My rating: 5 of 5 stars
An Engaging Mystery
What I Thought Didn’t Work Well
There were times as I read the novel that I thought it could have ended earlier than it should have. However, this is not to say that Wilkie Collins dragged out the story unnecessarily. Every loose end was wrapped up, every promise fulfilled. My desire for an earlier end was partially a result of my impatience, as I was born in the 20th century, and this was written in the 19th. Victorian serial literature was long. Period. I have no right to question its length, anyway. It is not my novel.
It is Wilkie Collins’ tour de force of a novel.
What I Thought Worked Well
In this edition of The Woman in White, Collins writes in his preface about one of his novel’s main strength, and it happens to tie in with his personal philosophy of writing:
“I have always held the old-fashioned opinion that the primary object of a work of fiction should be to tell a story; and I have never believed that the novelist who properly performed this first condition of his art, was in danger, on that account, of neglecting the delineation of character — for this plain reason, that the effect produced by any narrative of events is essentially dependent, not on the events themselves, but on the human interest which is directly connected with them. It may be possible, in novel-writing, to present characters successfully without telling a story; but it is not possible to tell a story successfully without presenting characters; their existence, as recognisable realities, being the sole condition on which the story can be effectively told. The only narrative which can hope to lay a strong hold on the attention of readers, is a narrative which interests them about men and women — for the perfectly obvious reason that they are men and women themselves. The reception accorded to ‘The Woman in White’ has practically confirmed these opinions, and has satisfied me that I may trust to them in the future” (Collins 4).
In short, what he found made his novel so widely praised was his characters, and how he told a story with them. And I can say with absolute certainty that his characters are wonderful. From the innocently evil Count Fosco to the assertive Marian Halcombe, each character is completely fresh and different. If you’re studying how to make better characters, this novel will help immensely.
Collin’s novel, so far, is one of the earliest examples of novels I have read that employs multiple points of view that are all told from the first-person perspective. Not only does this stylistic choice let Collins’ characterization skills shine; it aids him in the story that he’s trying to tell. In a world of dopplegangers and mystery, documentation and testimonies speak at once as narrative and evidence. He isn’t just using this form just because he can or wants to; he’s using it to make a point about the written word and mystery via the novel itself.
And that is the mark of a novelist who knows exactly what they’re doing.
Collins’s technical skills as a writer are quite marvelous in his setting descriptions. Here’s an example where Walter Hartright, the main character, goes to a graveyard and stakes out to see who has been mysteriously cleaning it:
“Before me, fronting the porch entrance, was a patch of bare burial-ground, a line of low stone wall, and a strip of lonely brown hill, with the sunset clouds sailing heavily over it before the strong, steady wind. No living creature was visible or audible—no bird flew by me, no dog barked from the sexton’s cottage. The pauses in the dull beating of the surf were filled up by the dreary rustling of the dwarf trees near the grave, and the cold faint bubble of the brook over its stony bed. A dreary scene and a dreary hour. My spirits sank fast as I counted out the minutes of the evening in my hiding-place under the church porch” (92-93).
The suspense is palpable here. The sound of “low” in “low stone wall” echoes the “lonely brown hill”. The clouds are “sailing heavily,” and there’s hardly a sound other than some “rustling” trees. Although Hartright tells me that the atmosphere is “dreary,” he shows me first. And that’s what makes Collins writing so powerful, because it’s not just telling.
It’s proof with delicious pudding.
When Walter Hartight begins his new life as a drawing master for the two ladies of Limmeridge House, he has a fateful encounter with a strange woman dressed all in white. Little does he know that encounter changes the course of his life forever, and thrusts him into a “vortex of crime, poison, kidnapping, and international intrigue”. If long Victorian novels are your thing, pick this one up. If mysteries are your thing, pick this one up. If you like strong female protagonists, pick this one up for Marian Halcombe.
If you like reading gripping stories, pick this one up.
Like The Count of Monte Cristo, it’s a slow start, but it unravels completely.