Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins

Often times, I get inspired to read a book based on something else I’ve read.  That’s what happened with my latest read, The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins.  While reading The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, Kate Summerscale makes multiple references to how the case she covers in her study of Victorian crime influenced authors of the era, and Collins was one of those authors she discusses.  So, while reading Summerscale’s work, I pulled Collins’ book from my shelves with the intention of reading it right away; nine months later, I finally got around to it.

A word on the plot to start with: This story is told via multiple narratives, as if the people speaking were testifying to events in a court of law.  Walter Hartright, a drawing master, begins the tale and sets things in motion – while walking home one night, Walter meets with a young woman dressed entirely in white who has escaped from a private asylum.  She and Walter part ways, but when Walter arrives at his new position in Cumberland, he realizes that the woman in white looks remarkably similar to one of his new pupils, Laura Fairlie.  As the story progresses, Walter falls in love with Laura, but she’s engaged to another man and so they part ways.  As it turns out thought, Laura’s fiancé is not all he appears to be.  Unfortunately, I can’t say much more without spoiling things.

This book has a lot of the tropes that drive me bonkers about the novels of this era.  The major trope that bothers me is that the plot is dependant on coincidences to move forward; the woman in white just happens to be acquainted with the household that Walter is going to in Cumberland, the woman in white just happens to look remarkably like Laura, and Walter and Laura reconnect at just the right time.  Another common device that’s used by authors of this period is the idea that women can’t get wet without developing a life-threatening fever; if that were true, I’d be dead a million times over – apparently, Collins, the Brontë sisters, et al had very little faith in the fairer sex.  Finally, I have the feeling that Collins was another author (like Dickens) that got paid by his publisher by the word.  I read an unabridged version of the story, and it seemed never-ending – a judicious editor could cut this sucker down by a few hundred pages and still not loose the meat of the story.  I’d highly recommend that you find yourself an abridged version, or read the complete story if you’re looking to torture yourself.

What I will say in support of Collins is that he masterfully captured the voices of multiple narrators.  As mentioned above, the story is told by individuals involved as if they were testifying in a court of law.  Collins really made it seem as if there were multiple people writing the story – from a young lady of leisure, to a drawing master, to an Italian Count, to a country manor housekeeper, to a downstairs maid – all read as if separate individuals were involved in writing The Woman in White.  I found this a masterful piece of authorship that almost allowed me to overlook the other flaws in the book.

So, final verdict?  Menh.  I honestly can’t recommend this book as I read it.  The plot is interesting, but the extraneous content kills its flow more than once; the characters are well written, but there’s just too much filler to really enjoy reading their voices.  I would be interesting in hearing from someone who has read the abridged version to see if these problems were fixed, but I don’t think this is one worth reading in the complete format.  Instead, read The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher – there’s a Victorian mystery that I can highly recommend!

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