The Woman in White: Wilkie Collins

Published by The Penguin English Library

“There, in the middle of the broad, bright high-road—there, as if it had that moment sprung out of the earth or dropped from the heaven—stood the figure of a solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in white garments; her face bent in grave inquiry on mine, her hand pointing to the dark cloud over London.”

I first read The Woman in White as a teenager. Picking it up all these decades later, I could not remember the plot at all. But the image of a woman in white appearing on a lonely road late at night was as vivid in my mind as if I had just read the book.

The book was published in 1860, and it has stood the test of time. It’s a mystery story, narrated by various characters. As Walter Hartright—the drawing teacher accosted by the woman—explains, he cannot take this case to a court of law. Instead, by getting the testimonies of the people involved, he is going to present the case to the reader. “As the Judge might once have heard it, so the Reader shall hear it now.”

To summarize the plot: the woman whom Hartright runs into is Anne Catherick, who has escaped from a lunatic asylum, where she has been put by Sir Percival Glyde, who is acting in collusion with her mother.

In the meantime, Hartright has been offered a place by Frederick Fairlie to tutor his niece and ward Laura Fairlie and her half-sister Marian Halcombe. This means that he will be leaving London to live in Limmeridge House in the country.

The two sisters, who are devoted to each other, are very different: Laura is beautiful and delicate and heir to a fortune while Marian is bright, sensible and tough with no money to her name. Hartright falls in love with Laura and grows close to Marian.

But Laura has been promised to Sir Percival by her father before he died. Anne Catherick writes to her, warning her about her fiancé, but Laura goes ahead with her marriage. It seems that Anne has some kind of hold over Sir Percival: she claims to know a secret about him that, if it is revealed, would destroy him. Meanwhile, Hartright, heartbroken, leaves England to take up a job in the forests of Central America.

Needless to say, Sir Percival turns out to be a nasty sort, desperately in need of money, which is why he was so keen to marry Laura. Laura moves with her husband to his home, Blackwater, with Marian: this was one of Laura’s conditions on agreeing to the marriage. They are joined by Laura’s aunt and her husband, Count Foscoe.

Sir Percival and Count Fosco are up to something, a conspiracy that will put Laura in danger. Will Marian be able to protect her?

Rereading The Woman in White all these years later, I enjoyed it as much as I did the first time. Wilkie Collins clearly knows how to tell a story and keep up the suspense. The mystery deepens as the story progresses, and then one by one, the mysteries are gradually brought to light.

Part of the enjoyment of the story stems from the various viewpoints of the narrators: Hartright, Marian, Foscoe and others. Collins also used the multi-person narrative in his book The Moonstone, said to be the first detective novel in English. I find that in both books, this device added to the richness of the tale, especially as the tone changes clearly from one narrator to another.

But what I really enjoyed is the way that Collins describes the characters. They are so vivid that you can see them. Frederick Fairlie is a querulous, self-centred hypochondriac, with “a frail, languidly-fretful, over-refined look”, locked away in his room. Marian is his opposite: a breath of fresh air, intelligent and practical. She often compares herself to a man, which basically means that she’s intelligent and tough, traits that was not prized at the time, but are deeply appreciated by both Hartright and Laura.

The character that dominates the book is Count Foscoe. He is a huge man, both in height and corpulence, very controlled, self-confident, intelligent and sharp. Almost nothing escapes or fazes him, and he is prepared to go to any length to achieve his ends. Unlike Sir Percival, who is just a bully, Foscoe is intriguing. A big man, he moves like a cat, silent and light on his feet. Hartright once remarks, “He slipped by me with the quickness of thought”. But the man has a sentimental side: Foscoe treats his little pets—white mice and a cockatoo—as he would treat his children.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable, atmospheric book that I was delighted to rediscover. If you are looking for something to keep you engrossed for a while, I would suggest you read this.

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