Shockingly Fantastic Books: Wilkie Collins’s “The Woman in White”
Shockingly Fantastic Books is a weekly series by me, where I pick out one of my favourite books to write about. All of the books in this series can be found at the bottom of the post, and they will be struck out as I write about them.
The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins
This book is immensely special and brilliant in many ways. It is thought of to be the ‘ultimate’ sensation novel (which started detective stories, such as Sherlocke Holmes). At the time of its publication it had Victorians waiting outside shops in their hundreds waiting to get the next installment (bit like Harry Potter these days, I suppose…) The reason for this is the suspense and mystery it created and it was one of the first to do so.
It’s largest appeal to me first and foremost lies in just one character: Marian Halcombe. It was unusual for a male writer (or even a female writer) during the Victorian era to write of a strong female character. Marian Halcombe is an independant, quick-witted and an immensely resourceful woman. Such attributes in women for the times were undesired. Admittedly, Wilkie Collins does dip into the stereotypical ‘Angel of the House’ with Laura Fairlie (who is Marian’s opposite in everyway) but this is for a reason that will take an essay from me to explain why. What is important is that Collins did somewhat break the mould, and it was in favour of women.
If you take the sensationalist plot and mechanicals away from the novel, what you have is an exposé of unjust martial laws in the nineteenth century – laws that Collins did not agree with. In the novel, a perfectly good woman is ensnared and trapped into a marriage with a man that plots her demise to get at her inheritence, and there is no way that she can get out of it.
In Collins’ society, a woman had no choice other than to marry, as they could not earn their own money, or if they could, it was not enough to support themselves. However, once they were married, they became the property of the husband, and husbands could basically do whatever they wanted with their wives except murder them. The only grounds that a woman could get a divorce was if the husband was violent with them, was adulterous, and that adultery had to be perverted (homosexuality, beastiality, etc.) Even with that in hand, they then had to prove it (impossible) and then pay for the divorce (also almost impossible – anything they earn belongs to the husband). On top of that, the woman would never win the case, as the jury always sympathised with the men (if a man has been led astray, or is beating her, she is obviosuly doing something wrong and not serving him properly). If you just read all that and still think that feminism is a waste of a time, a big “fuck you” to you, sir/madam.
Collins, who never married himself (but kept two mistresses and two households throughout his life – both were aware of one another), recognised the impossibility for women, and The Woman in White was not his first novel to tackle the issue.
All of the politics aside, The Woman in White is quite simply an exhilarating read with memorable characters. What is odd about the formulation of the characters, however, is that the lead players are really quite plain and uninteresting. I have not even mentioned the protagonist yet, as he has no character to boast of, but for the sake of information, his name is Walter Hartwright. He falls in love with heiress Laura Fairlie (equally as uninteresting). Laura Fairlie marries her father’s choice: the main villian, Sir Percival Glyde (also completely uninteresting). These three are plot devices. They are cardboard cut-outs of the contemporary societies expectations of the Gentleman, the Lady, and the selfish and money-grabbing Aristocrat. Laura Fairlie can become unbearable to read, but the other two are endurable enough.
The main characters “side-kicks” if you like, are the memorable and semi-original ones: Marian Halcombe, Laura’s half-sister, is there to compensate for her sisters insipidness. Funnily enough, she is the complete opposite of Victorian’s expectations, and she’s awesome because of it. Equally memorable for different reasons are Count Fosco, Anne Catherick (aka ‘the Woman in White’) and Mr. Fairlie. Count Fosco appears to be backing Percival Glyde and is argued to be one of the first “evil geniuses” in fiction. One soon learns that Fosco truly is the coolest villain ever – he’s funny, intelligent, and for reasons one can’t quite explain, the reader knows he is the one to look out for. Anne Catherick does not have much depth, but the atmosphere and the gothic elements she brings into the novel really stand out. Mr. Fairlie is merely a bit player, but he makes very welcome comic relief when he sporadically appears.
Although it may take modern readers some effort to get into the prose, especially if they have not read any Victorian fiction before, once you get past the first few chapters, it becomes highly readable and enjoyable. It is also worthy to note that the plot is dated, due to its subject matter, and the secret that Anne Catherick is obsessed with revealing is not at all shocking. Whilst it must have seemed a great idea to Andrew Lloyd Webber to adapt the novel into a musical in 2004, he must have realised how it didn’t really work with a twenty-first century audience when he was forced to change major plot lines so the story could shock people. He even changed the personalities of Marian and Laura – probably because it’s difficult for a modern woman to sympathise with Laura. This is all true enough, but reading the story in its original context, in this novel form, erases these problems due to the extent that Collins explores the characters dilemmas and can still be enjoyed today as much as it was back when it was originally released.
SHOCKINGLY FANTASTIC BOOKS:
Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
The Monk – Matthew Lewis
Northanger Abbey – Jane Austen
The Phantom of the Opera – Gaston Leroux
She – H. Rider Haggard
Herland – Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
The Ice People – Maggie Gee
1984 – George Orwell
Utopia – Thomas More
The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
Dragonflight – Anne McCaffrey
Northern Lights – Phillip Pullman
Harry Potter Series – J.K. Rowling
The Black Magician Trilogy – Trudi Canavan
The Godslayer Chronicles – James Clemens
The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins
The Moonstone – Wilkie Collins
Armadale – Wilkie Collins
No Name – Wilkie Collins
The Law and the Lady – Wilkie Collins