Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Woman In White / by Wilkie Collins

Wilkie Collins was never quite as widely respected as his contemporaries in Victorian England. Despite the fact that his numerous novels and story collections sold exceptionally well and his fan base always held him in high regard, his work never carried the same intellectual distinction as, say, a George Eliot or Charles Dickens. He may have been ahead of his time. Suspense, as a genre, wasn't really en vogue in the 19th century and despite the fact that the Gothic and Romanticist movements paved the way for more intrigue and mystery in fiction, literature remained a relatively more even-paced medium with stories involving more sensational themes relegated to second tier status. The fact that Collins' books outsold many of those same authors wasn't altogether missed by the reading public though critics seemed to diminish the effect that public affection for his work garnered. Nevertheless, in real life, Collins got on well with his peers, Dickens in particular co-authored and edited several serial literary publications with him, and it never seemed to bother him in the slightest that his writing achieved more mainstream success than critical acclaim. Among his two most famous works are The Moonstone (1868), about a mysterious diamond brought from India to England, and The Woman in White (1860), a story of intrigue surrounding a mysterious lady of the night. Of the two, The Woman in White was undeniably Collins favorite.


On his travels one night, young drawing master Walter Hartright meets a mysterious woman dressed all in white, disheveled and apparently in deep distress, whom he helps find the road to London only to discover later that she's escaped from an asylum, not for the first time evidently. Thinking little of it, Hartright sets out for a job he's undertaken at Limmeridge House, an estate in the northern part of the country where he's been commissioned to teach two young wards of a Mr. Frederick Fairlie, an elderly, ailing man who seldom leaves his room. Laura Fairlie, Mr. Fairlie's niece, and Marian Holcombe, Laura's half-sister, are nothing like their reclusive uncle and Mr. Hartright takes great pleasure in their company, discovering them to be fond of art and amiable. And in what initially seems to be an alarming coincidence, Mr. Hartright finds that Laura bears an astonishing resemblance to the woman in white, so much so that he engages the topic in conversation only to find that the woman he met that night on the road is known by his pupil.

The mentally disadvantaged lady is called Anne Catherick and had lived for a time as a child at Limmeridge. She'd been devoted to Laura's mother, a lady who'd also dressed in all white, and had been taken away from the family under somewhat mysterious circumstances after the matron's death. Walter meanwhile has fallen in love with Laura despite the fact that she's already betrothed to a bullish member of the nobility named Sir Percival Glyde, whose engagement to Laura is more a matter of course owing to an agreement between Laura and her uncle. Upon meeting Glyde, Hartright becomes convinced through a series of conversations and correspondences that he was responsible for shutting up Anne Catherick, "the woman in white," inside the asylum, unjustly as it were, to keep her from revealing secrets concerning Glyde's own dubious past and ill-conceived plans for marrying Laura and inheriting Limmeridge House.

With as many plot twists as mysteries involved in the story, Collins weaves one of the more spellbinding novels of the 19th century. It's not all that easy to follow in places and characters like Marian Holcombe and the conniving Count Fosco (appearing later on in the narrative), both of whom can seem marginalized at first, can't be discounted as they end up holding key elements to the plot's development. Keeping track of the various settings--Limmeridge House, Glyde's own estate, Hartright's travels in Honduras, Italy, London and the English countryside--can get confusing as well. But the overall intrigue of the opening sequences, the dramatic conflict escalating with each chapter, the serious undertones of tragedy and impending doom as well as the climactic conclusion are rewarding enough to supersede any of the book's many plotboilers and accommodate its complex structure. (FIC COLLINS)

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