Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Woman in White -- Wilkie Collins

Recently, a friend of my husband with impeccable taste in literature told me that he couldn't believe I hadn't read The Woman in White yet, since he had recommended it to me almost a year earlier. Though I usually relish the first weeks of summer as a time to read complete fluff, I decided finally to try my luck with this 600+ page beast -- and found, to my delight, that this book was exactly what I was looking for (just a lot longer, better written, and set in Victorian England).

Wilkie Collins, the author of The Woman in White, was famous during the 19th century as a writer of what was called "the sensation novel," a mystery subgenre that includes all of the elements of Gothic fiction save the supernatural elements: suspense, intrigue, murder and other crimes, damsels in distress, mistaken identities, deadly secrets, locked doors in creepy mansions. His novel The Moonstone is considered to be the first English "detective novel," another subgenre of mystery. Collins was a great fan, and devotee, of Charles Dickens, and it is interesting to note that his novels were also serialized (in fact, serialized publication of The Woman in White began in the same periodical as A Tale of Two Cities on the very day Dickens' beloved work finished its run) and therefore subject to the same influences of the demands of a mass audience: the story must be tantalizing and fast-paced enough to satisfy readers, but must be drawn out enough with cliff-hangers and dangerous obstacles for the main characters to induce those readers to buy more copies of the paper for future installments.

The Woman in White focuses on 6 key characters and their intertwined fates. In order of appearance, these 6 characters are as follows: Walter Hartright, an optimistic and determined young artist; Anne Catherick, a mysterious woman with a troubled past; the clever and strong-willed Marian Halcombe; Marian's beautiful and fragile half-sister, Laura Fairlie; Laura's betrothed, the frightening Sir Percival Glyde; and Count Fosco, Sir Percival's corpulent and cunning Italian friend. Walter is on his way to take a post as Marian and Laura's art teacher when, on a lonely road in the dead of night, he encounters the ghostly visage of a woman dressed only in white, begging him for assistance. When Walter arrives at the Fairlie residence, he and Marian begin to unravel the mystery behind this spooky encounter, only to discover two things: that the desperate young woman seems to be connected to Marian and Laura's family, and that the mystery goes far deeper than they ever expected.

At this point in the story, another Victorian novel genre leaps to mind: the governess novel. Though Walter is a male, his connections to Jane Eyre and other governesses are otherwise undeniable. He is an outsider, thrust into an upper-class family and, though he forms close relationships with them, is not considered "one of them"; he falls in love with a member of the family and is reprimanded for attempting to transcend his role as "servant"; he discovers that the family has a dark secret that he must get to the bottom of -- whatever the cost may be. However, a significant difference is present. Whereas Jane is able to "marry up" and (attempt to) form a union with Mr. Rochester, Walter cannot even mention his sentiments of devotion and must leave the house in disgrace. Therefore, it is the union in the former, and the lack of union in the latter, that sets in motion the dramatic events that take place in each respective book.

Yet another important aspect of the novel comes to light as Walter Hartright leaves the Fairlie residence. Collins acknowledges this aspect's importance in his own introduction to the novel: "An experiment is attempted in this novel, which has not (so far as I know) been hitherto tried in fiction. The story of the book is told throughout by the characters of the book. They are all placed in different positions along the chain of events; and they all take the chain up in turn, and carry it on to the end" ("Preface," page 5, Barnes and Noble Books 2005 edition). Collins goes on to explain that this "experiment" of letting multiple characters narrate his tale is not merely a novelty but an essential part of the progression of his plot. It gives the story a ring of truth; by carefully choosing characters to provide certain information and then switching to a new voice to provide others, the reader never has the frustrating thought of "How in the world would that person have known such a thing?" that accompanies so many other mysteries. Additionally, Collins skillfully uses these changes in narrator to deepen his characterizations. Therefore, we hear the earnest undertones of Walter's eager voice and are better able to understand his drive to vindicate the love of his life while also laughing at the self-absorption of Laura's uncle, Mr. Fairlie (who forces a servant to write his narrative for him!) and gasping at the audacity of the calculating prose provided by Count Fosco. Mary Shelley, writing a few decades earlier, tried a similar technique in Frankenstein, but within the structure of a frame narrative and providing only three speakers, so Collins may be right in claiming to be the first to attempt this style. Regardless, the format works well for his purpose.

Undoubtedly, many potential readers have turned away from The Woman in White for fear of its length. Victorian novelists are famous for being long-winded (in part because of the somewhat-unfair assertion that they were all paid by the word for their serialized books), and many who are used to the snappy, terse prose of post-Hemingway writers cower in terror at the thought of the labyrinthine, tortuous sentences of the likes of Henry James. However, The Woman in White needs all 600 of its pages not for drawn-out prose, but for the development of the plot line. It is so complex, with so many twists and turns, that there is not a moment of repose for the characters or the reader. I thought that I knew exactly what the dreadful secret at the heart of the novel would be, and I was completely wrong -- and the truth to the secret turned out to be much more interesting, and Victorian era appropriate, than I had guessed. Just when you think that you know what will happen next, Collins introduces something crazier than before, but the ridiculousness of the plot is tempered by the sheer delight of reading lines like these: "She turned towards me immediately. The easy elegance of every movement of her limbs and body as soon as she began to advance from the far end of the room, set me in a flutter of expectation to see her face clearly. She left the window--and I said to myself, The lady is dark. She moved forward a few steps--and I said to myself, The lady is young. She approached nearer--and I said to myself (with a sense of surprise which words fail me to express), The lady is ugly!" (34-35). Again, Collins takes full advantage of his rotation of narrators to pause and immerse himself in the inner workings of honest young Walter's mind, and he does the same in the following passage that illuminates the evil plotting of devilish Count Fosco: "'Human ingenuity, my friend, has hitherto only discovered two ways in which a man can manage a woman. One way is to knock her down--a method largely adopted by the brutal lower orders of the people, but utterly abhorrent to the refined and educated classes above them. The other way (much longer, much more difficult, but, in the end, not less certain) is never to accept a provocation at a woman's hands. It holds with animals, it holds with children, and it holds with women, who are nothing but children grown up'" (317). Collins' prose draws us in to the story and gets us emotionally involved -- laughing, exclaiming, biting our nails in anticipation -- so that we scarcely notice how many pages have flown by as we hurried to learn more of the mystery.

The Woman in White is not, perhaps, a great psychological study or a mature discussion of an important universal idea. It is, however, a thriller -- and a delicious one. No reader, fully informed as to the setting and intent of Collins' sensational masterpiece, can assert that it fails to live up to its aims.

Final Verdict: ***1/2

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