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Saturday, March 14, 2020

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins


I found The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins to be a lively and fun read. First published in 1859, this book is often credited with helping to develop both the mystery and thriller genres of literature. The novel is fairly long and the plot takes a lot of twists and turns. It is told by alternate narrators, sometimes in the form of diaries. It is also full of colorful and engaging characters. 

The story opens with Walter Hartright narrating. Hartright is a young artist who is just making his way in the world. One evening, when walking home from his mother’s house, the young man has an enigmatic encounter with a mysterious woman all dressed in white. It turns out that this is Anne Catherick, a young woman who has recently escaped from a mental institution. 

Later, when Hartright goes to live with his new employer, the hypochondriac, vain and weak Frederick Fairlie, we are also introduced to Laura Fairlie and her half - sister Marian Halcombe. Laura is engaged to be married to Sir Percival Glyde. The marriage is more or less an arranged one that Laura looks upon with trepidation. Though Laura and Walter fall in love, both realize that social considerations must keep them apart. Despite her misgivings the young woman goes ahead with the marriage to Glyde. In an effort to forget about her, Walter goes off on an archaeological adventure in Honduras.

After the nuptials, Glide shows himself to be cold schemer who just wants to at Laura’s considerable fortune which still has some legal protections placed upon it despite the marriage. We are also introduced to Glyde’s friend, Count Fosco who is a charismatic and smart villain who assists Glyde in his nefarious plans. It turns out that Marian is strong, competent and intelligent while Laura is relatively weak. It is Marian who engages in a battle of wits with Glyde and Fosco as she attempts to thwart their machinations. Anne Catherick, who is connected to Glyde and was wronged by him, also becomes involved. Eventually Glyde and the Count manage to have Laura committed to a mental institution as they steal her money. However, the ever - resourceful Marian breaks her out of the institution. When Walter returns to England, his adventures have left him mentally stronger and more confident and our hero and heroines join forces as they continue fight Glyde and Fosco in an attempt to restore justice. There is a lot of plot here and the story also involves revelations of old secrets, conspiracies and secret societies. Things are not always realistic as there are a fair number of implausible coincidences and plot holes. 

As mentioned above,  book has been called a precursor to the typical mystery story as much of the plot involves Marian and Walter’s attempts to discover secrets of Glyde’s past. There were also a lot of elements here that seemed to influence modern thrillers. Though not realistic, I thought that his novel was very entertaining. The plot was fun and suspenseful and held my interest through every page. The characters, though generally not too complex, were lively and fun to read about. Marian is vivacious and smart. Hartright’s toughening up, is well portrayed and interesting. My favorite character was Count Fosco. He is portrayed as overweight, egotistical and incredibly magnetic. He is sure of his own abilities but lavishes praise upon Marian’s skill and intelligence. Even though she opposes him, he becomes smitten with her. A short part of the story is narrated by him and told from his point of view. At one point during their battle he writes about her,

The tact which I find here, the discretion, the rare courage, the wonderful power of memory, the accurate observation of character, the easy grace of style, the charming outbursts of womanly feeling, have all inexpressibly increased my admiration of this sublime creature, of this magnificent Marian… I lament afresh the cruel necessity which sets our interests at variance, and opposes us to each other. Under happier circumstances how worthy I should have been of Miss Halcombe— how worthy Miss Halcombe would have been of ME…

The above quotation is characteristic of the Count. He almost never is rude to his adversaries even as he is attempting to destroy them. He is a very charming villain. 

The prose here is also well crafted and adds to the entertainment factor. Collins manages to believably portray the various voices of the different characters as part of their segments. They are very well differentiated and they are interesting and amusing. Collins is skilled in creating distinctive voices for his characters. There are some underlying themes here involving identity as well as the unfair way that women are treated in marriage, but the strength of this book lies in its entertaining and energetic characters and plot. 

This was my first Collins novel. I liked it a lot. It was a very enjoyable read. Though not terribly deep, this book worked very well within the bounds that Collins set for it. I will likely give more of his books of his a try.

48 comments:

Debra She Who Seeks said...

I always meant to read "The Woman in White" and "The Moonstone" but never did, of course. Kudos to you for diving into Wilkie Collins!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Debra - If you are hesitating to read it, I found it easy and a fun read.

JacquiWine said...

I recall reading this in my youth, but that was such a long time ago and most of the details escape me now. Thank you for a interesting reminder of this classic. I agree, it's a very enjoyable read - at least that's my recollection of how I felt about it back in the day!

mudpuddle said...

i read this quite a while back, also... and liked it a lot. i've read other books by Collins since then, but none of them, i have opined, have equaled W in W... i'll never forget Count Fosco and the canaries, tho: a sublime touch indicating his true malevolence...

Judy Krueger said...

Once again, Brian, you have read a book I have always meant to read. In fact, I have tried this one twice but was not able to penetrate it to the point of enjoyment. I think I just was not ready. It has taken me many years to move from mostly reading trashy fiction into more challenging territory. Learning how to read is apparently done by reading far and wide in a number of genres and periods. As I am in a long book phase this year, perhaps your excellent review will steer me once again in Wilkie Collins's direction!

Sue Bursztynski said...

Yes, I have heard that this one, and The Moonstone, are both early examples of mystery fiction, and you can get them free on Project Gutenberg.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jacqui -It seems like a lot of people read this when they were young.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Muddpuddle - Count Fosco was an such an incredibly character. I have heard that this was the best Collins book.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Judy - What is interesting is that this book was considered a little trashy for its time. I thought that this was a fun so maybe you would like it now.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sue - Project Gutenberg is great. I actually got this book from them.

RT said...

Moonstone is my favorite ....WiW’s pace slowed me down ... but, hey, great review and posting ...can’t seem to get Gutenberg to download to my iPad kindle app ... wonder what I’m doing wrong ...
Best wishes from virus free hacienda on the coast ...so far ...
https://beyondeastrodblog.blogspot.com/

Brian Joseph said...

Hi RT - I find that Project Gutenberg and the Kindle program can be a pain. I have to load it on by desktop computer. Then I email the file to a special email address assigned to the Kindle. You can find the address by signing into your Amazon account and going to “manage my Kindle”.

I must give Moomstone a try.

The Liberty Belle said...

I just finished reading Mrs. Badgery by Wilkie Collins. My enjoyment of that work, along with your good review, lead me to want to read The Woman in White.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

James said...

I enjoyed Collins use of multiple narrators and his fascinating characters. Your review captures the essence of his novel, reminding me why I liked it.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Bells - It is really interesting that you just also finished a Collins book. I must give Mrs. Badgery a try

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - The multiplie narrators was so well done here.

Ron Pavellas said...

Thanks for continuing your well-written reviews. This one struck a chord in me, in that I have been writing, on and off ("in and out of the drawer"), a novel that seems to want multiple POVs, diaries, and interviews. I'll buy the book and see if I can be inspired, or at least reassured that my approach has the possibility of growing legs.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Ron - This kind of book is so interesting. Though many of the conventions here are older, the multiple povs were so well done. Hopefully the book will be both entertaining and useful to you.

Judith said...

What a wonderful review of this book, Brian. I'm so glad you enjoyed it. And isn't that a key point these days? I loved it and got swallowed up by the story as well, and the memories of reading it will stick with me a long while.

Dorothy Borders said...

I read The Woman in White three years ago. (Here's a link to my review if you are interested: https://birdwoman-thenatureofthings.blogspot.com/2017/01/the-woman-in-white-by-wilkie-collins.html) I very much agree with your review. It is a great read.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Judith - It is a story that keeps one engaged.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Dorothy - It really is a likable book.

Paula Vince said...

It sure is a fun read. Count Fosco's charisma makes him one of my favourite memorable villains :) His showdown with Walter had some real Harry/Voldemort vibes, haha. And we keep turning pages to find out what Sir Percival's secret (with a capital S) is. It's my second favourite after The Moonstone, and I think they are both said to be Collins' most beloved works.

Kathy's Corner said...

Hi Brian, I did see the film version of The Woman in White. Eleanor Parker gave such a memorable performance as Ann Cartherick, very haunting and mysterious, particularly when we first encounter her at the beginning of the story. Wilkie Collins is a writer I would like to try and best to go with his most celebrated works, The Woman in White or Moonstone.

Brian Joseph said...


Hi Paula - The final confrontation in Harry Potter did have parallels to the one in this book. The secret was a big one. I must give the moonstone a try.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Kathy - I really must check out the movie. Ann Cathrick was a great character. I think that a lot could be done with her in a film.

Susan Kane said...

After reading your review I feel like I have read the book. Good review.

CyberKitten said...

Definitely one on my 'To Read' list. I think I tried it as a teenager but it didn't stick. Time to try it again I think!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks so much Susan.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi CyberKitten - There are a lot like of books that I really did not get when young. I think that you would like this.

Felicity Grace Terry said...

A book I remember us reading at school though I'm not sure I ever got to finish it.

Its funny your commenting on the count being a 'charming villain' as the one thing about the book that really sticks in my mind is him being something of a pantomime villain. Hmm! I wonder if I were to view him in the same light if I were to read the book now.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Felicity - It seems that a lot of folks read this when young. Perhaps it is Glide that you remember as a stereotypical villain as he fits the stereotype.

Sharon Wilfong said...

I thought I had read this, but reading your review, I don't think I have. I think a saw a movie called the woman in black, which I think was a ghost story but Collins.

This sounds like a good story. Have a good week. Stay safe and healthy.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - It was a fun book.

Be healthy and safe!

baili said...

wow i can feel how amusing you found it dear Brain :)

surely this one is bit different that your other recommendations regarding depth or weight of topic and sounds fairly intriguing and compelling through your review ,specially your likening for villain is understandable after reading the passage :)
either i enjoy such characters who are witty and skillful , despite of all their negativity they cause to other characters i adore their intellectual approach and attentive mind

i truly enjoyed the passage from book and i found the writer powerful in his expressions
i think i would love to give it a try
hope your part of land and people are safe and you and your family are having fine times though this virus thing has rolled down the wold here too
stay safe and take care friend!

thecuecard said...

I have not read this one ... but I'm curious about Anne Catherick's role / is she indeed unstable ? and does she play a greater role as the book goes on? I can see her all in white escaping the institution. The cover is quite emblematic.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sue - It turns out that Catherick is a bit unstable but not really insane. She does play some roll as the story progresses.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Baili - Sometimes I think that innovative entertainment can be great in and of itself.

That is a great quotation, it really gets into the wonderful way that Collins crafted characters.

Stay safe and healthy!

the bookworm said...

This does sound good Brian and it is a classic that I have wanted to read. Great commentary as always.
Hope you are doing well.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Naida. I think that you would like this.

JaneGS said...

Woman in White is such a great book—glad you enjoyed it. I think Marian is one of the best characters in Victorian fiction, and the Count one of the best villains. His suave, patronizing manner is absolutely chilling, plus he is utterly ruthless. Great review..

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Jane. For a thriller writer. Collins created such compelling characters!

Whispering Gums said...

Sorry, Brian I was away when you posted this, and saw it come through but didn't have time then to respond. This is a book I have wanted to read for a long time - since my childhood when it was one of the books on my mother's shelves. The one thing that has always seen it put behind other classics is that it is a mystery novel which is not my favourite genre/style. However, you have helped keep it on the TBR! One of the reasons I am keen to read it because of Wilkie Collins relationship with Charles Dickens.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi WG - There is never a rush to comment.

I thought that the mystery aspect of the books was innovative but it was really not that significant in terms of the plot.

On the other hand, this was not the deep character study or deep dive into social issues that other books of the era was so I see why it might bd low on someone’s list.

I understand that Collins and Dickens were great friends.

Himawan Sant said...

Wow, this interesting book has been produced for a long time in 1859 ..., reading your review the story line is indeed very good to follow, also gripping.

A killer but charming figure ... reminds us that not always a person's physical appearance is not always the same as his personality.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks for stopping by Himawan.

Charming villains can be so interesting. They do often reflect reality.

HKatz said...

Ok, I've been watching too much Star Trek this past year (is there such a thing as too much Star Trek?) because the description of the Count - except for the overweight part - reminds me of Gul Dukat.

Great review, and I plan to read this at some point. In recent weeks, I've found that I don't have as much concentration for longer novels but have read some shorter ones. Have you ever read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie? I think you'll appreciate it, especially because it deals in part with religion, politics, and morality.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Hila - I am very familiar with the character of Gul Dukat. When I think about it I guess that there are some similarities!

I have not read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. It is on my list and I think that I would like it.