The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

I’ve been terribly torn over the question of whether of not to re-read Wilkie Collins. You see, I fell completely in love with his major works when I was still at school, and I was scared that I might tarnish the memories, that his books might not be quite as good as great as I remembered.

I’m thrilled to be able to say that my fears were unfounded. The Woman in White was better than I remembered. A brilliantly constructed and executed tale of mystery and suspense, written with real insight and understanding.

The story begins with Walter Hartwright, a young drawing master, unable to settle the night before he is to leave London to take up a new post in the north of England. The hour is late, but he decides to take a walk. The streets are quiet, the city asleep, and yet a woman appears before him. She is dressed entirely in white and she is distressed, afraid of someone or something. He offers her assistance, helps her on her way to what she believes will be a place of safety.

Walter takes up his new post, tutoring two half-sisters at Limmeridge House in Cumbria. Laura Fairlie is beautiful, and she is an heiress. Marion Halcombe is neither of those things, but she is bright and resourceful. She needs to be. Walter recognises names and places spoken of by the woman in white. Her plight is linked to the family at Limmeridge House and the secret she holds will have dire consequences, for Laura, for Marion, and for Walter.

That is just the beginning, but it’s all I’m going to say about the plot. Wilkie Collins asked reviewers not to tell too much, and I think he was right to do so. If you’ve read the book you will understand why, and if you haven’t you really, really should!

I was held from the first page to the last and, though this is a big book, the last page came very quickly. Because there were so many twists, so many questions, that I had to turn the pages quickly. It’s lucky that Collins writes maybe the most readable prose of all the Victorian greats!

The structure was intriguing. This is an account put together after the events, with testimonies from a number of narrators who were witnesses to different events. It worked beautifully, and with none of the fuss or distraction that sometimes seems inevitable with this device. All of the voices were engaging and distinctive. And their appearances varied in length, so I was always curious to know who would be coming next, when they would appear, and what forms their testimonies would take.

And it was the characters who made the story sing. Each one beautifully drawn, enough to keep the story moving but not so many that it becomes difficult to keep track.

There are two standouts. Marion Halcombe is the finest heroine you could wish for, accepting of her position, doing whatever she can to help the situation, and wise enough to know when it is time to step back and allow others to take the lead. And she is capable, but not invulnerable. And, on the other hand there is the most charming villain you could wish to meet. Count Fosco knows that, used together, charm and intelligence can take you a long way in life, that little foibles add to the charm, and can be a wonderful distraction.

And then, in the background, there is Frederick Fairlie, Laura’s uncle and master of Limmeridge House. An invalid, whose obsessive, selfish concern for his own well-being provides welcome light relief, but also has terrible consequences. And Mrs Vesey, Laura’s former nurse, who seems to be a dependent, but could maybe, maybe be a rock when she is needed. And many others, each with something important to offer, bringing light and shade to the story. But I am saying too much.

This is a very human story, and that gives it such strength.

There is another thing that I must say, that the relationship between Laura and Marion is wonderful, one of the best portrayals of sisterly love that I have read.

And that their stories, and the story of the woman in white, say so much about social inequality, the treatment of those who could be labelled as mentally unstable, and the subservient role that wives were expected to play in 19th century Britain. All of which is done, to great effect, without ever compromising the storytelling.

I could quite easily go back to the beginning and read this all over again. But I have all of Wilkie Collins’ major works to hand, so I think maybe I should put this one back on the shelf and consider which of his books I should re-read next …

26 responses

  1. This… is one of the best books in the history of books. The Moonstone is a close second, but it’s not quite as good because there is no Marion in it.

      • Oh, definitely! I think Collins even says so in his intro. Man, that guy was good. He’s ruined Charles Dickens for me by being so awesome.

  2. You have tempted me right into a reread: I too read Collins back in high school days. Must track down my copy of The WiW. Great review, Jane!

  3. I read this book many years ago, but I can’t remember anything about the plot! I am now grateful for that because your post has really made me want to read it again. It sounds like such a perfect book for early evenings and cool weather.

  4. I *so* sympathise with your dilemma – I have the same issues with books I loved many years ago and want to re-read. I scraped up the courage to re-read on of my favourites “If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller” recently and fortunately loved it even more.

    I also read Wilkie Collins in my 20s and remember The Moonstone as my favourite – feels like time for a re-read!

    • It’s certainly the stamp of a great book, being able to enjoy it at different points in life. First time around I loved the story, second time I still loved it and I admired the author’s skill too.

  5. I’m so glad to hear you enjoyed your re-read! Wilkie Collins is one of my favourite authors – I’ve read his four major novels and quite a few of his lesser known ones and loved them all. I agree that his prose is probably the most readable of all the Victorians and he can be so funny in places as well. I thought Frederick Fairlie’s narrative was hilarious!

  6. I have his No Name on my TBR stacks. but now I’m tempted to re-read this instead. It’s been so long that I’ve forgotten most of it – in fact I had to check my book log to be sure that I really had read it.

    • It’s a long time since I read No Name and I’ve forgotten much of the details, but I do remember loving it too. I gave up my book log when I realised that there were so many books and authors that were no more than na,es to me, but I know I read everything I could find by Collins once I’d discovered him.

  7. Absolutely loved the Woman In White when I read it last year – so much that I bought a copy of the Moonstone immediately afterwards and devoured it in a matter of days (although I agree with some of the comments above that the former is slightly stronger than the latter!). Great post.

    • I’m not going to say anything too firmly until I’ve reread The Moonstone, but I do wonder if the appeal of this one is more feminine and that one more masculine. And isn’t it lovely to find big Victorian novlel that are so readable you can fly through them like that?!

  8. I just started reading Collins this year and have no doubt that he has already taken his place as one of my all-time favourite writers. I started with No Name because I thought of saving his supposedly ‘best’ (Woman in White) for the last, but now I am not so sure if No Name might not end up being my favourite Collins after all! Really love it! Love the way he uses correspondences between the characters to tell the progress of the story in between scenes. So very well done! I really enjoy his wit and humour, especially in the character of Captain Wragge (who has become one of my all time favourite ‘rogue’ now).
    His prose is definitely much more readable than Dickens, any day. Well, for me anyway.

    • And now you have me wanting to re-read No Name too! Actually I’d struggle to pick out a favourite from the ‘big four’ (The Woman in White, The Moonstone, No Name and Armadale) because though they are all recognisably Collins they have quite different virtues.

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