Today I decided to review a random book from my bookshelf. So I closed my eyes and grabbed. Hence, I am reviewing the great murder mystery classic,The Woman in White. A couple summers ago, I went through a classic literature phase. After reading the collected works of Charles Dickens, I branched out into some of his contemporaries. Wilkie Collins is one of my favorite authors from the Victorian era.
Warning: There are mild spoilers in the synopsis
Themes Explored: women’s rights, unfairness of the law, marital discord, societal disadvantages of women, love, sacrifice, and deceit
Synopsis: Late one night on an empty road Walter Hartright, an art teacher, encounters a strange woman dressed all in white. As they converse, Walter puzzles over the fact that the woman knows a member of the family he is about to start working with. A day later, Walter arrives at Limmeridge House and begins teaching art to Laura Fairlie and Marian (half-sisters), whose parents are deceased. He slowly falls in love with Laura, who eerily resembles the ‘woman in white’. However, Laura marries another man, as she promised to her father. Her husband is only interested in her money and has a terrible secret that the ‘woman in white’ knows. He and his sinister friend plot to steal Laura’s money by substituting the ‘woman in white’ for Laura. Over the course of the novel, secrets are revealed that threaten to split the family apart.
Review: Wilkie Collins was an English novelist best known for The Woman in White, The Moonstone, Armadale, and No Name. Originally published in 1859, The Woman in White is considered to be amongst the first modern mystery novels. The novel is widely considered to be one of the first detective novels due to the hero, Walter Hartright, using sleuthing methods similar to later fictional private detectives. While the novel was a commercial success, the literary critics were extremely hostile. However, modern critics and readers consider The Woman in White to be Wilkie Collins greatest novel.
This novel is unique for its themes and multiple point-of-view narration. A strong theme throughout the novel is the disadvantage of marriage and its impact on women. A majority of the plot revolves around men plotting to steal women’s identities and money. Unlike most novels of the time period, The Woman in White is told from the perspective of multiple narrators. Different narrators share the parts of the story they personally witnessed, making the book read like a court testimony. This means the plot unfolds rather slowly as each narrator recalls events from a different perspective. However, the build-up is worth it as the final reveal is a great twist.
The Woman in White is a classic mystery novel with a great payoff. The narrative keeps you guessing about the motives driving each character. One drawback is that the narrative does take a while to build suspense. Collins goes into great detail about the events taking place. As Collins was a contemporary of Charles Dickens, they tend to have a similar writing style. However, Collins narratives move at a quicker pace. If you are not a fan of Victorian prose, then you might struggle to make it through the novel.
The novel did create two of the most enigmatic Victorian literary characters-Marion Halcombe (dark and fascinating) and Count Fosco (sinister and flamboyant). Despite the out dated writing style, the novel manages to draw the reader into a fantastic world of murder and suspense. At 617 pages, the novel is a relatively quick read. If you have never read a Wilkie Collins novel before, I recommend starting with The Woman in White.
The novel has been adapted into several movies and an award-winning play. I have not seen any of the movies or the stage play. So I am reserving judgement about them.
The Woman in White,Penguin Classics, Reissue, 2003, 9780141439617