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 fiancé 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.