The Woman in White (reread)

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!

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22 Responses to The Woman in White (reread)

  1. It has only been a year since I first read this one but I definitely think I need to re-read it!

  2. Steph says:

    If you can believe it, I haven’t read any Wilkie Collins! I actually did start this one a while back, but my dread of long novels got the better of me and I set it aside. Now that I have an ereader, however, I’ve been tackling increasingly longer books and have been happy that I have such easy access to Classics in the public domain! I feel like as Halloween draws near, the time is getting all the more ripe for me to try Collins again. He must be good if he stands up to a re-read and you love the book as much as you did before! Great review – you’ve gotten me all excited!

    • Teresa says:

      I think this is a great place to start with Collins, but others would recommend The Moonstone. The characters and construction of this one just impressed me a lot more.

  3. Care says:

    I probably shouldn’t have read this review – I’m just in about 80 pages over the last 2 weeks and am finding myself NOT picking it up once I put it down. I get so intimidated by the time commitment and page count even though I’m enjoying it. I need to get over my prejudice against chunksters. Maybe I should buy it for my ereader so I won’t see all the pages…. Now that’s a thought.
    I’m glad you enjoyed it, again.

    • Teresa says:

      I know a lot of folks have issues with chunksters, but I’ve always loved a long book! Steph did seem to find the e-reader a good solution, and I’ve heard of others reading and enjoying this one through Dailylit.

  4. JoAnn says:

    I loved both The Moonstone and The Woman in White! Will be reading more Collins soon…. I’m thinking No Name or Armadale.

  5. Stefanie says:

    I read this for the first time a year ago this month and loved it. It was my first Wilkie too. Count Fosco has got to be one of the best villians ever.

  6. Emily says:

    I love this novel too, especially Marian and Count Fosco! They both really surpassed my expectations. And the artifact-heavy construction in which no one character knows as much information as the reader. And I agree about the count/countess relationship – very creepy.

    • Teresa says:

      It’s beautifully constructed, isn’t it? And I think Collins writes great women–Marian and Lydia Gwilt from Armadale being top examples at opposite ends of the spectrum.

  7. I just read this for the first time this month. I really enjoyed it.

    Marian would put any woman to shame but I still couldn’t warm to Laura.

  8. chasing bawa says:

    I’m just like you! I read this years ago and only remember the points you mentioned and also that I loved it too. I also loved The Moonstone which I also only vaguely recall except that there were some mysterious Indians in it looking for a moonstone. So much for memory. I really must re-visit them but I also want to read his other books such as No Name and Armadale. Good thing like chunksters.

    • Teresa says:

      Ha! That’s about all I remember of The Moonstone—except I think there was a pair of pretty/plain sisters in that, too? And Armadale is well worth reading. Almost as good as this one, and with an even better villain.

  9. J.G. says:

    This is a wonderful book. Beyond all the technical plusses, I especially like the way the names of the characters match their characteristics. Isn’t “Glyde” the best name for a villain ever?

  10. Rebecca Reid says:

    I too loved this book. I plan on rereading it in 2011!

  11. Kristen M. says:

    I’m glad that this one holds up well to a re-read. I’m thinking of spending most of next year with my home library, both TBR and re-reads and I hope that I get to at least a couple of Collins novels again!

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