Well, I finally did it, I finished The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins on Friday evening. I finished it as it should be finished, in flannel pajamas, under warm blankets in bed with a cat curled up against you and a spouse intent on his/her own book beside you. It was glorious.
This is such a rollicking fun book told in so many different voices I don’t know what to say about it. Collins is excellent at building suspense even when you know what’s coming. He pulls out all the stops in this book and tosses in every mystery/thriller/suspense/Victorian device except for the kitchen sink. We have plenty of people who are not what they seem, a marvelous villain in the form of a very fat and seemingly benign Count Fosco, a mad woman, a pure and blameless lady, a lady who is as quick witted and admirable as a man (and of course must always be a spinster because of it), a selfish head of the family who worries only about his own poor nerves and so allows unspeakable events to occur, and a hero in love with and in the service of the pure and blameless lady who can never hope to marry her but nonetheless puts his life on the line to see that justice is served.
Collins is a curious mix of the conventional and the unconventional. I think he says quite a lot of interesting things regarding the status of women in Victorian society. Jodie at Book Gazing recently posted a review of Woman in White as part of the Classics Circuit Wilkie Collins blog tour where she discusses Collins and women so hop over there for that interesting conversation.
I found one incident in the book rather troubling. Marian Halcombe, sister of the pure and blameless Lady Laura Fairlie Glyde, in the depths of despair, has a prophetic dream about our hero Walter Hartright who, for the middle chunk of the book is away in the jungles of South America. She “dreams” her way through the perils of his time away right up to his return to England and his standing beside a grave and the appearance of a veiled woman in white. I’m not certain what the whole point of this dream was unless Collins felt like he needed to reassure his readers that Walter was ok and was going to return to the story eventually. The dream stands out because there is nothing else like it in the entire book and Marian seems the most unlikely candidate to have had such a dream. But the Victorians loved the supernatural so perhaps Collins did indeed throw in the kitchen sink.
I couldn’t help thinking of Dudely Do-Right while reading this book. Walter Hartright isn’t quite as clueless as Dudely, but his heart is always in the right place and even when it would be in his self-interest to look the other way, his moral scruples run too deeply for his own personal safety. But then, of course, because he allows himself to be ruled by his morals and leaves fate and judgment up to God, he comes out on top and the villains all get their comeuppance; no string is left untied.
This was my first Wilkie Collins book and I enjoyed it so much it definitely will not be my last!