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 …