‘This is the story of what a Woman’s patience can endure, and what a Man’s resolution can achieve’.
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, Pg.9
Heralded as the first ‘sensation novel’, which mixed Victorian gothic literature with the realism of domestic novels, Wilkie Collins’ classic was a perfect choice to read on a cold, blistering evening. Although I started this novel in the 25-30ºC heat of Hong Kong (after reading the first edition of Penguin’s The Happy Reader magazine), it wasn’t until I was snugly wrapped up with the wood-fire burning in my parents bungalow, a few weeks ago, that I finally broke into this dazzlingly atmospheric novel.
The story begins with a mysterious encounter between our reliable narrator, Walter Hartright, and the woman whose significance is suggested from the title. All dressed, from head to toe, in white, the woman appears to be hurriedly and agitatedly escaping from something or someone. As she asks Walter the direction to London, he offers her all the help he can muster considering the unusual circumstances. For this she is eternally grateful and the significance of this encounter forms the basis of the thrilling and suspense-ridden events that unfold. From unforgettable and larger-than-life characters – such as the evil and manipulative mastermind, Count Fosco, who wouldn’t be out of place in an Angela Carter novel, to the strong-willed and intelligent Mariam Halcombe – to the numerous twists and turns in the plot (some easily guessed, others not so much), The Woman in White was an entertaining read once I was able to immerse myself in it completely.
‘We go to Nature for comfort in trouble, and sympathy in joy, only in books. […] Those whose lives are most exclusively passed amid the ever-changing wonders of sea and land are also those who are most universally insensible to every aspect of Nature not directly associated with the human interest of their calling. Our capacity of appreciating the beauties of the earth we live on is, in truth, one of the civilised accomplishments which we all learn, as an Art; and, more, that very capacity is rarely practiced by any of us except when our minds are most indolent and most unoccupied’.
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, Pg.55
After Walter’s mysterious encounter, he is employed as a drawing master to the young Laura Fairlie and her half-sister, Marian Halcombe, at Limmeridge House. It is here that he falls in love with the quiet and sensitive Laura, who astonishingly resembles the woman he encountered all in white. What is even more astonishing is that the woman is known to the Limmeridge household as Anne Catherick, a mentally unstable child who grew up in the village and was devoted to Laura’s now-deceased mother. He also finds out the devastating news that Laura is engaged to be married to Sir Percival Glyde. Upon Marian’s warm-hearted advice, he leaves his position early and travels abroad. After Laura and Sir Percival’s marriage, they return from their honeymoon to live in Blackwater, accompanied by Marian and the cunning Count Fosco and and his dutiful, obedient wife who also happens to be the aunt of Laura. From this point onwards, what ensues in a series of plots to defraud the naive Laura Fairlie of her inheritance.
‘No man under heaven deserves these sacrifices from us women. Men! They are the enemies of our innocence and our peace – they drag us away from our parents’ love and our sisters’ friendship – they take us body and soul to themselves, and fasten our helpless lives to theirs as they chain up a dog to his kennel. And what does the best of them give us in return?’
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, Pg.181
‘On the few occasions when her cold blue eyes are off her work, they are generally turned on her husband, with the look of mute submissive inquiry which we are all familiar with in the eyes of a faithful dog’.
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, Pg.216
One of the interesting things that recurred in The Woman in White were the remarks made on the position of women within marriages. As the quotes above highlight, good wives were equated to that of obedient, faithful and loyal dogs. They had no legal rights to their own possessions or inheritance and relied on their fathers or male guardians and, subsequently, their husbands for financial stability. This appears to be a direct commentary on the state of women’s legal rights during the time in which Wilkie Collins was writing his most popular novel, which was first serialised between 1859-60. From the little bit of research I did on Wilkie Collins himself, I found out that he was a staunch opposer against marriage as it was most unfair on women.
‘Being, however, nothing but a woman, condemned to patience, propriety, and petticoats, for life, I must respect the housekeeper’s opinions, and try to compose myself in some feeble and feminine way’.
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, Pg.198
However, despite this seeming ‘feminism’, the portrayals of females in The Woman in White are often skewed. For a start, the women in the novel are either incredibly feeble like Laura, mad like Anne Catherick, or duped into acting on behalf of their husbands like Countess Fosco. Although Marian Halcombe is perhaps the strongest female character, she often derides her own sex and the strong qualities she does have are always equated with masculinity. However, at the same time the male characters don’t seem to fare much better. From Laura Fairlie’s pathetic and cowardly guardian to the aggressive and hot-tempered Sir Percival Glyde, there are gross caricatures on both sides.
The Woman in White, often cited as Wilkie Collins’ greatest literary achievement, was a suspense-ridden and intriguing novel from beginning to end. Cluttered with cliffhanger after cliffhanger I can understand why it achieved the popularity it did in serial form in the 1850s and, with obvious adjustments to make the plot flow without much overlap, continues to remain widely read in novel form. The Woman in White was a wonderful introduction to a Victorian writer, and contemporary of Charles Dickens, who I haven’t had previous experience of reading before. It was easily accessible and, with the help of an insightful page on The British Library website, I was able to read about some of the real-life incidents that inspired Collins’ great novel.