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Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The Woman in White

Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White is a complicated Victorian mystery which, unlike many Victorian novels, remains as fascinating today as it was when it was first published in 1860.

My last reading of The Woman in White was so long ago (high school, OMG) that all I remembered was the young artist Walter Hartright's strange midnight meeting of a frightened and confused young woman dressed in entirely in white at a crossroads as Harkright made his way home to London. That image of the startled young man approached by a strange, solitary young woman in the moonlight has remained vivid, that image and the powerful affection I've felt for the novel ever since.

The novel is a fine example of the gothic tradition with lots of mystery, deception, and suspense. My copy is 563 pages, and I was lost in the story from beginning to end - confirming my faith in my fondness for this book.

I marvel at Collins' ability to keep track of all of the details, characters, places, and events in this intricate mystery. He wrote in long hand. How many hours must have been involved! How difficult to manage and keep up with the narrative as it expanded over the hundreds and hundreds of pages of handwritten manuscript pages!

The characters include Walter Harkright, the honest, faithful, and determined young artist; Laura Fairly, the sweet, innocent, and insipid young woman Harkright loves; Marion Halcombe, the courageous and forthright half-sister of Laura. And there is poor Anne Cathericke, the mysterious young woman in white whose appearance at the crossroads as she escapes from the asylum (the Asylum!) has such impact on Harkright and the narrative.

There are two main villains - one is a rather bland and offensive baronet; the other, the fascinating, complex, HUGE, intelligent, cultured, witty, charming, contradictory Count Fosco. Fosco is a strangely sympathetic, but frightening villain, and there really is no novel without his forceful personality. He is a unique villain, breaking most stereotypes.
Names: if I notice the symbolism of names, I usually pursue it. Very Victorian, very Dickensian. Harkright, Fairly, Glyde, and Fosco are the ones that stand out. Fosco...what does it mean in Italian, I wondered. An English synonym is "dismal." Another source: fosco,-a adjetivo 1 (pelo) wild 2 (cielo) gloomy, dark

BBC Radio 2 has a reading of the novel here.


  1. Thank you for your thoughts on this wonderful book, Jenclair, I just love the Gothic classics! Thank you also for pointing me to the BBC 2 reading. I'm so strapped for time right now that I just might be tempted to listen to the radio adaptation.

    When booklogged's challenge came up, I was very tempted to include "Woman in White" (it would have helped my Chunster Challenge, too), but because I was picking books from different parts of the world, I had to leave it out of my final five.

  2. I can't read this since it will be part of my reading challenge but I'll have to remember to get back here to it once I've finished Woman in White.

  3. Marvelous review. I'd never heard of it until fairly recently when several bloggers made mention of it. Thank you for including information about the characters. I hope to get to the book next year - perhaps for Carl's RIP challenge.

  4. You've increased my excitement about reading this book. Very nice review.
    I bookmarked the BBC site so I can come back to it and listen after finishing the book.

  5. Lotus -It is just impossible to read everything that calls to us. I do like the idea of including books from different parts of the world in one challenge and combining challenges where possible.

    Carl - Are you reading it now, or do you have it on your TBR list? You will like it. It is a great RIP novel.

    Les - I almost wish I'd saved it for next year's RIP challenge. Almost. :P

    Cheya - I didn't listen to any of it, but I think it will be an ideal thing to do while sewing.

  6. I've been getting interested in Wilkie Collins ever since a bunch of bloggers have been mentioning him but now I'm really intrigued. I think this will be one of my next few books.

  7. I can't believe I hadn't heard of this book until it started showing up on other bloggers' Classic Challenge lists. It sounds wonderful and clearly needs to go on my TBR list!

  8. Camille - Collins' novels are long and intricate, Victorian with modern appeal. The Woman in White and The Moonstone were both highlights in my adolescent reading, and I was a little afraid that they might not hold up. Now, however, I can't wait to re-read The Moonstone.

    SuziQ - Clearly! If you like involved mysteries and gothic style, you'll like Wilkie Collins.

  9. The last time I tried to read The Woman in White was when either Masterpiece Theatre or the BBC ran a dramatization. I thought I could read the book in the same segments as the book progressed on TV, thereby keeping an eye on how faithful the adaptation actually was. I just couldn't keep up. It's on the Mental -To-Be-Read-Pile, I guess.

  10. I have seen a few people with this book on the winter challenge list so its going to be interesting to compare this with the others. the best part about blogging if you ask me. Recently I have been seeing a lot of Lolita and its AMAZING to read about what others have to say!

  11. Jill - :) I do think trying to appreciate the both the dramatization and the novel at the same time would be difficult. This is a long book!

    Nessie - I agree that discovering what others think is the best part of blogging. Sometimes I have to re-consider my own opinions about a book or decide that books that have not appealed in the past might be worth reading after all.