The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (1859)

The Woman in White is an exciting and complex story with a memorable cast of heroes, villains, and sundry other interesting characters. Wilkie Collins lived between 1824 and 1889 and his life overlapped those of other well-known Victorian authors whose books I’ve enjoyed reading:

Charles Dickens (1812 – 1870)
Elizabeth Gaskell (1810 – 1865)
Charlotte Bronte (1816 – 1855)
Emily Bronte (1818 – 1848)

There are certain elements common to Victorian novels and The Woman in White has all the complexities of Dickens (but a few less characters and so easier to follow); the exploration of character that Gaskell does so beautifully; the thwarted love that Charlotte Bronte depicts in Jane Eyre, and the physical and psychological violence of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.
It is a wonderfully written blend of melodrama, mystery and Victorian-style identity theft. There are twists, turns, and false trails, as well as some very humorous descriptions of different characters. Collins was a gifted wordsmith and one of the best known, best loved, and, for a time, best paid of Victorian fiction writers.

Friendship is a thread throughout the story as well as contrasting themes of selflessness and selfishness, bravery and cowardice, loyalty and treachery. Collins studied to be a lawyer and, in the Preamble, he explains why he uses various narrators to tell the story. This method of telling the story gives the reader a well-rounded insight into the various characters. It also allows for a good amount of humour:

The story here presented will be told by more than one pen, as the story of an offence against the laws is told in Court by more than one witness—with the same object, in both cases, to present the truth always in its most direct and most intelligible aspect; and to trace the course of one complete series of events, by making the persons who have been most closely connected with them, at each successive stage, relate their own experience, word for word.

Rather than go into details about the plot, I’ll leave you with some quotations to pique your interest if you, like me, have for years put off reading this book. I think it is a classic not to be missed.

Walter Hartright, a young artist and hero of the story is employed by Mr. Frederick Fairlie to instruct two young ladies in the art of painting in watercolours. This is Walter’s first encounter with one of them, Marian Halcombe:

“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!”

And his impressions of Miss Fairlie’s (Mr. Fairlie’s niece and heiress) former governess:

Some of us rush through life, and some of us saunter through life. Mrs. Vesey sat through life… A mild, a compliant, an unutterably tranquil and harmless old lady, who never by any chance suggested the idea that she had been actually alive since the hour of her birth. Nature has so much to do in this world, and is engaged in generating such a vast variety of co-existent productions, that she must surely be now and then too flurried and confused to distinguish between the different processes that she is carrying on at the same time. Starting from this point of view, it will always remain my private persuasion that Nature was absorbed in making cabbages when Mrs. Vesey was born, and that the good lady suffered the consequences of a vegetable preoccupation in the mind of the Mother of us all.

Count Fosco, immensely fat and a suave, dangerous villain:

“I am thinking,” he remarked quietly, “whether I shall add to the disorder in this room by scattering your brains about the fireplace.”

Mr. Fairlie, a totally self-absorbed and spineless ‘invalid’ who hates being troubled or put out and has a mortal fear of infection, is visited by the Count and learns of his niece’s illness:

Good God!” I said. “Is it infectious?”
“Not at present,” he answered, with detestable composure. “It may turn to infection—but no such deplorable complication had taken place when I left Blackwater Park. I have felt the deepest interest in the case, Mr. Fairlie—I have endeavoured to assist the regular medical attendant in watching it—accept my personal assurances of the uninfectious nature of the fever when I last saw it.”
Accept his assurances! I never was farther from accepting anything in my life. I would not have believed him on his oath. He was too yellow to be believed. He looked like a walking-West-Indian- epidemic. He was big enough to carry typhus by the ton, and to dye the very carpet he walked on with scarlet fever. In certain emergencies my mind is remarkably soon made up. I instantly determined to get rid of him.

Mr. Fairlie’s lawyer was disgusted with his client who only considered his own interests. He remarked:

“No daughter of mine should have been married to any man alive under such a settlement as I was compelled to make for Laura Fairlie.”

Linking to 23 Books in 2023 and the Historical Fiction Challenge.

8 thoughts on “The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (1859)

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