Monday, June 6, 2011

A Work In Progress Book Review - Part One: THE WOMAN IN WHITE by Wilkie Collins

Progress report: I haven't finished THE WOMAN IN WHITE yet (I'm more than halfway there, though AND loving it) but the thought of reviewing the WHOLE thing in one lump is very intimidating to me. I've yet to review an actual literary classic on my blog. Don't know that I'm ready to. Very daunting. Though I admit I've been staying up half the last few nights speeding right along with Collins to see what happens next! At this rate, I may have to re-read THE MOONSTONE, which I know I read while in high school. (Other than the fact that the book is about a fabulous stolen jewel, I remember very little about it.)

Thinking grandiosely, I signed up for the Victorian Reading Challenge hosted by Bethany at SUBTLE MELODRAMA six months ago and haven't done anything since to endear myself to the Challenge host. (Sorry I haven't been more productive, Bethany!) But once I finish THE WOMAN IN WHITE  I'm thinking - can Trollope be far behind? Yegads!  

At any rate, here's what's happened so far: 
THE WOMAN IN WHITE is told from several varying viewpoints by several different characters. Each section of the book is picked up by the next character involved, once the previous character signs off - sort of like a round robin type thing. Collins himself (in a preface) declares this a new way of telling a story, though today it is quite common place. So far, I must admit, it is done very well even if Collins writing from a woman's point of view is slightly less successful than Collins writing as a male.But I suppose that's not really unexpected.

Anyway,  it all begins with Walter Hartright ( a character I like immensely), a poor but honest drawing master and gentleman, who, through the machinations of a family friend, the delightful Professor Pesca, has been hired to give drawing lessons to two young ladies of quality. He is also to oversee the art collection (mostly from what I could gather, of drawings and etchings, Rembrandt and the like), of their excessively eccentric, hypochondriac guardian: Frederick Fairlie Esq. of Limmeridge House in Cumberland. The guardian, by the way is a hilarious creation though I'm not at all sure he's meant to be

To have one's future entrapped in the feeble hands of such a man, is to know frustration and chagrin and the overwhelming urge to commit bloody murder upon the person of the effette Mr. Fairlie. How his servants haven't risen up en masse and struck him down and buried him in the garden in the middle of the night is beyond me.

Back to the story:
As one might expect, Mr. Hartright falls in love - inappropriately though honorably, as is made very clear - with one of his charges, Laura Fairlie - a wimp of a girl, but given her upbringing and the nature of Victorian society, an understandable sort of wimp. But, really, even though you want to take her in hand and occasionally shake the stuffing out of her, Wilkie Collins somehow manages to make her likeable.You feel for her and her plight from the very beginning.

Luckily for Laura, she has her half-sister living with her - the poor but gutsy,  intelligent and well-meaning, Miss Halcomb. Both young women are to receive the drawing lessons.

One evening, on his way - walking to Cumberland to begin his new duties - Mr. Harwright comes across a woman in white (or rather, she sneaks up on him), slinking along the dark road - lingeirng in a place she has no business being. They have a strange conversation in which she asks him, among other things, if he knows any baronets in the area. She makes it clear that she is in deep fear of a titled man who has, perhaps, done her some harm. Hartright, a gentleman, helps the mysterious woman on her way. Anne Catherick, he later learns, is an escapee from an asylum.

Something I'd never thought about before:
In the 19th century, people appeared to spend a great deal of time walking to and from their destinations even if those destinations were miles off. It was just something that was done, especially if you had no carriage or money to engage one. At first it seemed odd to me that Hartright would simply leave late in the day to walk to Cumberland (after a fond farewell to his sisters), but obviously this was not an extraordinary thing.

Back to the story once Hartright reaches Limmeridge House:
It was interesting to me to read Mr. Hartright's description of Miss Halcomb whom he first sees in dim light. He is quite taken with her splendid figure, her beautiful hair and her grace, but once he sees her face which he describes as ugly - she is done for as the possible object of desire for any man worth is manly salt. The fact that she has all the attributes mentioned PLUS is clever, kind, sensible and capable of great love carries little weight with Victorian men - obviously. Ah, the plight of the poor and plain relation.

But when Hartright first sees Laura, he is enchanted by her quiet beauty and then, I suppose, by her wimpy airs. Wait, wait, I mustn't carry on. She IS likeable. I assure you. We see, right off the bat that poor Hartright is doomed to suffer heartbreak - as is Laura. In those days a drawing master could not hope to marry or even give voice to feelings of love for an upper class girl of fortune - yes, Laura will inherit a fortune when she reaches a certain age. She is so above Hartright in station that words and/or feelings of an affectionate nature cannot, must not be spoken or acknowledged. Wilkie Collins handles the exposition of these emotions and the burgeoning love between both characters in a wonderfully understated way. It's all wretchedness and heartbreak beneath the surface. Very well done. Though of course, as a modern day woman, I was appalled by the unhappiness these two and society were foisting on each other, I understood it.

After three halcyon months at Limmeridge House which has slowly become a hotbed of unspoken, unexpressed emotions, Miss Halcomb warns off Mr. Hartright and tells him he must leave or risk bringing disaster on Laura and himself.  She is engaged to be married and has been for two years, to a Sir Percival Glyde- an older man whom Laura's father had great affection and respect for. On his deathbed, Laura's father had extracted a promise from her that she would marry Sir Percival. Uh-oh, you say and you'd be right. Laura was/is a malleable daughter who wants to do right by her father's wishes and cause no one even a moment's unhappiness. She wants everyone to be happy. Well, you know, people who want everyone to be happy usually wind up making no one happy, least of all themselves.

See, here's the problem right off the bat: Laura and to a certain extent, Miss Halcomb and even the family lawyer, the elderly Mr. Gilmore - who relates part of the story in his own words - all make the mistake of thinking that Sir Percival is worthy of the title 'gentleman' and that he is the sort to not want to cause anyone any unhappiness either. In a word or two: they get taken in by a veneer of manners and breeding.

But in the meantime, Laura receives an anonymous letter warning her not to marry Sir Percival - dire consequences will ensue if she does, for he is a vile villain - or words to that effect. It is obvious as Miss Halcomb and Hartright, rightly surmise, that Anne Catherick (he had earlier told the tale of his odd meeting in the night with a woman in white) is in the vicinity of Cumberland herself. Putting two and two together, they also surmise that Sir Percival must be the baronet Anne Catherick spoke of so mysteriously. But surely, these are the ravings of a mad woman. Still, Miss Halcomb promises to keep an eye out for Laura's safety and to learn what she can of Anne Catherick's whereabouts.

Once Hartright, convinced he is doing the right thing for Laura, leaves Limmeridge House for parts unknown. Well, not so unknown, he goes back to London and later signs on to an expedition to some dangerous jungley place in Central America - the expedition needing someone to draw what they discover along the way. Hartright had pleaded with Miss Halcomb to help him find just such a job away from England and the heartbreak he could hardly endure. He is the very essence of wretchedness when he leaves the country. Your heart bleeds for him. Oh, if only things could be different.

Well, it seems fairly obvious, they can't.

Despite misgivings, Laura marries Sir Percival and off they go to Italy for their honeymoon.  When, several months later, they return to take up residence at the baronet's crumbling country seat, Miss Halcomb comes to live with them at Laura's insistence.

Earlier, the story had been picked up by Miss Halcomb after Gilmore the lawyer had signed off, so we see everything from her point of view - at least as far as I've currently gone, halfway through the book.

Almost immediately, Miss Halcomb intuits that something is not quite right. Laura has changed and so has Sir Percy.(No big surprise, I'd say.) Adding to the uncomfortable mix, another couple has come to stay with them - friends of Sir Percy - the corpulent and utterly creepy (at least to me) Count Fosco - of Italian nobility - and his eerily docile though stiff-necked wife, the Countess. What a strange brew!

What happens from then on is only to be expected as dark doings are hinted at when it becomes fairly obvious, fairly early, that Laura has been married strictly for her fortune - actually, the marraige settlement earlier tells us that but Mr. Gilmore had been powerless to prevent the settlement contract since Laura's guardian, the weedy Mr. Fairlie,  was most insistent that it be carried out as arranged.

To read about the oddly eccentric and entirely creepy doings - I keep using that word but really, there's no other way to describe what is going on in that house most especially when Count Fosco  is on the scene. He has brought with him from Italy,  a pet cockatoo, two canaries and a little cage in the shape of a castle filled with white mice which he allows to run all over him when he gets the urge -  the mice, not the cage.. Picture it. Canaries singing, mice climbing in and out of his clothing and the cockatoo screeching. Eccentric is too mild a word for dear Count Fosco of the piercing gray eyes and seemingly inflexible will. A will which he masquerades in the guise of obsequious continental manners. But it is obvious to anyone with eyes and a bit of brain that Fosco and Sir Percy are in some sort of nefarious cahoots.

A charming household.

I'm at the point in the story when things look very bleak for Laura and Miss Halcomb. Sir Percival is an unprinicpled cad whose main concern is getting his hands on Laura's money - to that end he has trouble even pretending to good manners and concern for Laura of any sort. In short, he is NO gentleman.

I hope to find out within the next day or two when Hartright will come back on the scene - IF he ever comes back (I suspect he will) and also, when will Anne Catherick - the woman in white - will be discovered and flushed from her hiding place, perhaps to her death. I worry for Laura and the indefatigable Miss Halcomb - what can two 19th century ladies do with no male protector on the scene? No father or brother to whom they can appeal for help and guidance?

Stay tuned, dear ladies and gentlemen, stay tuned.

(I have to say, I am loving this book much more than I thought I would. It is no chore to read this melodramatic 19th century tale of evil doings and ladies in distress, not to mention a stalwart hero. This Wilkie Collins experience has turned out better than I would have ever expected.)

To read more about Collins and his work, please use this link.


  1. Omigod, I just laughed from start to finish in your "summary" of the charaters and action in this mystery classic.

    I saw the BBC movie a few years ago, and am remembering the doings as I read.

    You are right to distrust Count Fosco. He is one of the most nefarious, notorious villains in mysterydom.

    It all is explained and unfolds.

    Can't wait for the next installment of "As the Woman in White Turns."

  2. I love Wilkie Collins & TWIW is just wonderful, a real page turner. If you're going to jump into Victorian fiction, I think you made the right choice. His heroines are real women (not surprising if you know a little about his unconventional private life) & his plots are diabolical. I hope you reread Moonstone, it's terrific. If you want to go further, Armadale is also a hoot as is Man & Wife which I read last year. Also his short stories. I read lots of Wilkie last year, I'm starting to think I should read some more. Great review by the way.

  3. I am kicking myself because I once passed up a chance to buy two boxes of an incomplete set of the works of Wilkie Collins for some absurdly small amount, like $10.00! I've read The Moonstone and The Woman in White, but he was a prolific author and I now wish I had some of those more obscure works.

  4. Kathy: You have given me the title for my next Woman in White post! HA!

    The next installment will be the final one as I am now three quarters of the way finished and caught up in the thickening of the this most dire plot. :)

  5. Thanks, Lyn. I am definitely going to read more Wilkie Collins. He IS a hoot! I am loving this book more than I can say. Why did I ever wait so long to read it?

    IT is not intimidating at all.

    I'm going to hunt around online for some nice used hardcover copies of THE MOONSTONE and ARMADALE and maybe another title or two.

    Stayed up until 2 in the morning reading - that hasn't happened to me in a while. :)

  6. Joan: Well, I am now an ardent and most recent convert to Wilkie Collins and wish I'd begun reading him in earnest earlier. But maybe I just wasn't ready...

    Can't wait to get started on THE MOONSTONE - soon as I can get my hands on a nice hardcover copy. I'm adding Wilkie Collins to my home library asap!

    I know I read it sometime in high school, but since I can't remember much about it, it will be as if I'm reading it for the first time.

    Yes, you should have bought the collection - incomplete or not! :)

    Sometimes at auction you come across these boxes of old books. It's always best to snatch them up. Ha!

  7. What a fun review. Glad you are enjoying the book; it's my favourite Collins. I too like Walter Hartright (yeah his heart is in the right place) but would have appreciated it more had he been enamoured by Miss Halcomb who has more pluck than Laura.

  8. neer: Thanks! I'm with you. I wish Miss Halcomb had been the love interest. But I think 19th century Victorian men did not fall in love with such as Miss Halcomb. At least in stories written by men. :)

  9. Try to see the BBC movie of this book. It's really fun to watch.

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  11. Kathy: Once I finish reading the book, I will probably look and see if pbs or netflix has it. :)


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