Done: The Woman In White

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!

Spoilers ahead!

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Done: Dorchester Terrace

Now, this was a solid piece of work.

Dorchester Terrace is the 27th novel in the Inspector Pitt series by Anne Perry. This series has been running all the way from 1979 up till today, 2015 (a 31st novel is expected this year). Since this is my very first introduction to the Inspector Pitt series, I get this feeling that I’ve missed out a lot, but the book explains its own sprawling backdrop and history pretty well and I never found myself confused, though I did find myself extremely curious. I am going to set about tracking down the very first novel in the series once I work my way through the pile of library books I’ve borrowed and need to finish.

As fate would have it, though, I think this book is a nice inflection point in the entire story arc as a whole to start off a new beginner with. Inspector Pitt has now been newly promoted to the Head of Britain’s Special Branch (something like an internal security department) and consequently the problem(s) in this book have much more far-reaching political ramifications. Anne Perry wields her strong knowledge of the history of European politics to great effect here, and I am impressed and drawn in by the political web that she weaves around the central mystery. Now this is what I call a “stunning backdrop” to a piece of historical fiction, rich with exquisite detail but yet not overwhelming at the same time.

Allusions drawn to Inspector Pitt’s past as well as the detective and policeman he used to be made me guess that perhaps books prior to this one would deal with more home-grown detective mysteries. As such, I’m pretty glad I started off with this book, because as a starter I can appreciate it on its own without comparing it to previous stories. I’m sure that my love for familiarity and my comfort zone would lead me to lament the more serious direction and political concerns that the plot arc has taken with this book. However, having started on this book and appreciating it for what it is, I can happily continue on chronologically with the Inspector Pitt series with all its political intrigues, and check out the earlier Inspector Pitt stories with its traditional detective mysteries. I’m really excited about both of these different threads.

Anne Perry’s writing style is elegant and confident. She does not aim to make this novel sound like it came out of the Victorian era. Her language is generally modern, but written with a self-assured and well-practised hand so that it does not contrast too jarringly with the era she is writing about. Her focus is not on replicating the era itself in terms of linguistics, but in revolving around the human drama as well as the restricting hierarchies of society at that period. Her narrative style takes one into the minds of several different characters, jumping from Thomas Pitt, to his wife Charlotte, to his ex-boss Victor Narraway, to his aunt-in-law, Lady Vespasia, and so on. We are told the story from the perspectives of several different characters, and as such have a peek as to how they see the problem, themselves, and other characters, while also finding out what other characters think of them in turn. Though the narrative jumps around to different characters, I never found it confusing or hard to follow.

The plot in itself centers around what appears to be two different lines of mysteries. The first one is uncovered by Charlotte’s aunt, Lady Vespasia, who is informed that her former friend and acquaintance, Serafina Montserrat, is unwell and unlikely to recover in her old age. She visits the ailing Mrs. Montserrat, who is not only suffering from the pangs of dementia, but also the paranoia and fear that she might let slip dangerous secrets in her memories to the wrong person when she is unaware of whom she is speaking to. The entire scene, describing the bitterness of aging for such a once-brilliant personage, was heartfelt and impactful. Lady Vespasia, however, is not inclined to completely dismiss Mrs. Montserrat’s fears, although she mostly thinks it might just be pure fancy. She brings it forth to Victor Narraway, ex-Head of the Special Branch, who sets about doing his own investigative work just for the sake of having something to do, having lately resigned from a post he had held for 20 years previously.

Meanwhile, Thomas Pitt, now Commander of the Special Branch, is informed of some suspicious increase of interest regarding train signal points, and is led to believe that a possible assassination attempt might be made there against a minor Austrian Duke, due to visit England relatively soon. Though the Duke himself holds no political significance, but his assassination on English soil would carry with it widespread repercussions throughout Europe, with England at the heart of the mess. He finds trouble getting the Foreign Secretary, Lord Tregarron, to take his fears seriously. These two threads of mysteries seem wholly separate and irrelevant to each other at first, but as the book progresses, they are brought closer and closer to each until their intertwined nature and connection is revealed.

I particularly also love how Thomas Pitt encounters some very realistic problems with taking over a new, powerful position. His ex-boss, Victor Narraway, had held the position of Commander of the Special Branch for nearly 2 decades before him, and as such is given the respect that his post calls for. Thomas Pitt, however, finds that people generally think he might have been promoted before his time, and that he did not have what it takes to fill Narraway’s shoes, which consequently raises self-doubt within him. Most interestingly, Pitt reflects that perhaps it might be his own humble beginnings as a son of a gamekeeper that had held him back in gaining the social standing that his post deserves, rather than experience and skill as people claim. Victor Narraway, after all, was born a gentleman, and after his retirement from the Special Branch, was inducted into the House of Lords. Indeed, various allusions as to social standing is drawn through the novel, giving the world Anne Perry creates yet another facet.

Overall, I greatly enjoyed this book, though admittedly it took me some time to really get into it. Once the momentum started though, it was impossible to put down. I would definitely be finding more of Anne Perry’s books to read.