The Woman in White -- Wilkie Collins

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

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

Eat, Pray, Love -- Elizabeth Gilbert

Thursday, June 5, 2008

I've been swept up in the hurricane surge that is memoirs. Since I first started paying attention to this genre with the A Million Little Pieces Oprah scandal, the market has been flooded with these books, for which the American public seems to have an unquenchable thirst. These biographies-lite appear to fall into two basic sub-groups, which I'll refer to as "Escape" and "Inspire." In an Escape Memoir, the author presents a life vastly different from the common experiences of his/her readership, which results in one of two general responses: "Wow, if only..." (see Three Cups of Tea) or "Thank God I'm not..." (see A Charmed Life). In an Inspire Memoir, the author depicts a life similar to the experiences of the ordinary reader that produces the following response: "Hey, I could go to/see/find/learn/enjoy..., too!" The current popularity of "a year in the life of..."-style books is a result of a preference for this latter category (and also speaks to the disturbingly rapid growth of reality TV) -- examples include Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible.

Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat Pray Love, perhaps the most popular memoir of them all (or at least of recently published works -- at the time I post this, it has spent 72 weeks in the top 150 bestseller list, according to USA Today), serves two masters; it is both an Escape as well as an Inspire Memoir, and this may be what has led to its great success. The book positions itself against an exotic backdrop: a year of travel (paid for by her publisher, no less!) to indulge in Italy, to ascribe to an ascetic existence at an ashram in India, and to find balance in Bali. But how Gilbert gets to this year abroad is far less drool-worthy. She first finds herself at the crux of an intense personal and spiritual crisis: a messy, gut-wrenching, and life-altering divorce.

And herein lies Gilbert's genius. She not only employs a double-whammy of today's most desirable literary vehicle, she also capitalizes on two hot topics in current American conversation: spirituality and reinvention of self. The former has been splashed all over the news lately with confusing headlines such as "More Describe Selves as Spiritual, Not Religious"; America loves anything billed as all-you-can-eat, and in more places than just the local Hunan Express or Taj Mahal Buffet. Gilbert, early on, aligns herself with this trend: "In the end, what I have come to believe about God is simple. It's like this -- I used to have this really great dog. She came from the pound. She was a mixture of about ten different breeds, but seemed to have inherited the finest features of them all. She was brown. When people asked me, 'What kind of dog is that?' I would always give the same answer: 'She's a brown dog.' Similarly, when the question is raised, 'What kind of God do you believe in?' my answer is easy: 'I believe in a magnificent God'" (14, Penguin Books 2006 paperback edition). That Anne Lamott, patron saint of the modern American spirituality movement, provides a glowing endorsement right on the front cover of Eat Pray Love gives Gilbert all the chutzpah she needs to jump feet first into such a dialogue.

The second of those hot topics, the reinvention of self, is easy enough to explain. With divorce rates skyrocketing and dire predictions of the necessity to change jobs at least 4 or 5 times in a lifetime, it's no wonder that many Americans find themselves, to echo a recent reality TV show, "starting over." Gilbert's foray into this territory makes her book approachable: by admitting to destroying her marriage, Gilbert shows herself to be fallible and vulnerable, just like all those turning the pages of her book, whether they like to acknowledge that or not. Ironically, Gilbert discovers that it is only through leaving the US -- the land of opportunity! -- that she will truly feel she has regained her identity and sense of place: "It was only later, after admitting this dream, that I noticed the happy coincidence that all these countries begin with the letter I. A fairly auspicious sign, it seemed, on a voyage of self-discovery" (30). And though her journey is the stuff that dreams are made of, as she herself allows, Gilbert here reaches out and connects with that basic human need in all of us to know who we are and where we belong.

To sum up, then, this Gilbert's recipe for success: with a dash of Escape thrown in to keep things interesting, her breezy, intimate writing voice and her little admissions of failure Inspire us to follow our own dreams of becoming personally and spiritually fulfilled while not making us frustrated that she is too perfect, too untouchable. The epigraph to the memoir, "Tell the truth, tell the truth, tell the truth," is Gilbert's promise to herself and to us -- a promise that makes the book work. When she confesses that, only a few weeks after promising herself she'd remain celibate for a year, she desperately wants her young Italian tutor to kiss her on the stoop of her apartment building, we laugh knowingly: we, too, want to transcend and yet find ourselves unable to, though we would probably never tell anyone, especially not on the first page of our book.

However, the "truth" that Gilbert tells never gets much deeper than this, and that is why Eat Pray Love doesn't amount to more than a fun, shallow beach-read. Because she is trying to offer an Escape as well as an Inspire memoir, neither one is done fully. What Gilbert goes through in this "journey of self-discovery" requires her to question every decision she's ever made -- a process that can only be painful, mortifying, and lonely. But we never really see any of this. When Gilbert mentions, briefly, that she felt suicidal, she does so by personifying her depression and brushing it aside the way one might a beggar on the street: "Depression and Loneliness track me down after about ten days in Italy...The come upon me all silent and menacing like Pinkerton Detectives, and they flank me, Depression on my left, Loneliness on my right. They don't need to show me their badges...Then they frisk me. They empty my pockets of any joy I had been carrying there. Depression even confiscates my identity, but he always does that. Then Loneliness starts interrogating me, which I dread because it always goes on for hours" (46-47). A few pages later, Depression and Loneliness have been forgotten in the midst of a search for great pasta. Later, at the ashram, Gilbert spends an evening alone on a rooftop, making peace with the demons of her divorce. After following the directions on a handwritten list from a "plumber/poet" such as "When the past has passed from you at last, let go. Then climb down and begin the rest of your life. With great joy" (184-5), Gilbert is suddenly freed from the pain of her lost relationship and is ready to move on. But we know this cannot really be how it happened; anyone who has gone through such a loss must hear a note of dissonance behind her words. This doesn't Inspire us to feel that we, too, can change our lives -- it makes us feel that Gilbert isn't telling the whole story; and what's the point of a memoir if not to reveal such things?

Eat Pray Love is a lovely concept (the book's organization into a japa mala is explained in the introduction and creates a symbolic map for her journey) and offers a surprisingly fairytale-like ending. But these three commandments are not enough; simply to eat, pray, and love, while beautiful, cannot be "all/ ye know on earth, and all ye need know."

Final Verdict: **1/2
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