Tuesday 26 May 2020

The Woman in White

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins is a book I've been prevaricating about reading for 'years'. Why, I have no idea. Perhaps I thought it was a difficult read, that I would struggle with the language, plus, it is 'long'. Whatever. In the event that all proved to be nonsense. Yes, it took me a couple of weeks to read but that was fine, plenty of books take me that long, some of which are meant to be savoured and not read at break-neck speed and The Woman in White is one of those. It's my seventh book for Bev's Mount TBR 2020.

Walter Hartright is an art teacher who sometimes takes positions in large country houses teaching young ladies to paint. After attaining such a position in Cumberland he's returning from a last visit to his mother and sister in London before setting off. It's late at night and dark and a woman, dressed all in white, approaches him for help with directions. She seems rather strange and distracted but Walter nevertheless finds a cab and helps her on her way only to observe a couple of men in hot pursuit shortly after.

Arriving in Cumberland and 'Limmeridge', the house that will be his home for many months, Walter meets Marion Halcombe and Laura Fairlie, half-sisters devoted to one another. Laura is the heiress of the family, very beautiful, Marion has no money and is not beautiful but is the kind of person you would want on your side in a crisis. Despite his efforts not to, Walter falls in love with Laura. The problem with this, apart from the difference in their stations, is that Laura is already engaged to be married. Her fiancรฉ is Sir Percival Glyde and it was her father's dying wish that Laura should marry him.

Walter has to leave but is extremely worried about Laura's future. He has seen The Woman in White again and she is desperate to prevent Laura from marrying Sir Percival. Why? The woman disappears before they can find out. The two sisters live with their uncle, Frederick Fairlie, who has inherited the house from their father. The only interests he has at heart are his own and being left alone to enjoy his fragile health, thus he is no help whatsoever in helping Laura to decide what to do. It seems they have no one to turn to in their hour of need.

I'm never much good at reviewing hugely well known classics but these are just a few thoughts and observations of my own about the book.

I don't really think I had much of an idea what The Woman in White was actually about. I think I had some vague idea of ghostly apparitions which turns out to be a long way from the truth. The woman is real and she has a secret concerning Sir Percival which is kept until almost the end of the book and took me by surprise when I read what it was. Meanwhile, all you can do as the reader is hang in there for 600 pages worrying about the two sisters. Even when I wasn't reading the book I was thinking and about Laura and Marion. This is a tense, 'edge-of-your-seat' story, not at all cosy or reassuring in any way.

My favourite person in the book was Marion Halcombe. What she wouldn't do to protect her sister wasn't worth thinking about. Intelligent, loyal, brave, my goodness me no wonder a certain character in the book was very intrigued by her. I didn't feel Laura's personality was quite as well defined, perhaps that's because I'm more interested in character than looks. And if I'm honest I am inclined to the view that the way the hero always falls for the 'beautiful' girl is a mite tedious and predictable. Wouldn't it be nice if a writer gave us a hero who valued intelligence and character over physical beauty? I won't hold my breath.

I'm hard-put to say who I think is the biggest villain of the story. It's a crowded field with Sir Percival and Count Fosco, not to mention Count Fosco's awful wife. But really the person I despised the most was the sisters' uncle, Frederick Fairlie. This was a wonderful depiction of a very weak, self-centred man by Wilkie Collins, I found myself utterly loathing him.

The first sentence of the book begins with, 'This is the story of what a woman's patience can endure...' and that is what it all boils down to: how powerless women were in the Victorian age to be in charge of their own destinies. Especially wealthy women. At one point Laura wishes with all her heart that she was poor like Marion. She can never truly know if any intended husband loves her for herself or is simply after her fortune. A sad tale is what this is and Wilkie Collins had a point to make as vivid as any that Dickens made in his books. Only Dickens manner of illustrating injustice is to whack you round the head with extreme Victorian poverty, Collins' way of illustrating injustice was a bit more subtle... in my opinion anyway.

A brilliant book and many thanks to Pat and Judith who've been encouraging me to read it for ages. So pleased I did so at last.



DesLily said...

Hooray!! Gee I forgot how long it was lol. Since Collins and Dickens wrote together quite a bit for the papers it's interesting how differently they actually write. It's also strange that 2 such famous writers were friends in real life. Glad you liked the book!

Travellin' Penguin said...

I really need to get off my proverbial and read this. I enjoyed the Moonstone and like you did, have had it sitting on my shelf. I have so many books I would love to read I don't seem to get to any of them. Need to buckle down!!! ๐Ÿ˜๐Ÿ˜๐Ÿ˜

Cath said...

Pat: Yep, it's LONG! LOL Well, it's years since I read anything much by Dickens apart from short stories so it's hard to compare. I think Collins is easier to read though, that's my impression, Dickens goes a bit mad with endless descriptions and Collins did not. I loved it and am now wondering when to read The Moonstone which has also been on my tbr pile for donkey's years.

Pam: I haven't read The Moonstone but I plan to now... possibly later in the year. I'm trying to buckle down and read books off my shelves but the problem is I keep buying new ones, so the pile doesn't go down at all, just changes.

Lark said...

I love this book! It's one of my favorite classic reads. Glad you read and enjoyed it...despite it's length. :)

Sam said...

Great review, Cath! I've put off tackling this one for most of the reasons you mention that you were slow to come to it. What makes my reluctance so strange to me is that every single person I know who has ever read it raves about it in the end.

Your plot summary is, I think, finally going to get this one moved up near the top of my TBR stack. I am seldom in the mood for a "ghost story," so learning more about the book's actual plot - and my misunderstanding of what the book is all about - helps a lot.

Dorothy Borders said...

I enjoyed reading your very perceptive review. I read the book three years ago (Here's a link to my review: https://birdwoman-thenatureofthings.blogspot.com/2017/01/the-woman-in-white-by-wilkie-collins.html) and found it altogether worthy of its fame.

Judith said...

Oh, Cath, I think you hit the nail on the head with that initial quote from the book. So interesting that a male author highlighted again and again the absolute powerlessness of women at this time! And stress it he did over and over.
I agree with you wholeheartedly about Marion (sp.?). She is the powerhouse character in this novel. She is indeed what would make this book worth a re-read. How stalwart, how protective, how noble she is.
The villains, all of them were superbly characterized, I thought.
So enjoyed your thoughts about this one! I almost hate to tell you, but Collins wrote many more of these novels. I'm trying to think of the adjective that describes them. Oh, god!! I did just have a glass of wine. Whither my brain, pray you? Speculative fiction. No. I will think on the write descriptor. Yikes.

Judith said...

Ah, Cath! I've got it--"sensational fiction" was what Collins wrote lots of. I'd love to read more, but I'm pretty sure this one was his best of that genre.

Judith said...

No, I'm wrong, Cath. It's "sensation fiction." Finally, I've got it. Better give up that pre-dinner wine. I'm sorry to have given you all those false misnomers.

Val said...

Lovely review ..looking forward to a future Moonstone review too (when you get the chance to read it!)
On heroines..have you read Precious Bane by Mary Webb? if not stick it on your list I'd love to know what you think of it..(some people don't like it ...but not me ..I love it ...but with books you have to make up your own mind I find.

Yvonne @ Fiction Books Reviews said...

Hi Cath,

I have to admit to not really having read any of the true classics since school, which is many, many moons ago now. I have a whole list of books and authors in the category I would like to try, but all I do is keep adding to it, rather than taking any away to read!

As I generally don't get much time to read in any one sitting, I am always put off tackling 'chunkster' books, not only because of the length of time it would take to finish, but also I would be afraid of losing my way in the storyline.

Who knows how all of the current situation will pan out, so I might find myself at home with plenty of capacity to dip into some of these classic tomes. This does sound like an intriguing storyline, and as Sam says, probably not at all what I thought it would be, so well worth adding somewhere near the top of the list.

A lovely, perceptive review, you definitely sold this one to me :)


TracyK said...

This is a very good review of The Woman in White. I agree with you that Marion is a wonderful character and that the sisters' uncle was a horrible person. I never wanted to read this book at all even though my husband kept suggesting it, and Judith was the one who convinced me. I was so glad I read it after refusing to all those years.

Cath said...

Lark: I'm getting braver at tackling these long classics now, am going to read The Moonstone soon.

Sam: It was the same with me... everyone I knew who'd read it, loved it. I don't know why I thought it was ghost story (which I do actually like) possibly I was connecting it with Susan Hill's, The Woman in Black. Anyway, it's 'not'.

Dorothy: Thank you, it's not easy reviewing a classic which so many intelligent people have had a lot to say about. I'll check out your review in a moment.

Judith: Oddly enough I too kept thinking that for a male author it was interesting how well he understood the problems of women in his time. Yes, he has a long list of titles to work through, I've read The Dead Secret which I thought was quite good.

You did make me laugh... yes it's 'sensation fiction' and The Woman in White is also known as 'Gothic' fiction I believe.

Cath said...

Val: I'll be reading The Moonstone sooner rather than later I think. Quite looking forward to it now. I've heard of Precious Bane of course, but never read it. On the list it goes.

Yvonne: I really don't read many classics and consequently I have gaps... I've never read anything by George Eliot for instance, and there are many more. I would say that The Woman in White is far more accessible than I expected. I had to plough my way through Moby Dick last autumn, it was so hard, not so with this book, it was very readable and quite easy to get through 50 - 60 pages a day.

Tracy: Thank you. I resisted and resisted reading this one and now I can't think why. Aren't we daft? LOL