I first picked up Wilkie Collins’s The Woman In White many, many years ago under the misinformed assumption that it was a Victorian horror story. (I may also have mixed it up with Susan Hill’s The Woman In Black…) How wrong I was. After the titular woman in white appeared and after it was certainly established that she was a very real human being, I put the book away with such disappointment that I think I’ve lost my original copy.
Fast forward to the present, I have developed a better taste for classic literature and wanted to revisit The Woman In White even if it may not involve supernatural beings. I started with listening to the free audiobook from LibriVox and got so caught up in the narrative that I had to continue with the book. This time, I was very far from disappointed!
The first thing I noticed about this book is the amount of foreshadowing and suspense used. According to Wikipedia, “it is considered to be among the first mystery novels and is widely regarded as one of the first in the genre of sensation novels”, so perhaps it was the first novel that used foreshadowing in the way that we commonly associate it with today. It’s a novel told from the first-person perspective of many different characters (all somewhat unreliable narrators) in the story, and usually written at a later date, so the characters always refer to some mysterious unknown later event like: “Thank God I agreed, after what would happen later.” It made me want to just skip to the ending and find out what happened, but I persevered.
This book takes a while to warm up, though. The half, I would say, is spent mostly in expositing background story, establishing characters and just paving the way for the excitement that was to come. I don’t know if it will be to everyone’s tastes, but I enjoyed it. This is my first time reading a novel by Wilkie Collins and I’m rather taken in by his writing style. It’s humourous, it’s satirical and it’s powerful in terms of evoking emotions. Once you pass the halfway mark and when things start coming to a head, however, the book becomes a real page-turner. I took about 1.5 weeks to get through the first half (mostly by audiobook when I’m driving), and less than 2 days to finish the second half. In fact, I have to confess that I stayed up till 6.45am this morning just trying my utmost best to finish the book because I want to find out the damned ending!! (In the end, I gave up and went to bed, but finished it the next day at about 6pm)
Of the characters, my favourite has got to be Marian Halcombe. I was rooting for her from the very beginning, though Walter Hartright (our first and main narrator) described her as looking almost like a man. She is the heroine of the book, through and through. Although the mystery and adventure centers around her pretty half-sister Laura Fairlie’s interests, I felt not even half as much interest in her. Laura Fairlie came across to me as a bit of a Mary-Sue, and I would even go so far as to feel that she was a little dim-witted. The two characters that got on my nerves the most were Mr. Frederick Fairlie, Laura’s rich uncle, and Sir Percival Glyde. In Mr. Fairlie’s case, he is one of the most self-centered characters I’ve come across in a while. Other malevolent characters may also act purely in their own self-interest, but for Mr. Fairlie, he is both indolent and self-centered, which meant that he doesn’t act for anything at all. Somehow, that irritates me even more than active malevolence. At least in a book. As for Sir Percival, to list out his wrongdoings might be to spoil the plot a little so I won’t do so here. Suffice it to say that he’s the worst sort of coward.
On one hand, I would say that Marian Halcombe presented an interestingly feminist portrayal of a woman. In the Victorian times, the “ideal” woman would be someone like Laura Fairlie – pretty, somewhat empty-headed and can’t do anything to save herself. Marian Halcombe is none of these things. She is confident, intelligent, affectionate and also incredibly resourceful and courageous in adversity. This portrayal is probably why I always found myself firmly in #TeamMarian, but yet the way she kept belittling her own sex and being described by others as “being like a man” or “looking like a man” disturbed me a little. She would keep saying, “even though I am a helpless woman”, “even those these hands are a woman’s”, etc. as if to acknowledge that she is frustrated with being a woman and feels restricted by her own gender. I would like to see a woman who is comfortable with herself and her gender, and then to be independent by her own right, and not because she resembles a man, but I guess I have to make allowances for the time that this book was written, and the fact that the author was a man.
For a Marian Halcombe with an arguably feminist portrayal of a woman, there are always the Laura Fairlies and the Madame Foscos that reverse this feminist portrayal. Laura is pretty much always helpless, relying either on Marian or Walter Hartright to save the day. Madame Fosco, meanwhile, went from being a headstrong, opinionated and outspoken girl with feminist ideas that Laura and Marian remember from their childhood (she is Laura’s aunt), to being a completely submissive wife with literally no mind of her own. She always looks to her husband for instructions and is completely at her husband’s disposal and leisure. Neither kith nor kin had any hold on her if her husband said to the contrary.
I found the ending of the book satisfying, though I have read reviews from people who found it rather anticlimactic. However, keeping in mind the social context in which the book was written, I would say that the Secret is sufficiently shocking enough in that time and era, even if it may not be so today.
I also read someone on Goodreads saying that Wilkie Collins is a double-edged author. If The Woman In White doesn’t get you, The Moonstone will. Well, I have already purchased The Moonstone in readiness, as well as No Name. I can’t wait to dig into more of his work!
I was incredibly frustrated with the Walter/Laura love-line. I can find no basis for such deep and lasting affection besides Laura being such a pretty young thing. I suppose I am affected and influenced by our modern ways and mindsets, as well as my own slight dislike for Laura. I confess I was rooting for a change in the wind and the ending to become Walter/Marian, but I wasn’t optimistic. Fidelity in mind and in action was utmost in Victorian novels, and since Walter had carried his flame for Laura for a whole year despite his self-imposed exile to Central America, I knew it was hardly likely that he would suddenly change his object to Marian instead (unless Laura died – but even then, that’s doubtful). Even more so in the last third of the book, when Walter and Marian are engaging in all these secret to-dos to bring down their enemies, they were so reliant and dependent on each other, they understood each other so perfectly, while Laura was basically treated (and enjoyed being treated) like a child. I was so frustrated!
Laura had zero input in the entire adventure. The only few times she had a backbone and I had some semblance of respect for her was when she opposed Sir Percival in the signing of the legal document, and when she opposed him again in supposedly following Marian back to Limmeridge. It just struck me that Laura was actually incredibly like Anne Catherick, not just physically but also mentally as well. They described Anne as being half-witted and incredibly fixated on ideas once they got into her head. Perhaps Laura isn’t quite as half-witted as Anne, but she never seemed to show any kind of quickness of wits or intelligence as Marian does. Also, Laura was incredibly devoted to Marian (the few times she opposed Sir Percival was either instigated by Marian, or for her own concern about her) as well as to Walter, much like how Anne was devoted to Mrs. Fairlie even though she had only met her briefly once, and forever wore white simply because Mrs. Fairlie had said she looked nice in it. So I guess Laura and Anne actually shared more similarities than simply the physical resemblance that was acknowledged in the book.
Regarding Sir Percival’s shameful secret, I tried to imagine it in a modern context: a CEO who got his position by forging his credentials. A current reigning monarch (enjoying riches and taxes from the people) discovered to be an illegitimate child and having forged his/her parents’ wedding certificate to claim the throne. Seeing as the aristocracy back then were always well-off and lived in the lap of luxury without doing a day’s work in their lives, and how Sir Percival had claimed his place amongst this class by illegal means, I can see how and why this Secret would’ve been seen as a shocking one at the time the book was published.