Wilkie Collins is hailed as the author of the first ‘detective’ and ‘mystery’ novels, often in reference to his 1860s novel Moonstone. The Woman in White, published almost a decade before, is one of Collins’ most successful novels, and the only one mentioned by name on his tombstone. As far as I’m concerned, The Woman in White far exceeds Moonstone, which I read several years ago, and I have barely been able to put it down over the past few days.
Walter Hartright, a drawing master, goes to the home of Mr Fredrick Fairlie to teach his two young charges – one a niece by blood and the other her half-sister. While there, Walter falls hopelessly in love with the already betrothed Laura Fairlie. In order to not dishonour her and her commitment, he leaves the home, but the intentions of Laura’s husband are not as honourable as they may have initially appeared and as Lord Percival Glyde begins to achieve his nefarious aims, it is down to Laura’s sister, Marian Halcombe, and Walter to ensure that justice can be done.
I want to open this review by acknowledging the elephant in the room that is the blatant sexism and disregard for females that this novel contains. It is all well and good to pass it off as a product of its time, but when the strongest female character spends most of her time apologising for being a woman, in the spirit of Lady Macbeth’s ‘unsex me now’ fever, it is painful, as a woman, to read something so powerfully written and feel so much despair at the antiquated attitude. I will spend a little time on this subject, focussing on Marian Halcombe.
When Hartright first sees Marian, he does not see her face immediately, and he takes an inordinate amount of time to describe her attractive physique. He is shocked to discover, when she turns around, that the matching face is not beautiful but manly and unattractive, and he is shocked by this. Marian’s physical appearance is matched by a ‘manly’ courage that she shows throughout the novel, going to great extent to rescue Laura from the clutches of her husband – and others. Several times, Marian wishes that she was not a woman but a man, so that she could properly defend her family. To see an independent and intriguing woman so undermined by her sex was hard to read. The unusual nature of Marian’s womanhood and its similarities to manhood was echoed by the fact that of all the men in the book, the antagonist, Count Fosco fell for Marian to the detriment of his evil plan. Marian is so unlike the Victorian feminine ideal that it takes the wayward foreigner to truly love her as she is, and this is irrelevant because she will never return those feelings. Fosco’s passion for Marian reflects society’s dislike of such woman because only a true villain could so admire her character. Marian stays firm, and is a likeable and productive member of the narrative, but her happiness is ultimately in being Laura’s sister, and Laura’s child’s aunt, rather than in pursuing the skills and abilities that she demonstrates throughout the text. Hartright acknowledges her usefulness and skills, and others trust Hartright simply on Marian’s word, but she is not to progress in a world that is so threatened by the strength of her personality. Both the portrayal of her physicality, and Fosco’s opinion of Marian, present her to the reader as something ugly and unnatural, and she is the exception to the weak femininity seen throughout the rest of the novel.
Laura Fairlie is Marian’s stark opposite in looks and temperament – childlike in her innocence before her marriage and reduced to being almost a child after her experiences in the asylum. The fact that Hartright ultimately marries Laura in spite of her infirmities and helplessness, emphasises the true Victorian ideal that Collins presents. It is a shame that Laura is given no voice in the multi-narrator narrative, as her character is seen only through the eyes of the strong around her, and she is left in the shadows, despite most of the action of the novel centring around her.
Collins’ narrative presents what we would commonly recognise now as a form of detective work. Hartright, an artist, has gathered accounts from each step of the way of the story in order to prove that Laura Fairlie is a live and that another lies in her marked grave. As a result, he doesn’t speak for anyone else (apart from for Laura), but has collected their narratives to present to the reader as evidence of what has taken place. When Hartright does narrate, he frequently hints towards the ending, such as mentioning his ownership of treasured pieces of artwork drawn by Laura, but does not reveal the ultimately happy ending the novel has until the last moment. Unlike many, the retrospective narrative gives the entire novel a real sense of discovery and mystery, which had me on the edge of my seat waiting to find out how the story concluded.
Throughout the novel, Collins’ greatest skill was in weaving a complex story in a relatively simplistic way. Sometimes, before we even actually met characters, we would know their names and their role because they were so perfectly framed by the preceding narrative. Lord Percival Glyde’s secret was well kept for a long time but hinted at beforehand to such an extent that it was possible to work out of it, but no sooner than Collins wanted you to. The answers to many mysteries were revealed without you necessarily even knowing that an answer was being sought, a skill of subtle story telling that you rarely see.
One of the most striking quotes in the novel, and the only one I noted down, was Hartright’s comment that: “the best men are not consistent in good – why should the worst men be consistent in evil?”. Collins addresses a truly profound contradiction in human nature, showing that he is aware of the dual personalities human kind possesses. His protagonists are flawed, and his antagonists show aspects of humanity, so it feels like you are truly reading about real people and their real lives.
Collins opened up a now much exploited genre, that translates just as well to our screens as it does to our modern literature. The Woman in White is in every sense a classic and is beautiful in its weaving of story and investigative narrative. Definitely the best of the Collins I have read so far, I feel a true sense of sadness at saying goodbye to the characters I have spent so much time with and know so well, and I look forwards to reading more from him in the future.