I first read Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White one summer when I was in college. I loved it, absolutely loved it. But as is so often my habit, I forgot almost everything about it within a year or two of reading it. I could remember a few characters’ names (Marian Holcomb, Count Fosco) and a bit about them, and I could remember that the plot hinged on some long-kept secrets and a mysterious woman and an insane asylum. Mostly, I just remembered that I looooved it. But as much as I loved it, it took me about 18 years to read it a second time. It is every bit as good as I remembered.
As the novel opens, we learn that this book is actually a collection of documents meant to provide posterity with a record of some grievous wrong. The first narrator, Walter Hartwright, is a drawing teacher who gets a job teaching two adult half sisters, the beautiful Laura Fairlie and the intelligent (but “ugly”) Marian Holcombe. Before heading to his new position, Walter meets a woman dressed all in white wandering alone on the road to London. He helps her find her way, not knowing that her life is intertwined with that of his new employers.
Once he’s settled into his new job, it doesn’t take long for Walter to fall in love with Laura Fairlie. Laura returns his affection, but she’s engaged to another man, Sir Percival Glyde. There’s something fishy about the match, though. The mysterious woman in white shows up in the Fairlies’ neighborhood to warn Laura not to go through with her marriage. She and Marian cannot find any evidence against Sir Percival, and the marriage happens.
Bereft, Walter leaves for South America, and Laura and Marian move in with Sir Percival—and Marian’s journal becomes the primary narrative source. Through Marian, we meet Sir Percival’s friend, Count Fosco, who is married to Laura’s aunt. The couple is currently staying at the Glyde home. The count is all charm, but Laura takes an instant dislike to him, which Marian cannot quite understand. This being a Wilkie Collins novel, it’s obvious that someone in this picture is up to no good. Before long, the two woman find themselves embroiled in a plot that puts both of them in grave danger.
One of the most impressive thing about the novel is how perfectly constructed it is. The principal characters, while in the midst of the story, know very little about what is going on. They cannot even be sure that their suspicions are well grounded because for much of the book, none of the villains make any obviously villainous actions. Everything can be explained away. But as readers we know that there was some reason for Hartwright to write his account and to collect the testimonies of lawyers, housekeepers, and others, which, along with Marian’s journal, make up much of the novel. Something terrible must have happened, but what?
I also loved the characters. Marian is one of the great Victorian heroines. She’s intelligent and resourceful and loyal and good. I even liked Laura more than I expected. I’ve heard some complain that she’s too dim and passive, but it didn’t find her so until the last half of the book. I think she mostly suffers in contrast to Marian! My main complaint about the characterization of women has to do with unnecessary dichotomy of the pretty Laura and not-so-pretty (but smart) Marian. The uglifying of intelligence is just annoying. However, there are some lines about Marian late in the book that show she has the power to bewitch a man, so perhaps it is only Walter who sees Marian as ugly (the very word he uses to describe her when he first sees her face).
One relationship that I completely forgot since my first read but that fascinated me on this reading was the marriage of Count and Countess Fosco. The countess, before her marriage, was a free-spirited, independent woman, but the woman Marian describes in her journal will not make a move without her husband’s blessing. It’s a complete reversal, and one wonders what brought about that change. The count himself shares his views on the matter late in the novel, but he’s not what I would call reliable. In some ways, that relationship is the most frightening one among all the twisted connections in the book.
I’m so glad I took the time to revisit this, the first Wilkie Collins novel I ever read. Now I’m kicking myself more than ever for waiting so long!