Bess S. Aldrich. Although it was long, I did love The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. It had great cultural messages and a wonderful depiction of religious hypocrisy. Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns was a book that taught me a lot about true communication with our Heavenly Father. All of Jan Karon’s books–The Mitford Series were refreshing. Even though they are about a pastor from a different religion, Father Tim, I found them spiritually enlightening and uplifting. Letters for Emily, by Cameron Wright is a poignant novel about Alzheimer’s and the bond between grandparents and grandchildren.
Christy by Catherine Marshall
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton Porter
All Creatures Great and Small, Etc by James Herriot
Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
Many of my favorite books you have already featured. I really enjoyed Delta Wedding although it took me a while to get into the slow pace of the novel.
Thanks for your suggestions of good books.
How about some C. S. Lewis? Maybe the Screwtape Letters? I LOVED Till We Have Faces–that would be a delightful choice.
What about Corrie Ten Boom’s The Hiding Place? Or. . . Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, Hawthorne’s House of Seven Gables (I LOVE that one–I would have named my 3rd son Phoebe if he had been a girl!)
Anything by Dickens or Shakespeare is a treat (except “Romeo and Juliet”–yech). 🙂
I don’t know if you ever want to use young adult fiction, but I have thoroughly enjoyed Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, and a lot of the Newberry medal winners, also Ella Enchanted.
2004 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.