Publisher: Vintage Classics (Random House)
Pages: 609 (Paperback)
Form: Epistolary Novel
Marian and her sister Laura live a quiet life under their uncle’s guardianship until Laura’s marriage to Sir Percival Glyde. Sir Percival is a man of many secrets – is one of them connected to the strange appearances of a young woman dressed all in white? And what does his charming friend, Count Fosco, have to do with it all? Marian and the girl’s drawing master, Walter, have to turn detective in order to protect Laura from a fatal plot and unravel the mystery of the woman in white.
This is one of those books I’ve been meaning to read for years (ever since studying The Woman in Black for my A levels) and somehow just never got round to picking up. Thankfully Goodreads came to my rescue again when one of my groups set it as their August group read and forced me to finally grab myself a copy and get reading. And I’m very glad they did because it’s the sort of book that’s right up my alley.
Walter Hartright, a young drawing master, runs into a mysterious woman dressed all in white wandering along the road at night on the very eve he is due to depart for a situation in the country. He helps her to escape from the men pursuing her and then tries his best to forget about it – despite the fact that she seems intimately familiar with the same family and country house he is about to take his position at, and that when he gets there he finds she bears and uncanny resemblance to his new pupil, Laura Fairlie. As Walter falls hopelessly in love with Laura and discovers her longstanding engagement to Sir Percival Glyde, the mystery of the ‘Woman in White’ and the words they exchanged that night begin to haunt him. Does she know some dreadful secret about Laura’s fiancé? Was he the one who sent his men to pursue her that night and why? Or is she really as she seems and just a poor escaped madwoman?
As a gothic epistolary novel, told through various character’s accounts, I really liked the structure of this book, as well as the different styles and voices of the various narrators. The justification given in the first chapter that ‘the story here presented will be told by more than one pen, as the story of an offence against the laws is told in Court by more than one witness – with the same object, in both cases, to present the truth always in its most direct and most intelligible aspect’ is interesting – and very telling of the fact that Collins was himself a lawyer. It certainly made me question the reliability and bias of the narrator’s and I enjoyed the little glimpses were a minor character uninvolved with the wider implications, such as the cook, housekeeper, took up the pen to narrate. By using diary entries and statements and accounts written in hindsight by the characters Collins avoids the dreadful ‘as you already know…’ infodumping that characterises epistolary novels told exclusively though letter writing. There’s a definite purpose to the story and narration but you also can’t implicitly trust anything anyone says either and the narrator’s are frequently wrong or misguided in their analysis.
Walter Hartright and Marian Halcombe, Laura’s half-sister, are the main narrators but quite possibly the least interesting. Walter is a fairly typical Victorian hero, while Marian is meant to be a ‘strong woman’ and for the most part is, but falls into that unpleasant habit of internalised misogyny that strong women written by men often seems to feel. I swear that after the 75thbillion time she said something along the lines of ‘but I’m only a woman’ or ‘I didn’t share the defects of my sex’ or ‘he thought me the most sensible woman he had met in a long time’ I was just about ready to slap her. Being female is not a defect! But then I remember just how easy it is to be made to feel this way – even today – when everything around you promotes the message that women aren’t as good as men. And then when I compare her with the fragile, constantly swooning, Laura I end up totally seeing why she thinks her ‘unfeminine’ behaviour is so remarkable. Even Walter seems to prefer Marian who he treats as a respected equal, to his beloved Laura, who he treats like a particularly vulnerable and sensitive six year old. The best narration in the book, though, comes from the more unsympathetic characters; the hilariously uncaring and hypochondriac Frederick Fairlie, the cold and haughty Mrs Catherick, and the jovial villain, Count Fosco.
It’s a long book, at over 600 pages, and it can drag a bit, but a lot happens. And a lot of it very melodramatic – women fall down in swoons at bad news, catch deadly fevers from wearing wet clothes while men plot elaborate murders, steal money from their wives, manipulate everybody around them, and go on random expeditions to Central America. It’s very much classic Victorian gothic, and a lot of the tropes and twists are no longer shocking but fairly predictable and almost cliché. In that way I found the first half of the book, which was all about the slow building of atmosphere and suspense, vastly superior to the second half where things seemed almost rushed into conclusions with a lot more importance placed on sheer coincidence and dumb luck than felt satisfactory – hence the 4.5 rating rather than a 5. The conclusion of Count Fosco’s storyline in particular felt both totally predictable and completely out of nowhere, as if Collins had written himself into a corner in how to deal with him and simply jumped on the first idea of how to get out of it that came into his head.
That said it’s an enjoyable read. The conclusions left me not quite loving it but I definitely liked it a lot and look forward to reading more of Collins’ work.