Wednesday 10 October 2012

The Woman in White

The Woman in White®- Wilkie Collins

If you like long meandering gothic tinged plot lines, villainous aristocrats and comic 'foreigners' with an edge of threat, this is the book for you. Throw in some proto-feminist comments on the place of women and a few more labyrinthine plots and you're almost there. You can add multiple voices, from diaries, comments written in diaries, letters, lawyers notes, a confession and even straight narrative. It's genesis as a serial in one of Dicken's magazines is betrayed by enough hooks, tantalisers and cliffhangers to keep even the most demanding audience engaged.

Right from the off Collins is busy setting the tone and letting us know some of what we are in for. He also tells us that the story will be told by many narrators. Then there is a humourous interlude where we meet Walter Hartright, painter, and his best friend, the Italian, Professor Pesca, a comic innocent who seems not very far from  Roberto Benigni in Jim Jarmusch's Down By Law. But when Walter Hartright leaves his mothers and sister to head back to his room a sense of mystery is introduced as he walks by Regent's Park.   "The moon was full and broad in the dark blue starless sky, and the broken ground of the heath looked wild enough in the mysterious light to be hundreds of miles away from the great city that lay beneath it."

Eleanor Parker in The Woman in White (1948)

Not long after this the titular Woman in White® appears in the novel for the first time. "There, in the middle of the broad, bright high road - there as if it had that moment sprung out of the earth or dropped from the heaven - stood the figure of a solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in white garments, her face bent in grave inquiry on mine, her hand pointing to the dark cloud over London, as I faced her."

You'd be buying the next episode, would't you?

There are plenty more hints that the story is going to take a dark turn. The narrative voice (Hartright) is writing the story from the perspective of someone who knows how it all turns out. Not very well, it seems. "I trace these lines, self-distrustfully, with the shadows of after-events darkening the very paper I write on; and still I say, what could I do?" Other narrators will tell their parts of the story from a very partial understanding of the whole. The management of these multiple viewpoints is what impressed me most, although sometimes the provenance (who wrote it, why, and when) of each part feels over explained.

The cast of eccentrics is added to when Hartright reaches Limmeridge, where he is to tutor two young ladies, and mount Mr Fairlie's etchings. The house is owned by Mr Fairlie, who spends his time in his rooms looking at his aforementioned collection of etchings, Rembrant's and all. ""So glad to possess you at Limmeridge, Mr. Hartright," he said in a querulous, croaking voice, which combined, in anything but an agreeable manner, a discordantly high tone with a drowsily languid utterance. "Pray sit down. And don't trouble yourself to move the chair, please. In the wretched state of my nerves, movement of any kind is exquisitely painful to me."" He sounds like a more obnoxious version of Proust's Marcel. Neurasthenia, you know. His butler is the only person who he regularly permits in his presence. I don't think it too presumptuous to say that Collins implies that he does more than butler for Mr Fairlie.

Eccentrics and coincidence play a huge role in the book. We realise that the short fractured speech of The Woman in White® referred to both the house that Mr Hartright is now in and what's more, to the Baronet to whom the young Ms Fairlie is engaged. Much that seems disconnected or just colour will reappear as central to the plot, some in a satisfyingly apt way, some in outlandishly ridiculous ways.

I mentioned proto-feminism above. Mostly this refers to the treatment of the character of Marian Halcombe who lives with her half sister Miss Laura Fairlie at Limmeridge and then continues as her companion wheresoever she moves. She is admired by all the male characters for her intelligence, cool head and resourcefulness. This is often used to reveal the lack of opportunity for a woman of ability to find a use for those talents in the Victorian world. She also narrates much of the novel and here is a relevant quote: "If I only had the privileges of a man, I would order out Sir Percival's best horse instantly, and tear away on a night gallop, eastward, to meet the rising sun - a long, hard, heavy, ceaseless gallop of hours and hours, like the famous highwayman's ride to York. Being, however, nothing but a woman, condemned to patience, propriety, and petticoats for life, I must respect the housekeeper's opinions, and try to compose myself in some feeble, feminine way."

Or how about this description of the removal of her usual dress in order to do some snooping. "A complete change of dress was imperatively necessary for many reasons. I took off my silk gown to begin with, because the slightest noise from it on that still night might have betrayed me. I next removed the white and cumbersome parts of my underclothing, and replaced them by a petticoat of dark flannel. Over this I put my black travelling cloak, and pulled the hood on to my head. In my ordinary evening costume I took up the room of three men at least. In my present dress, when it was held close about me, no man could have passed through the narrowest spaces more easily than I." The encumbrances of femininity.

Her half sister is the genuine item: feeble, feminine and given to fainting fits and self abnegation. At times the relationship between Mr Hartright, Miss Halcombe and Miss Fairlie seems like that of parents with a child so it seems quite perverse that Mr Hartright should fall for Miss Fairlie. But fall he does, all the way to the South American jungles and back again, through shipwreck, disease and poison darts. Yes, nothing here is half hearted.

I haven't arrived at the villains yet but you can be sure that the Baronet Sir Percival Glyde and his Italian friend  Count Fosco fit the bill. The Baronet can play the gentleman but you don't have to scratch to deeply to find a deeply unpleasant man, clearly unsuited to be husband to the wealthy but delicate Miss Fairlie. He also, it appears, has played a part in the troubles afflicting the Woman in White®. The baronet's boon companion is Count Fosco: enormously fat; cultured; operatic; crawling with canaries and white mice; vigorously male yet with female sensitivities; warmly welcoming but deploying a veiled sense of threat; strangely attractive despite his age (he is in his 60's). This mesmeric Italian villain orchestrates many of the novel's BAD DEEDS. Beside him Sir Percival is simply a choleric and misogynistic English gentleman given to bad habits and suffering from the great stress of having a DARK SECRET!  You can see the gleam in Fosco's eye and smell the greasepaint from the pits when he turns and winks archly at you the audience, fingering a deadly stiletto and kissing one of the pink nosed white mice who, along with his obedient wife and chorus of canaries, comprise his travelling show companions.

Collins uses the multitude of settings that the novel traverses to give us a picture of the drastically divergent lives lived by these eminent and not so eminent victorians, not unlike his mentor and publisher Mr Dickens. One episode that comes to mind is the comic battle of Mrs Catherick, mother of Anne (The Woman in White®) to scale the social heights in the town of New Welmingham. She sets out to propitiate the pious with her piety, with the goal of moving from the position of disreputability in which she had fallen, to being a redoubtable member of the church who is bowed to by the vicar and the matrons whose black attire and narrow moral compass point the way to respectability in this new town.

The town is wonderfully described as a sort of Hell by Walter Hartright. I was reminded of Milton Keynes in the early eighties or, indeed, post Celtic Tiger Ireland and the half-finished swathes of ugly housing estates embracing her country towns: "Is there any wilderness of sand in the deserts of Arabia, is there any prospect of desolation amoung the ruins of Palestine, which can rival the repelling effect on the eye, and the depressing influence on the mind, of an English country town in the first stage of it's existence, and in the transition stage of its prosperity? I asked myself that question as I passed through the clean desolation, the nest ugliness, the prim torpor of the streets of Welmingham. And the tradesmen who stared after me from their lonely shops - the trees that drooped helpless in their arid exile of unfinished crescents and squares - the dead house carcasses that waited in vain for the vivifying human element to animate them with a breath of life - every creature that I saw, every object that I passed, seemed to answer with one accord: The deserts of Arabia are innocent of our civilised desolation - the ruins of Palestine are incapable of our modern gloom!"

The Woman in White's transgressive undertones and social commentary lift it beyond mere PLOTboiler to something more interesting although there are times when you feel that Collins wanted to keep delivering more and more twists to keep the serialisation going as long as possible. But it remains good company all the way.

p.s. I was inspired to take this off the shelf by the R.I.P. V11 Reading event. You can find a whole lot of reviews by clicking on the image above. I also guess I should mention that I came to this book thinking that it was a supernatural thriller, which it is not.


  1. I do love this book and reading all these comments here makes me want to reread!
    I hadn't realised there was an old black and white film version - maybe I should see if I can track that down.
    Lynn :D

    1. I can't actually remember if I saw the film but maybe I did. It would explain the nagging feeling that I'd read the book before. (of course it's always possible that I had read the book!)

  2. It's an excellent book, lots of fun. I was a bit hesitant to give it a go, but it definitely does sit above the standard mystery novel :)

  3. I really enjoyed reading this book and then listened to an audio version, which works really well too (good company when doing something boring, like decorating). Apparently it was originally serialised weekly in a paper, like some of Dickens' work - it is the sort of story that would work well published in that way as there is plenty of suspense. The coincidences are a bit corny, but perfectly acceptable and don't dampen any enjoyment! Reviewed it over at my gaff too if you are interested..

    1. Hi Sarah - I visited! Hope I remembered to wipe my feet on the mat before entering. This was actually serialised in a magazine published by Dickens, who was a mentor to Collins.