This is the story of what a Woman's patience can endure, and what a Man's resolution can achieve.
Wilkie Collins' opening line of The Woman in White
makes things sound simple, doesn't it? Well, things aren't simple. Collins offers 700 pages of very well written Victorian Gothic literature. He's also provided an early example of a mystery/psychological thriller. Unlike most Gothic novels, there's nothing supernatural about the goings on here. Collins uses realism, unforgettable characters (I want to throw a few drinks back with Professor Pesca, Count Fosco and Marian Halcombe.), a slew of alternating narrators, and a poop-load of pages to spin a riveting tale.
The alternating-narrator approach worked well for me. Instead of an omniscient narrator, Collins allows many of the characters to share their knowledge of events through journals, letters, and interviews. Drawing instructor Walter Hartwright consolidates all of the information and testimonies received, and provides some commentary on the overall criminal investigation. But with the exception of Walter, at the time a letter or entry was written, the character/narrator has no idea exactly what was going on. And for the most part, the people who do have a clue either don't serve as a narrator, or don't tell their portion of events until the final pages. Everyone--readers and narrators alike--remains in the dark throughout. I found myself speculating right along with the narrators. The oh-so-gradual untangling of conspiracy kept me hooked even at the sloggiest of times.
Count Fosco also kept me hooked. Here's a sampling of his pitch-black charm as he lauds the chemist's and poisoner's art:
The best years of my life have been passed in the ardent study of medical and chemical science. Chemistry, especially, has always had irresistible attractions for me, from the enormous, the illimitable power which the knowledge of it confers. Chemists, I assert it emphatically, might sway, if they pleased, the destinies of humanity. Let me explain this before I go further.
Mind, they say, rules the world. But what rules the mind? The body. The body (follow me closely here) lies at the mercy of the most omnipotent of all potentates--the Chemist. Give me--Fosco--chemistry; and when Shakespeare has conceived Hamlet, and sits down to execute the conception--with a few grains of powder dropped into his daily food, I will reduce his mind, by the action of his body, till his pen pours out the most abject drivel that has ever degraded paper. Under similar circumstances, revive me the illustrious Newton. I guarantee that, when he sees the apple fall, he shall eat it, instead of discovering the principle of gravitation.
Witty and funny for sure, but more than a little reminiscent of Hannibal Lector. Fosco's a lovable assassin; a small pet-adoring psychopath with a zest for life. The Woman in White
ended with me wanting to know infinitely more about him. A great character!
One more sample of Collins' skill before I close. We're given a glimpse of Hartright's wrongness of heart when he meets Marian Halcombe:
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!
Hartright then adds to his freshly revealed status as an aesthete and butthole by painting a verbal portrait of Marion as a hideous, mannish, swarthy, low hairlined, mustachioed woman. That's our flawed, shallow hero ladies and gentlemen. Give me Marian and Fosco any day over this guy. Despite my disdain for Hartright, I do love the way Collins portrays him. The man can develop characters, that's for sure.
In the end, my only significant quibble with The Woman in White
is the length. The book could have been shortened plenty without compromising the story. Granted, the work initially was published by Charles Dickens in serialized form. Still, cut my eyeballs some slack! Also, I could have done without the constant depiction of women as the second, weaker sex. I'll give a partial pass for the era of publishing--1859, same year as Darwin's On the Origin of Species
and Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities
!--but Collins and humankind deserve a raspberry for foolishness.
An interesting, fun read. Highly recommended!