Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

My first glance round me, as the man opened the door, disclosed a well-furnished breakfast-table, standing in the middle of a long room, with many windows in it. I looked from the table to the window farthest from me, and saw a lady standing at it, with her back turned towards me. The instant my eyes rested on her, I was struck by the rare beauty of her form, and by the unaffected grace of her attitude. Her figure was tall, yet not too tall; comely and well-developed, yet not fat; her head set on her shoulders with an easy, pliant firmness; her waist, perfection in the eyes of a man, for it occupied its natural place, it filled out its natural circle, it was visibly and delightfully undeformed by stays. She had not heard my entrance into the room; and I allowed myself the luxury of admiring her for a few moments, before I moved one of the chairs near me, as the least embarrassing means of attracting her attention. She turned towards me immediately. The easy elegance of every movement of her limbs and body as soon as she began to advance from the far end of the room, set me in a flutter of expectation to see her face clearly. She left the window—and I said to myself, The lady is dark. She moved forward a few steps—and I said to myself, The lady is young. She approached nearer—and I said to myself (with a sense of surprise which words fail me to express), The lady is ugly!

The hardest types of books to write reviews for are not the complex, thematically deep ones where the biggest problem is how to reduce the book into 500 words and do it justice. Nor are they the godawful disappointments, which at least lend themselves to kvetching, always a treat for the vitriolic reviewer. No, the most difficult is the excellent book damned with the faint praise of "Good for what is is"; the well-charactered, well-plotted page turner, worthy of ink and praise but doesn't lend itself to much analysis. For me, The Woman in White was exactly that sort of book.

Mild Spoilers Follow.

The story, told in a bastardized epistolatory format by way of the diaries, letters, etc. of several different narrators, is complex and intricately plotted. Walter Hartright, a young art teacher, is commissioned to teach two sisters, Marian and Laura Halcombe, on the secluded Cumberland estate. On his way to the estate, he unwittingly aids the titular Woman, Anne Cathrick, who has recently escaped a mental institution. Upon finally arriving at Cumberland, he falls in love with Laura, and becomes close friends with Marian, her older and less attractive older sister. He leaves the position and the estate after learning that Laura is engaged to the clearly skeevy landowner, Sir Percival Glide. Laura is married and then the real story begins, as Glide and his mysterious friend Count Fosco set into motion a complicated plan to steal Laura's money and end the threat posed to them by the enigmatic Anne Catherick.

Spoilers End Here.

From my opening paragraph and the plot summary, I don't want to give the idea that The Woman in White isn't a good book. It is, in fact, one of the best mystery/suspense novels I have ever read. James Patterson could learn something about crafting complex, believable plots, and almost anyone could benefit from Collins' tight, frequently witty prose. The characters are also well-formed, two in particular. Marian Halcombe may be one of the earliest feminist characters in literature, consistently besting the men in the story in both emotional control and logical thinking. Count Fosco is also very well drawn, a gentleman control-freak who seems to know everything that happens around him and has an almost romantic attachment to Marian.

Like I said, I don't really know what to say about this book. There's not a lot of food for thought her besides trying to suss out the expertly-paced twists and turns, and it' probably not goig to change your life. But it's enjoyable, it tells a good story, and I'm glad I read it. Sometimes, that's more than enough.


Christopher said...

The Woman in White by whom now?

Lula O said...

Wilkie Collins. He and Charles Dickens were good friends. Dickens wrote The tale of two cities at the same time Collins wrote this one.

This is one my all time favs. I love Count Fosco. I love Marian Halcombe. I've read quite a bit about Collins, and I've heard when asked by women how he was able to write her so well, with so much sense, apparently he said he wrote her like he'd write a man...Yeah, he was an ass, but what do ya do? I still loved the book.

Christopher said...


Nihil Novum said...

Crud. Will fix. Thanks for your comment. Lula. It really was a fantastic read.

Amanda said...

I loved this book, especially Marian's character. I'm looking forward to reading more of Collins.