The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins

Having recently finished reading the doorstop sized classic that is The Woman in White, I am slightly disappointed with myself for not having read it before.  I knew its reputation as the great Victorian sensational novel, but somehow its size had always put me off.  I am now even tempted to read more Wilkie Collins.  My dad recently read The Moonstone, which sounds equally as engrossing.  The Woman in White has it all, mystery, intrigue, a ghostly figure in the night, an honourable young man, one of the strongest female Victorian literary characters I’ve encountered, and several villains.  Collins was a lawyer by trade and you can really tell.  The story and plot have been almost forensically put together to draw out every last inch of suspense.

Walter Hartwright is employed as a Drawing Master to two sisters in Cumbria (or Cumberland as it was then known), they are Marian Halcombe and Laura Fairlie.  Before he leaves London he encounters an odd young woman, whom he helps to cross town in the middle of the night.  She seems to know something of the family he is about to work for.  From this moment his and the two sisters’ lives and fates are bound to this ghostly, sickly looking woman in a mystery so intriguing it is no wonder uptight Victorians fell for this book in such a big way.    The thing is, I can’t write more about the plot without giving away vital bits of the story, so that is as much as I am willing to write…sorry.

Suffice it to say, this lengthy book is every bit worth the effort and time it takes to read.  Walter Hartwright and Marion Halcombe are the epitome of powerless characters working tirelessly to right several wrongs.  You root for them throughout.  They have much to contend with, a lack of funds, few connections, little influence, but they continue with dogged determination.  The villains are various and varied in their villainy.  Some outright nasties and others who are wily and sly.

The Woman in White has been described as the first detective story and there is a lot of amateur investigation by Walter and Marion trying to get to the truth.  You can see how Walter’s sleuthing techniques became the basis of future detective fiction as he slowly unpicks and unravels the complicated history which has led to the central injustice of this story.  The epistolary nature of the book’s structure unveils the events from different view points, with each character having their distinctive voice.  Very clever and effective.

As part of The Woman in White, Collins also comments on social inequality and the inferior place of women in Victorian society.  We’ve all read it before, but it never fails to frustrate how women were able to do so little for themselves and have minimal control of their lives.   These irritations about Victorian life are slightly less maddening because of the affection between the main characters.  There is platonic love, romantic love and sibling love and this love between Walter, Marion and Laura is a strong bond keeping them together through thick and thin.

Look no further for an exciting, intriguing, Autumn fireside page-turning read.

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14 thoughts on “The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins”

    1. I know what you mean by too many books – I keep looking at the Esther Freud you sent me ages ago and feel guilty about not having picked it up yet!

    1. Are you planning on reading this as part of your 24 hour event? Segues nicely from The Quincunx and The Victorian City though – you’ll be Victoriana’d out!

      1. *grin* Too much Victoriana in one go for me, I’m going to use the readathon as a bit of a palate cleanser before moving on to The Woman in White. 🙂

  1. I love Collins and if you’ve enjoyed ‘The Woman in White’ then ‘The Moonstone’ is definitely the place to go next. He wrote a tremendous amount and his work is very patchy. The other two that most people enjoy are ‘No Name’ and ‘Armadale’. I’ve heard rumours that the latter is about to be serialised for television. Before you read ‘The Moonstone’ you might like to try Kate Summerscale’s ‘The Suspicions of Mr Whicher’, which is about a real life crime that influenced Collins when he wrote the novel.

    1. I haven’t heard of the two you mention “No Name” and “Armadale.” Shall look them up. I have read “The Suspicions of Mr Whicher” – really good book and quite gruesome. I did know Collins was influenced by the case, but couldn’t remember for which book, so thanks for jogging my memory!

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