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Book Review: The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

A woman dressed in white posing for a portrait.Summary:
Originally serialized in 1859 to 1860 then published in book form in 1860 this epistolary novel is considered one of the first mystery novels. Walter Hartright is an artist who gets hired to be a drawing master for two half-sisters Laura Fairlie and Marian Halcombe. He and Laura soon fall in love, but they cannot be together due to class differences and Laura’s prior promise to her now deceased father to marry Lord Percival Glyde. A mysterious woman dressed all in white warns Laura against her marriage, calling Lord Glyde evil. However, Laura is reluctant to renege on her final promise to her father and proceeds with her marriage, sending herself, Marian, and Walter into a spiral of intrigue and danger.

I love slow-moving, epistolary novels, particularly gothic ones read on a long, hot summer day.  One of my finest reading memories is of enjoying Dracula while working on a summer internship at a national park on a peninsula with four beaches.  So I came to this gothic, mysterious, epistolary novel with high expectations.  At first they were met, but as the plot proceeded I came more and more to want to smack Collins upside the head.

Without giving away too much, suffice it to say that the slowly building tension indicates a truly serious infraction on Lord Percival Glyde’s part that turns out to be not particularly shocking at all.  At least to my American mind.  Suffice it to say, it revolves around title holding, something which I find baffling and laughable.  Why should anyone care if Laura is Mrs. Glyde or Lady Glyde?  Her life seems more boring than the servants’ anyway.  I thought I would be reading a novel that was more about revealing the treachery and debauchery of the upper class.  Instead I got a book about bourgeois problems, which, I’ve indicated elsewhere on this blog, I simply cannot relate to and find completely annoying.  I get it that some people enjoy that, but the desire to maintain a tense, mysterious illusion around the book led me to believe it’s something it wasn’t.  That is frustrating, to say the least.

Beyond the disappointing mystery there’s of course the typical problems found in early 1800s literature.  The sexism comes from Marian’s own mouth, which is surprising given that she is a depicted as a strong woman.  She often will lament the short-comings of “her sex.”  Actually, the entire situation between Walter, Marian, and Laura is baffling.  Laura is a weak, foolish girl who Walter falls and stays head over heels in love with.  I cannot fathom why that would be when he spends an equal amount of time with Marian, who is a strong, thoughtful, intelligent woman.  Laura is described as beautiful, whereas Marian is described as possessing a beautiful body but an unfortunately masculine face.  This leads me to believe Walter is rather shallow, as I see no reason beyond Laura’s beauty for his devotion to her.  I know sexism is to be expected in older novels, but I would at least hope for a hero who loves the heroine for something beyond her beauty.

That said, the novel certainly gives modern women a new appreciation for our current situation.  The women in The Woman in White are constantly downtrodden by the men around them who believe it is entirely within their right to dictate to them everything about how they should behave, speak, dress, etc…  It appears that the only thing the women have control over is when to leave the men to their wine after dinner.  In fact the couple presented as the happiest and most well-functioning is that of Count Fosco and his wife, and they only function well due to the fact that she obeys his every command.  Mrs. Fosco is described as a woman who prior to meeting the Count was loud, obnoxious, and always yammering on about women’s rights.  Count Fosco, apparently, “fixed all that,” and she is now such a pleasant woman to deal with.  The only woman who does not base her entire existence around a man is Marian, and that is due to her bizarre, near worshipful devotion to Laura.  It makes me shudder to think if those had been my options as a woman–existing purely for the whims of a man, downtrodden and outcast, or pure devotion to a sister.  Yeesh.

I did enjoy listening to the book.  It felt a bit like listening to an old-time radio program, which I’m sure is due to its origin as a serial novel.  Those who enjoy the slower pace of older novels and can relate to the bourgeoisie will probably enjoy it.  If either of those elements turns you off, however, you should look elsewhere.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Source: Librivox recording via the Audiobooks app for the iTouch and iPhone

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  1. June 22, 2010 at 5:39 pm

    I might have to skip this one for now then. I started Dracula last October, but it was due back at the library before I finished. I liked it and might finish it this Halloween. You mentioned it in this review so it reminded me of that. It seems like that would be a better spooky pick than this one?

    • June 23, 2010 at 7:40 am

      If spooky’s what you’re looking for, I’d definitely choose Dracula over The Woman in White. The Woman in White is more like a mystery that’s not scary. Dracula is very spine-tingling. 🙂

  2. June 23, 2010 at 9:35 am

    I haven’t read any Wilkie Collins and have always wanted too, The Woman White is also the one you always hear about. This is the first unfavourable review of it. I think I still want to try Collins but may be I’ll investigate some of his other works. The worst let down is a mystery that isn’t very mysterious or shocking lol!

    • June 23, 2010 at 10:44 am

      After writing my review, I checked others’ on LibraryThing. It seems everyone either loved it or hated it. I think it’s just that type of book! But as I told Wallace, if you’re looking for a shocking mysterious mystery, I’d try something else, lol.

  3. TG
    August 13, 2010 at 11:58 am

    I agree with the reviewer, but don’t give up on Wilkie Collins. I recently read “The Moonstone” and found it to be delightful, funny and witty. Even the characters you don’t like the author doesn’t either and you can tell he enjoys skewering them and it is so funny, such as the religious aunt who hides religious literature all over her aunt’s house. Or the invalid relative who is afflicted with nothing more than laziness.

    I gave up on “The Woman in White” too because Laura is so weak and stupid and there is no reason Walter should be in love with her. Marian is a much more interesting person. And there problems would have been easily solved if the weak creature that is Laura had only waited until she came of age to get married. Her father sounds like a true idiot too.

    • August 13, 2010 at 12:03 pm

      That’s very interesting, Tammy. I’ll have to check out The Moonstone and compare!

  4. November 17, 2011 at 11:39 pm

    What a shame you didn’t enjoy the book! I know a lot of people who attempt to read it with the mindset of it being a sole work of fiction (as opposed to fiction with intent to embody and criticise its time period), and read it with today’s social standards, find it difficult to enjoy or appreciate. I studied it for English during my one of my high school years and it is without a doubt one my all-time favourite books.

    The magic of the book, I found, was that it was both a product and criticism of its time; Wilkie Collins had some fascinating ideologies. From today’s social standards, it can read as quite sexist, but for its time it was years ahead. What I loved the most was that, even though Walter Hartright falls in love with the weak Laura Fairlie (a social expectation within the novel itself, as she was what was considered the “ideal” Victorian female) he finds an intellectual equal and soulmate in Marian Halcombe, who many people considered the true hero of the books. What exists between Walter and Marian is more subtle but far, far more powerful than what it shared between Walter and Laura – and this, I believe (after extensively studying the book for more than a year) is what Wilkie Collins was advocating in the book, as the very last words of the book are of Walter praising Marian. Indeed, following the publication he received many letters from male readers asking if Marian’s character was based on a real woman, and if so then whether they could propose to her.

    In regards to this: “…the slowly building tension indicates a truly serious infraction on Lord Percival Glyde’s part that turns out to be not particularly shocking at all. At least to my American mind.”

    Keep in mind that, at the time it was written, it was revolutionary. In those days, identity truly was limited to a few pieces of paper and the people you know. Lose those, and you were no-one – and women were frequently thrown into asylums for countless reasons. Contextually, the book is remarkable. Laughable by today’s standards, yes, but it’s not as though they had Facebook in 1860s England, is it?

    • November 18, 2011 at 9:37 am

      I see absolutely nothing wrong with judging an older work by modern standards. Offering up criticisms of past times helps us to see how far we’ve come and how far we have to go.

      I don’t care how long you studied the book for, there is no way in hell that Wilkie Collins was advocating anything progressive in it. It revolves entirely around a status quo marriage and an elite problem of maintaining one’s elite status.

      I always find it very telling when people defend books like this.

      • November 18, 2011 at 2:30 pm

        Well, all right, no need to be rude. I was just attempting to offer some discussion. I enjoyed the book and wanted to offer another look on things, which you clearly don’t want to, which is fine. I just thought your review interesting, is all.

        Telling how, if you don’t mind my asking?

      • November 18, 2011 at 3:17 pm

        It’s my blog, which means I can act however I want, particularly when a pretentious defender of Ye Merry Olde England comes around…..

  5. November 18, 2011 at 3:32 pm

    All right, fine. I found your blog and I though you were interesting, funny, intelligent, and engaging, and I thought you might be up for a bit of discussion. I thought your views were interesting, and I wanted to offer mine. That’s all. I’m sorry you think I’m pretentious.

    • November 18, 2011 at 7:49 pm

      I’m not generally up for “discussion” with people with backwards opinions. Particularly not when I call them out on it, and they call me rude. I am all of those things you said. Perhaps the problem is that you are not.

      • Hayley
        November 18, 2011 at 8:07 pm

        You know absolutely nothing about me or my values and opinions. I am far from backwards – where did you even get that from? All you know about me is that I like “The Woman in White” and appreciate it as a text of its time. That does not reflect on me as a person. And you have been rude – I’ve been nothing of the sort. I also fail to understand what I have done to warrant your ire. I now have no intention of finding out. I’d hoped to enjoy myself browsing your blog, but your comments reveal you to be the person you really are: a narrow-minded, cold, pretentious, and extremely arrogant small name on the internet who thinks they can walk all over other people because they are entitled to.

        I have only been polite to you. This is a public blog, and I’m allowed to express my opinions on a work of literature as much as you are. The things you have said to me were uncalled for. I attempted to smooth things over but clearly you care very little for other people’s opinions than your own. I shan’t bother any more, nor shall I revisit your blog.

        Mostly, I’m just disappointed that you turned out to be a nasty piece of work.

      • November 18, 2011 at 9:01 pm

        Actually, what you like seriously reflects on who you are as a person. If you like Fox News, for instance, I know you’re conservative. If your favorite work of all time is a piece of backwards anti-woman bullshit, then I know you’re not a progressive. The mere fact that you think what you like DOESN’T reflect on you as a person leaves me baffled and laughing, frankly.

        It really does not surprise me at all that you can’t handle me telling it like it is when you like such a piece of chauvinistic bullshit. God forbid a woman speak her mind, right? Better we all be polite and quiet little well-behaved mice.

        You’re disappointed I have balls? Well, I’m disappointed you’re a self-hating woman, but the world is the way the world is.

        Namaste, bitch.

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