Sunday, 1 April 2012

The Woman in White

Title: The Woman in White
Author: Wilkie Collins
Pages: 672 (paperback)
Published: April 29th 2003 (first published 1859)
Published by: Penguin Classics

‘In one moment, every drop of blood in my body was brought to a stop… There, as if it had that moment sprung out of the earth…stood the figure of a solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in white’

The Woman in White famously opens with Walter Hartright’s eerie encounter of a moonlit London road. Engaged as a drawing master to the beautiful Laura Fairlie, Walter becomes embroiled in the sinister intrigues of Sir Percival Glyde and his ‘charming’ friend Count Fosco, who has a taste for white mice, vanilla bonbons and poison. Pursuing questions of identity and insanity along the paths and corridors of the English country houses and the madhouse, The Woman in White is the first and most influential of the Victorian genre that combined Gothic horror with psychological realism.

Walter Hartright is a drawing master working in London when he is employed to work in Cumberland for three months, repairing the collection of paintings in Limmeridge House for the owner, Mr. Fairlie, and instructing the two young women who reside there in watercolours. The night before his departure he runs into Anne Catherick just outside of London in the middle of the night. This meeting is to throw him into a mystery which had its beginning decades before and which impacts the lives of many people in different ways.

This, in essence, is a detective story. The narrative as we read it has been compiled by Hartright with the testimonies of the people best able to relate the events which took place. We see them in chronological order, I think making it somewhat easier for the reader to work out what might be going on (though some key ones are left out of this order, instead related in Hartright's narrative as he finds things out by talking to people) than for those embroiled in the plot.

And quite a plot it is. There are twists and turns and things going wrong all over the spot. My first instinct of 'oh, well this is obviously what happened' turned out to be completely wrong, and while there were a couple of instances where I worked out what had happened, for the most part I was completely in the dark as to what was really going on. Which is exactly what you want from this kind of story - you want to be trying to work it out and getting it wrong, or at least parts of it. The point of the detective story is to show off the prowess and tenacity of the investigator and it loses something if it is too easily solvable.

To be fair, Hartright had more tenacity than prowess - he is so desperate to solve the mystery that he stops at nothing and you know he would not give up until every possibility had been thoroughly investigated. He is a great character, if a little overdescriptive at times in his narratives. But being an artist, this is maybe to be expected and actually shows his character coming out in his writing. Of the other contributors to the narratives my favourite has to be Count Fosco - he is a wonderfully eccentric and flamboyant character, while also quite clearly being something of a genius, particularly when it comes to human nature. Even before he had his say and he was merely appearing in other reports he was my favourite character. Especially because you're never quite sure what his motives are or whether you can trust him or not. Mr. Fairlie - the owner of Limmeridge House - was also quite amusing in his complaints. Think Mrs. Bennett from Pride and Prejudice, only more.

There were a couple of mildly creepy moments, but not as much as I was expecting given that it was described as part-Gothic horror. Yes, sensibilities have changed a lot in the last 150 years, but I was still expecting a little more. On top of this, the story did drag at times and I didn't find it the easiest book in the world to read. Still, it was definitely enjoyable and makes you want to find out what has happened and what the cause of the whole thing was. Everything is tied up nicely and nothing of significance was left unanswered - even if some of it was only conjecture on the part of Hartright.

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