The Woman in White

By Wilkie Collins.

Having read The Moonstone earlier this year, I thought I’d read Collins’ other well-known novel, The Woman in White.

Walter Hartright has an encounter with a mysterious woman in white who has escaped from an asylum, and being a jolly decent sort of chap, he helps her evade her captors. We learn that her name is Anne Catherick.

With a recommendation from his friend, Professor Pesca, an Italian émigré, Walter lands a job as a drawing master at Limmeridge House where he teaches babelicious Laura Fairlie and the ugly Marian Halcombe under the roof of Laura’s uncle, the über-hypochondriac Mr Fairlie. Walter falls in love with Laura, but their love is thwarted when it’s revealed that she’s been betrothed to the perfectly nice Sir Percival Glyde. Having looked up the number for the French Foreign Legion in the phone book (not available until 1873), Walter goes to Central America instead.

Nothing can be done to prevent Laura’s impending marriage to Sir Percival (who’s twice her age), but she manages to ensure that Marian will be her companion when she gets to Sir Percival’s seat, Blackwater Park, after a honeymoon on the Continent. When they do return, it’s with his full-figured friend, Count Fosco, and his venomous wife, who’s also Laura’s aunt. Sir Percival, who was such a delightful chap when he was trying to win Laura’s hand, turns out to be a villain of the first order and up to something which Marian does her best to thwart, but is ultimately unable to prevent. It becomes clear that Sir Percival married Laura for her inheritance and, thanks to her resemblance to Anne Catherick, a little sleight of hand allows him to get his hands on the money.

Walter returns to England to find that Laura has apparently died, only to find that she’s alive (Anne Catherick having died instead) and has been spirited by the resourceful Marian away from the asylum where she’d been kept. The three now live together in secrecy and Walter does what he can to find evidence that’ll prove Laura is, in fact, Lady Glyde. He has to contend both with Sir Percival and with Count Fosco, and eventually learns that the former’s secret is that he has no claim on his baronetcy. Sir Percival (or, as I suppose I should now call him, Percival) manages to die in a fire at the church in Old Welmingham when he tries to recover the evidence of the fraud he perpetrated. The identity of Anne’s father is also revealed – not Percival, as Walter believed, but Laura’s father who was a beau in his day.

That just leaves Count Fosco who holds the one piece of evidence which will prove that Laura (now Walter’s wife) really is who she claims to be. It is with the help of Professor Pesca that he gains sufficient hold over the Count to have him reveal that last vital piece of evidence. Laura is acknowledged by her uncle and the law to be herself. Count Fosco is murdered by the Brotherhood (shady foreign types), and Laura’s uncle dies of a fit o’ th’ vapours, which leaves her and Walter’s son the heir of Limmeridge.

The story is told in similar fashion to The Moonstone as different characters make some contribution to the narrative. As for the pace of the narrative, I felt there was a slough in the Blackwater Park section until nearer the end when Marian eavesdrops on Sir Percival and Count Fosco, but after that things pick up. Collins could’ve been writing for a movie with all the revelations coming in rapid succession at the end along with Sir Percival’s unexpected death in Old Welmingham.

The most interesting characters are Marian Halcombe and Count Fosco. Marian attracts the Count’s admiration for her actions, and she acts boldly to protect Laura. Her biggest problem is Collins himself who undermines her by reminding the audience that she’s a weak and feeble woman when, in fact, she’s demonstrating the opposite. Count Fosco is interesting because he seems wholly reasonable and somewhat eccentric when he is, nonetheless, utterly villainous. His background is also uncertain, and it’s not until Pesca reveals more that we learn the Count is a spy and a member of the Brotherhood. His weakness is Marian Halcombe, and his end is as mysterious as almost everything else about him.

Sir Percival, on the other hand, seems to be little more than a stock villain (BA Moustache Twirling, Oxon.). Walter Hartright, who is absent from a large part of the story, is one-dimensional as the stout British chap defending the honour and safety of his beloved, the anaemic Laura. An hon. mention should go to Mr Fairlie, especially in the section which he narrates and in which he hilariously reveals just how completely oblivious he is to his own failings. He has the decency (or should that be “predictability”?) to die of apoplexy. Madam Fosco, whose character is revealed earlier in the book and indirectly, is a nasty piece of work; and Mrs Catherick, Anne’s mother, is also venomous, vindictive and condescending.

As I said, once Collins really got going with The Woman in White, it moves along at a reasonable pace. On the other hand, I thought it was rather Victorian where I could do with something from the 21st century.[1]

But looking at my bookshelf what do I find but The Haunted Hotel and Other Stories by, er, Wilkie Collins. I’m afraid my return to the 21st century is going to be delayed.

Notes

  1. As an aside of a sort, I’ve been wondering whether the peculiar thing which the Chinese believe is formal English (the odd creature that’s to be found in Senior English for Schools or the College Entrance Exam) is actually based on 19th century English and, perhaps, elements of American English which from a British perspective would be regarded as old-fashioned. In my English, the verb recommend can take a finite clause as a dO, but not (I’m reasonably sure of myself) an infinitive, which is something I’ve been correcting (erroneously it seems) in my little darlings’ English. Thus “I recommend that you (should) read The Woman in White”, but not “I recommend you to read The Woman in White” (which, if not ungrammatical, sounds dated) But I found Collins using recommend with an infinitive construction, which then got me thinking about this because school Chinglish often makes me think of the 19th century and its often stilted prose style.
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