Monday, June 20, 2011

Monday Book Review: As THE WOMAN IN WHITE Turns: Part Two.

I reviewed the first half of Wilkie Collins' classic THE WOMAN IN WHITE some days ago - at this link. So now I've returned with the second half of my review of a book I never expected to love as much as I do. My experience with Wilkie Collins is/was limited. I'd only read THE MOONSTONE eons ago and didn't remember much about it. (I'm going to be re-reading that in a few weeks simply because I would be a fool not to.) But I joined in The Victorian Reading Challenge (on a whim) a couple of months ago and hadn't done much since - been too busy reading other stuff. Wilkie Collins is my first Victorian author (in years) and he definitely won't be the last.

The Victorian Reading Challenge is hosted by Bethany at SUBTLE MELODRAMA.

Before I go any further, I thought I'd add a sentence which, to me, exemplifies much of what I like about Victorian Literature:

June18th - The misery of self-reproach which I suffered yesterday evening, on hearing what Laura told me in the boat-house, returned in the loneliness of the night, and kept me waking and wretched for hours.

Isn't this excessively marvelous? It's from the pages written by Vincent Gilmore of Chancery Lane, Solicitor - to further the plot of THE WOMAN IN WHITE. Although from its tone you might think it was was an excerpt from a woman's journal. Evidently men and women were prone to overwrought thoughts and actions during Victoria's reign.

I like it.

One of the reasons why I like it is that, despite the flourishes it is exactly what it purports to be. There's no getting around the meaning of these words. The man was obviously overwrought and this is evident. I love the use of fairly specific language to describe EXACTLY what a character means - the English language is a beautiful thing if used well and I love it used in this dramatic fashion.

When last we left the story, poor but honest and honorable drawing master Mr. Walter Hartright (our hero) was gone from the scene. He'd left for Central America to get away from the very idea that the love of his life, Laura Fairlie - a rich and beautiful, but not especially brilliant, young woman - had been forced, by societal and other obligations to marry Sir Percival Glyde, an unprincipled cad and desperate fortune-hunter. Just how desperate we were yet to find out. Indeed, at this point in the reading, we were left to wonder if Walter would ever return to the increasingly gloomy narrative.

The story continues to be told from different points of view, journals, letters and 'testimony' of witnesses as the story evolves.

Laura - Lady Glyde - has moved into Sir Percival's large but run-down estate (Sir Percival not having had the necessary wherewithal to maintain the property) after a month-long honeymoon in Italy. She is joined at Glyde's house by her half-sister and confidant, Marian Halcomb - a young woman denied a husband in Victorian Society because of her ugliness and possibly, her forthright manner. But what Marian lacks in outer beauty she makes up for in inner strength, imagination and daring. I can't help but wish that  Walter had fallen in love with her instead. (I'm sure I'm not the only reader who has ever thought that. I often wonder if it occurred to Wilkie Collins at all.)

Making up the rest of the cast is another couple whom Sir Percival appears to have picked up in Italy - the rotund and smarmy Count Fosco, of supposed Italian nobility - and his oddly complaisant wife, the Countess who happens to be a cousin of the Fairlies and as such, in line for a 10,000 pound inheritance should anything happen to Laura. Uh-oh.

It doesn't take a genius to figure out that something is not quite right in this strange household. Sure enough, Glyde begins almost immediately to show his true colors by attempting to force Laura to sign some official looking papers which he won't allow her to read. (!!??) But even Laura has her limits and she refuses to sign without reading the content. Good for her. I don't think I could have kept on reading if she'd meekly signed without protest. Though there is some 'hemming and hawing' but thank goodness, Marian is there to provide ballast.

I did wonder though, why Percival didn't simply forge Laura's signature. But perhaps there are some things even an unprincipled cad will not do. In truth, forgery would have been the least of his villainy especially since we learn later that he had, indeed, forged a line or two in a wedding registry. But I can say no more for fear of giving away a main plot point.

Soon enough it becomes evident that Glyde will stick at nothing (except forgery), not even physical intimidation, to get his hands on Laura's money AND that the oily Count Fosco is meant to act as the 'good cop' in their 'bad cop/good cop' routine. What I find most interesting about these pages is that with Walter off in the wilds of Central America and Laura's lawyer unable to do much because of the austere marriage settlement (Victorian pre-nup), Laura and Marian are pretty much on their own. In Victorian society there wasn't much a woman could do once she married and became basically her husband's chattel, most especially if she had no father or older brother to step in on her account. So Laura must resort to lots of hand-wringing and 'what shall we do? what shall we do? That sort of thing.

It is touching (and frustrating) to think how helpless she and Marian truly are under the strictures of the law of the land AND in society's narrow view.

I know that Wilkie Collins didn't hold much with marriage, his own unconventional living arrangements are proof enough of that. Obviously he didn't think much of what marriage did to women. This view comes across clearly in THE WOMAN IN WHITE. Laura Fairlie was pretty much doomed from the start if not for the machinations of Marian and later, Walter Hartright who comes back into the plot in the veritable nick of time.

As does Anne Cartherick - remember her? She is 'the woman in white' of the title and she is still lurking in the shadows, on the run from the men in white who want nothing more than to find her and take her back to the lunatic asylum.

We soon find out that Anne Catherick might be in possession of a deep, dark secret which could destroy Sir Percival Glyde. When Anne tries again to see Laura and warn her (remember she sent Laura the anonymous letter warning her - to no avail - not to marry Percival Glyde), she is sealing her own doom once the nefarious Count Fosco with his cockatoo, canaries and white mice (??!!) picks up the scent. His modus vivendi is making sure that nothing happens to Glyde who has promised him [Fosco] a cut of Laura's money. Greed and self-importance guides Fosco who is one of the sleaziest, slimiest villains in literary history. Yet the man can't be all bad, he does fall head over heels for Marian Halcomb. He calls her 'magnificent' and you know, in truth, she is.

But oh, is Fosco odious. He is the kind of cunning, operatic villain you hiss at. A man who thinks he knows himself but is hardly aware of his own villainy. He has an excuse and a reason for everything he does and expects you (as we learn later in his self-explaining, self-excusing treatise) to overlook his methods because his motives surely can't be seen as anything but noble.

Okay, long story short: Earlier, it had been made clear to us that Anne Catherick and Laura Fairlie have a very strong physical resemblance to each other. (When all is revealed in the end, you will learn why this should be so.) With that in mind, a hideous plot is hatched - based on this resemblance - by Fosco and Glyde and is carried out with a willful proficiency and malice. Your heart will be in your mouth as you read of the length and breadth that Fosco and Glyde will go to get their hands on Laura's money. Poor Anne Catherick. Poor Laura.

I can say no more without giving away too much more of the plot. But I will say this: Walter Hartright comes back on the scene just in the nick of time. Literally.

From then on it's sheer hard sleuthing grunt work on Walter's part that will help save the day and it is a happy day indeed when we read that Glyde and later, Fosco, both come to a very bad end. Two more unprincipled villains more deseerving of their bad endings you will never meet.

Also near the end, in full circle mode, we welcome back the delightfully exuberant - tiny in stature but enormous in heart - Professor Pesca who had, in the first few pages of the book, been responsible for Walter's getting the job as drawing master to Laura and Marian. Though this time around it is a Pesca who harbors deep and deadly secrets which belie his cheerful countenance. Still, he is a great help in bringing about a satisfactory ending to this harrowing Victorian tale of greed and malevolence in the undaunted face of true love.

I do hope that if you're not familiar with Wilkie Collins THE WOMAN IN WHITE, you will rectify that oversight immediately. But make sure you have the time to set aside. This is definitely a book that will keep you turning the pages to see what happens next until the wee hours of the morning. I loved it.

Thanks to Kathy for the idea to use 'As THE WOMAN IN WHITE Turns' for a title.


  1. Hello Yvette:
    It is now many years ago since we read 'The Woman in White', and this post has very happily brought it all back to mind. Certainly, at the time, we considered it to be a very well written novel of its kind and enjoyed it thoroughly. Perhaps the time has come for a re-read.

  2. Jane and Lance: As I always say: A great story is always worth a re-read. :)

  3. Yvette, you write the most wonderful reviews! I always want to put each book you review on my library queue but I am not as fast a reader as you are! :)

    Right now I am reading "Room" by Emma Donoghue. Did you read it? It's chilling!

    Thanks so much for your comment on my $100 HomeGoods give away! That was a fun adventure even though we all did it on no sleep after getting off a red eye flight home from Denver!

  4. Oh gosh, Pat: I LOVE Home Goods. You don't have to prompt me much to get me to join in on a contest like that. HA! I could spend hours in that store just browsing.

    Anyway, THANK YOU SO MUCH for the kind words re: my reviews. I like to have some fun reviewing when I can. :)

    THE WOMAN IN WHITE is such a terrific book. I can't imagine what took me so long to get around to reading it. Shame on me!

    No, I haven't read ROOM, though it's on my TBR List for sure.

  5. Omigosh! I was eagerly awaiting (see how quickly we lapse into Victorian prose) your writing masterpiece. The review is fantastic.

    You captured the heart and soul of this great melodrama and the characters.

    Count Fosco is known as one of the worst villains in mystery history.

    I think that Marian couldn't marry because she had no property or a father or brother with property or wealth. She was living at the house because of the good will of the family, wasn't she?

    Also, I did not read the book, but saw the absolutely delectable movie dvd of this book from the BBC, which I got from the library, and loaned to a friend who loved it. You have to see it.

    I strongly felt that Wilkie Collins was championing women's rights and equality, and was way ahead of his time, and that he was using this book as a statement -- as well as writing a fine book.

    I loved the movie and will see it again soon.

    You really should have this review published or post it on some other websites. It's priceless.

    I laughed all the way through reading it, as I remembered characters and scenes.

    Well, as this chapter of "The Edge of White," concludes, I guess we await another Victorian review.

  6. Kathy: Glad you enjoyed it. :)

    I'll watch the film one of these days. But I doubt anything can touch the book - it really is quite wonderful. Count Fosco is such a weeping mound of self-justification. He's like a large bowl of jello.

    Wilkie Collins was aware, unlike many authors and creators, of the great inequity between the rights of men and the 'rights' of women in Victorian society.

    I like 'The Edge of White'. Now to come up with something that will fit the title. :)

  7. That is true about Collins being aware of the inequity between men and women's rights then, and I think he meant to champion women's equality and their right to inherit and own property, as well as other rights within marriage.

    I'm sure the movie isn't as good as the book, but the movie is a lot of fun.

  8. I liked The Moonstone, but I have always thought The Woman in White is far better. It is so well done of a male writer from that time that he could create these female characters who are practically unforgettable.

  9. Yeah, the 'entail' laws - draconian. See: PRIDE AND PREJUDICE.

    Marriage was not very kind to women but NOT being married led to all sorts of problems too. Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

  10. djskrimiblog: Yes, I agree. Marian Halcomb especially. But the other female characters were drawn equally well.

    I still think the males were better written, but the females, I admit, were almost as good. Quite an accomplishment for a Victorian male writer.

  11. A brilliant book. And such an enthusiastic rhapsodic review! I could never do better than this. And I studied this and specialized in this literature in college ages ago. Very different from THE MOONSTONE which is really nothing more than a detective story gone epic. If you like this you ought to check out the work of Mary Elizabeth Braddon. The Woman in White is a text book Victorian Sensation novel and Braddon made that genre her own. She created some truly nasty villains far worse than Fosco and her women characters are even more interesting than Marian Holcombe and Anne Catherick. After reading The Woman in White for the first time I was astonished at how little Count Fosco appears in the book. Sir Percival is utter slime compared to Fosco who is sinister and foreboding (and even seems to have a supernatural quality about him - that scene with the savage dog, for instance) but not as evil as I imagined he would be. Yet both villains get fitting ends and it makes for a cathartic reading experience, I think. The Woman in White is truly Marian's book and she gets such short shrift in so much cursory criticism of this book.

    BTW, I don't know which BBC version kathy d is referring to but it certainly is not the one I saw. Avoid at all costs the BBC version with Tara Fitzgerald as Marian, Simon Callow as a very thin Fosco, and James Wilby as Sir Percival. The acting is wonderful, but the story is bull. It is NOT the book's story. It's a hideously revamped version with a garbage subplot about incest rather than bigamy thrown into the works. Dreadful!

  12. Why thank you so much, John. My blushes! Praise from an expert. I like it. :)

    I will definitely look for Elizabeth Braddon. I've done very little reading of Victorian novels. I'm grateful to the idea of this Challenge for opening my eyes.

    I've got Trollop coming up too. A little daunting, but I'm determined. :)

    I'm going to check and see how many versions of THE WOMAN IN WHITE are available. Sounds like I should avoid the Simon Callow/James Wilby one for sure.

  13. I don't know what version I saw but I don't remember incest, but do remember bigamy.

    However, I just read about the classic 1948 version with a show-stopping cast: Alexis Smith, Eleanor Parker, Agnes Moorehead -- and guess who? Sydney Greenstreet playing Count Fosco -- how's that for casting?

    Now I can't find this one.

    Your review is still as on-target and hilarious as I remember. It is a classic.

  14. Thanks, Kathy. I'm just now seeing your comment. Oh well, better late than never. You know how much I appreciate your comments - you've been with me from the first, kiddo. :)


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