March 10, 2003

The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins

I go to 19th century literature when I want to escape. I have been spending far too much time lately thinking intensely about education, the act of reading, what makes good writing and whether the role of public education is to fulfill the expectations of the parents or to fulfill some larger social purpose such as creating a literate public. And what is a "literate public" anyway? Or, and even scarier, do kids go to school to be socialized and exactly what does that mean? From what I can tell, manners are not part of the equation. Wearing the correct clothes and using the approved language is. Heavy stuff after a long day at work analyzing data about child care and what the projected state level budget cuts will do to the availability of quality care for parents. Not to mention my job, which may disappear pretty soon.

Anyway, I picked up The Woman in White. I've never read any of Wilkie Collins' work though I have read about it in the context of Dickens and the publishing world of Victorian London. Somehow I got the impression he wrote lurid, sensational novels that were hugely popular but of inferior quality. But this book, unlike most of what was published then, has been continuously in print since it was first published in 1860. Something has to be going on here.

What I found were amazingly well drawn characters.

The plot itself is fairly straightforward. Walter Hartwright, a young drawing teacher, has been offered the financially lucrative opportunity to go to the house of a Mr. Fairlie to teach his young wards drawing. Late at night, on the way back from a farewell visit to his mother's house just outside London, he encounters a ghostly woman dressed completely in white asking his aid in getting to London. She is mysterious, nervous and attractive. After walking with her the rest of the way and finding her a cab, he overhears the conversation of men looking for her. She has escaped from an insane asylum. And, later, after arriving at the house he is to teach in, his new student is the spitting image of her. That is just the opening. The story is told by various narrators telling their version of events from Walter's meeting with the mysterious woman to the marriage of Laura Fairlie and the final escape made from it and the revelation of Sir Percival Glyde's "Secret". There are some melodramatic moments though by current standards they wouldn’t frighten a five year old. And the sexual innuendos are so tame by comparison I had to consciously think back to the times the book was written in to appreciate them.

But the characters are wonderful. Count Fosco is so hypnotically evil he sends shivers up your spine. And the interesting part is that his nastiness is so under the surface, so seemingly congenial that you just want to believe he's a good guy. Yet something about him is off. The other bad guy, Sir Percival Glyde is the foil that sets him off. He's manipulative and cunning but can't keep the ruse up in the face of frustration. His true self shows through and you hate him. But he gets it good in the end.

The good characters are just as much fun. Walter Hartwright's initial description of Marian Halcombe, the principal female narrator, is perfect. He lovingly describes her goddess-like figure from bottom to gloriously described bust and hair only to come to her face, which is, deep intake of breath here, UGLY. Ugly beyond belief. Gargoyle ugly. Butt ugly. She has hair on her upper lip. Fortunately for Marian, she has a fine mind and a perfect temperament. Laura Fairlie doesn’t quite fair so well. She is perfect in a more conventional sense--frail, blonde and unassumingly compliant. I just wanted to take her by her lovely locks and shake her up a little. But had she had more backbone, the plot of the book would have been disrupted.

There are also several humorous grace notes. Mrs. Vesey, the companion of Laura and Marian, is a woman who sits. That's her role and she fulfills it splendidly. And the Italian friend of Walter, Pesca, chitters away in broken English in a perfect rendition of a Victorian writer's attempt at displaying a foreigner.

It's a good book. Read it slowly and enjoy.

Posted by Deb English at March 10, 2003 04:36 PM

Susan said:

I´ve just finish reading THE WOMAN IN WHITE, and it was a wonderful read! I´m surprised a gem like this isn´t on more reading lists.

I really loved the character of Marian -- beautifully developed, I think. The concept of patience as a heroic virtue has been lost to us, and rather tragically so, I think.

Fosco was well done, too, wasn´t he? The inverse of a tragic hero -- Could we call him a tragic villain? His one weakness is the admiration he feels for Marian, and that, as we know, is eventually his undoing.

I still feel curiosity regarding the character and motivations of the Countess, Fosco´s loyal wife.

I´d better mention that I read this book in Spanish, and there were undoubtedly some things that were lost in the translation. (I´ve no doubt, however, that the translation was excellently done.)

Are there any other books as wonderful and yet underrated as this one?

Don´t know what your job is, but I truly hope it hasn´t disappeared!

Thanks, Susan