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.