The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
Genre: Mystery, Suspense
Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
Summary: Walter Hartright is a young artists living in London. He is hired by a gentleman named Fairlie to come to his country estate to instruct his niece and her sister in drawing. Almost immediately, his journey takes a strange turn when late at night he comes upon a young woman dressed all in white in the middle of the road. At first he takes her for a ghost, but she is quite real and quite strange. She is afraid and flighty and mentions Limmeridge – the very place he is meant to travel to meet Mr. Fairlie and his family. He tries to shake off the encounter, but it haunts him. Once arrived at Limmeridge House, Walter falls almost instantly in love with Laura Fairlie who is beautiful and hauntingly reminds him of the woman he met on the road. Circumstances, namely a Sir Percival Glyde, separate them and Walter must solve the mystery of the woman in white and discover her secret for all of their lives may be in danger from it.
“The Woman in White” is one of my favorite books. I saw the rather unfortunate Andrew Lloyd Webber musical based on the book before reading it. I do not recommend the musical at all (although good for some unintentional laughs…), but it did lead me to the novel which I still enjoy. Basically the whole musical, the woman in white – Anne – sings constantly about how she has a secret. The secret is a main player in the novel as well and the best thing about this book is that I tend to always forget what the secret is so it’s fairly new to me every time I read it. Hilarious.
This book was written in 1860 and according to the back cover was a huge success upon its release. Even though it was written at that time, I believe it manages to be extremely exciting and suspenseful. It totally lacks the utterly boring, descriptive inaction that drags down Austen and Dickens and really moves the plot forward with unexpected twists and turns. This is rather unexpected in a classic novel – to be reading it and experiencing a constant urge to see what happens next.
I find the characters especially well written. Walter is a bit naive, but a really good guy who just fell in love with the wrong girl. Laura Fairlie is probably the dullest character, but he loves her because she is beautiful and simple and sweet. I like her because she is such an excellent contrast for the real female lead of the book – Marian Halcombe. Marian is Laura’s half-sister on their mother’s side so is entitled to none of the large estate and fortune they have, but is Laura’s dearest companion. Their relationship is wonderful. Marian is described as ugly and is very forthright about things – in a refreshing Lizzy Bennett type of way. She is bold and brave and willing to do pretty much anything to ensure her sister’s safety and doesn’t need to rely on a man to help her with it either. Sir Percival Glyde is the villain of the story along with his cohort Count Fosco – though they hide is extremely well at first. The funniest character though has to be Mr. Fairlie, Laura’s old, complaining hypochondriac uncle. He always has something ridiculous and made up wrong with him and says hilarious things like “What have I do to with her bosom?”
The setting is creepy and bleak as you expect the vast English countryside to be. There is an air of constant danger when Laura is forced to marry Sir Percival Glyde and she and Marian find themselves at his mercy. Count Fosco is a constant companion as well – Marian distrusts him so the reader does too, but it is never quite certain whose side he is on except for his own. The woman in white – Anne – reappears unexpectedly throughout the book, crying about her secret and how she was locked away because of it. We discover quickly that she escaped from a mental asylum and have to guess whether there was good reason to put her there or not. She reveals more – that the secret is about Sir Percival Glyde and that he knows she knows. There’s mistaken identity, surprise revelations and then yes….we do find out what the ever so damaging secret is. (Hint – it’s a completely different secret in the musical. The book makes way more sense.)
Anyway, I feel this review isn’t very good, but I do just want to put it out there that this is a great book and not everything written in the 1800’s was boring. Sometimes the characters are actually relatable, the story actually intriguing, and the language easy to read and understand. It’s not as easy to read as the normal YA stuff that my mushy brain has become so used to devouring, but it does feel good on occasion to really make your mind stretch and pay attention. There are a lot of great stories out there like the one in “The Woman in White” that unfortunately some people will never hear, simply because they think it’s too much effort. This book is definitely worth the effort. I don’t think Wilkie Collins was paid by the word and he clearly knew much more about the shadiness of the real world than Jane Austen did. It’s cool to have actual villains and actual danger!
Again though, I say that anyone who romanticizes this time period is crazy. People’s lives were just so not their own back then and no matter how much you love a poor painter, you still have to marry an evil baronet if your rich uncle says so.
Go ahead and try this book or another Wilkie Collins or a Dumas. Adventure and intrigue await, I promise 😉