Review: The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

Facts. What are the simple facts of a story? How much background, story, context, and fact does one need when assessing a mystery?

Imagine for a minute that you are a jury or perhaps an investigator of a mystery, what facts would you want? What are important? What would influence your decision? That’s what happens in The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins…we get the facts of a case presented to us from various sources and we must assess the facts and piece the story together through intricate statements/narratives by the main characters.

When I first started The Woman in White, I had my doubts. I was worried that the format would be confusing and hard to get into….slow going with lots of background ‘fluff’ like Collins’s counterpart, Charles Dickens. I was surprised how easily everything flowed and how quickly the story started. The story is told in a unique format (an epistolary novel) meaning it is a told through a series of letters and/or journal entries, and in this case testimonies…much similar to another Victorian/Gothic classic Bram Stokers Dracula. While it is clearly a classic Victorian and gothic sensationalism novel it is also widely acclaimed as one of the first detective novels of the time.

The novel jumps right into the story without a whole lot of long eloquent Victorian wordiness, beginning with the primary narrator, drawing master Walter Hartright. Hartright meets a young woman dressed all in white late at night on a deserted road back to London. From there he finds out the woman has escaped from a nearby asylum in order to pass a message along to a mysterious baronet, though Hartright helps her to escape detection he expects never to see her again but somehow he cannot forget the ghostly figure. Eventually his life and the woman in white’s become entangled forever through two ‘sisters’, Laura Fairlie and Marian Halcombe.

Hartright is commissioned as a drawing instructor for the two sisters. After falling in love with Laura Fairlie, Hartright is informed that he is to marry a particular baronet by the name of Sir Percival Glyde who also has a perplexing history with the mysterious woman in white Hartright met that fateful night.

Through a series of sensational circumstances, Laura Fairlie and her spinster sister Marian endure a ‘fall from grace’ and the sinister Count Fosco and Sir Percival. A sophisticated mystery unravels with Hartright being the hero to bring this mystery to a close.

Like an attorney presenting the simple facts of the presented case, Hartright carefully removes all of the unnecessary formalities and trivial facts often present in traditional Victorian novels from his narrative…..though the more conventional characters maintain their recognizable ardent Victorian characteristics.

What I especially liked about the novel was that it left you hanging….because the novel original appears as a serialized installment series in the popular Victorian magazine All the Year Round , each chapter or section was meant to leave the reader wanting more. I could clearly tell where each installment ended and I loved that, I really got a sense for what the Victorian audience was interested in reading and how horrible it must have been to leave off at the best parts!

To me this book reminded me of a modern day True Blood almost LOL…it was like a complete soap opera!. It was a bit racy (considering the period)…it clearly had sex, drugs, and rock & roll qualities…..it was like watching Jerry Springer….who’s my baby daddy? Who’s the desperate housewife next door? Unrequited love, will the star crossed lovers end up together? Secret societies, ‘mafia-ish’ cults, murder, mystery.

Dark secrets are revealed and all set in the lives of the ‘rich and famous’ to make it that much more interesting….you know, all the juicy bits :). I know I hate when I have to wait for the next True Blood episode with it always ending at the BEST moment…that’s what this book is like (minus the vampires LOL). You really feel like you are making progress but in a weird detached, straight forward, fact seeking kind of way.

I really can’t say enough good things about this book, it was a typical Victorian novel but had the feel of a modern novel….timeless is about the only way I can put it. Collins’s has a great way of playing to the readers sense of ‘guilty pleasure’…he knows what the readers want and though it is ‘sensational’ it is not tacky, trashy, or meant to be move mountains….he engages the reader by appealing to their inner rubber necker, really who can pass a car crash without at least slowing down to look at what’s going on :). You start reading this book and it just keeps getting more and more sensational that you just HAVE to see what’s going to happen next.

My favorite character was by far Marian…I LOVED her. She really was more of a modern woman than a Victorian stereotype, I loved that Collins made Hartright the ‘hero’ of the tale, but allowed Marian to be the true savior and a strong heroine herself when so many Victorian writers down played female influence.

The only thing I didn’t like was that at times Collins felt the need to explain things a little too clearly. The audience (for the most part) could insinuate a lot from reading between the lines of the various narratives but at times, Collins continues to spell things out over and over again just to be sure the reasoning is clear which at times cane be distracting but not entirely. It certainly didn’t detract from the story itself which was great….so there you are, a minimal cog in the wheel so to speak :).

Over all this is a great book and I would highly recommend it. Though it is long-ish, you will not be disappointed. No page is wasted in Collins’s telling of the story. I look forward to reading other works by him soon, perhaps The Moonstone, which I hear is equally as well written.

Victorian lit fans rejoice….here is a writer that you will never grow tried of reading.

Challenge/Book Summary:

Book: The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins 

  • Kindle Edition, 427 pages
  • Published (first published 1859)
  • ASIN B002RKSXJG

This book counts toward:The Victorian Literature Challenge and The Gothic Reading Challenge 

Recommendation: 4 out of 5 (AWESOME! Both a Victorian and Gothic classics sure to keep readers engaged from the get go!)

Genre: Victorian Literature, Classics, Gothic Literature, British Literature

Memorable lines/quotes:

Any woman who is sure of her own wits, is a match, at any time, for a man who is not sure of his own temper.

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11 Comments

  1. Okay, this review has convinced me that I need to read this. Thanks!

    Reply
    • So glad you liked it 🙂 I think I too like the new ‘blog/review’ format better…..I’m working on the brevity thing LOL 🙂 🙂 Thanks for the feedback and comments I greatly appreciate it 🙂

      Reply
  2. I really enjoyed this book when I read it a few years ago. Your review wants to make me read it again. I just might do that if I ever make it through this monster TBR pile. Great review.

    Reply
  3. Michelle Owens

     /  October 20, 2011

    This book has been on my TBR for far too long. I will (must) read this next. Thanks for the reminder!

    Reply
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