Saturday, February 9, 2013

Review: "The Woman in White" by Wilkie Collins

Where was this book when I was in high-school? And why hadn't I heard of Wilkie Collins until as of late?? Dear teacher people, who put together study plans and contents and such, while I appreciate Gogol's contribution to the canon, while I (now, at least) adore Zola's gritty and muddy streets and relationships in Paris, and while I cannot, by no means, argue that Hesse and Camus were are huge literary figures (although they both have passed by me with little impact so far, unfortunately), if you want the late-teens to hopefully pick up at least a few more classics in their later life, let them read Wilkie Collins.
How to even begin... After I had acknowledged Collins's existence (mainly through other book blogs - thanks guys!), I had this unexplainable urge to read "The Woman in White". It sat on top of my TBR pile the whole time while I was plowing through "A Dance With Dragons", and I swear it winked at me and whispered "Come on! You know how much you want me!" And of course I did. Not even the 750-page count scared me the least.

"Which way to London?" Lent from here.
Set in various locations in England in 19th century, the book must have been a sensation when it was published (1860). It has it all - mystery, (probably one of the world's first) male-female duo of detectives, big mansions and its loitering inhabitants, old-time mail service (morning post takes your letter to London by evening!), fainting maidens (actually, only one *phew*), a little bit of romance (which luckily doesn't dominate over the rest of the goodness), graveyards, doppelgangers, sneaky counts and hypochondriac uncles... I could go on, honestly.
Although the story itself is very, very decent (told by different narrators and in different forms), when it comes to this novel, the cherry (and what a huge cherry it is!) on top of the cake is the cast of characters. I'd even gladly take a closer look at them. But I have to agree with myself to keep it at, say, two sentences per character, because it could get long. (Needless to say this part can get spoiler-ish, depending on your tolerance level.)
* Walter Hartright - yeah, your typical "good guy", I guess, but he is needed in the middle of this lot, to balance out all the eccentrities. Falls for The Fainting Maiden and is otherwise very helpful and, at times, even unbelievably resourceful.
* Laura Fairlie - aforementioned Maiden; allegedly pretty to look at but I have a feeling if left alone for more than a day, this one would probably go without food and butt naked, as she doesn't seem to be able to do anything on her own. In strong need for a babysitter.
* Percival Glyde (and I refuse to add the "Sir"; in my mind one has to earn that title) - no Santa to visit you, Percival, that's for sure. Just pile some of the worst character traits one can imagine (deceptive, greedy, abusive, hypocritical, not even that bright) and there he is.
* Frederik Fairlie - hilarious character nr 1; uncle of The Fainting Maiden (blood relations between those two explain a lot, actually...). I don't even want to bash him because in his selfishness and secluded way of life, he is to be pitied, but it did make me laugh more than once to see him interacting with the rest of the household (especially the "Don't bully me, I am too weak to take it!" - parts).
* Countess Fosco - wife of Count Fosco. She basically gave out this living dead vibe and was one of the best characters in the sense that I didn't even finally get her - she went beyond me, but in a good, mysterious way.
Count Fosco. Lent from here.
* Count Fosco - hilarious character nr 2; it is impossible to hate a villain with such a brilliant mind and such eccentric ways. A very fat man in love with tarts and intelligent minds.
* The Woman in White - the mystery! *ghostly sounds*
* Marian Halcombe - tat-ta-da-daa! Hilarious character nr 3. Possibly the greatest female heroine e-ver. How she and The Fainting Maiden could share a parent, I do not understand, as the difference between those two girls can be measured in light years. (And yes, the praise to Marian is going longer than just two sentences!) She has all the looks valued at the time except for the face (the misery!), and like another favourite character of mine, Tyrion Lannister, she knows that what she lacks she needs to make up with other means - extraordinarily sharp wit, the kind of gut and spunk that I don't think 95% of other women of the time were able to even grasp in their pretty little often dizzy heads, strong common sense, the way with words (heaven knows I wouldn't have made it if I had to read the diary of Laura Fairlie but Marian's was very enjoyable), and she would not go without food or butt naked, that's for sure. Follows one of the more brilliant and self-sarcastic thoughts from Marian's head:
If I only had the privileges of a man, I would order out Sir Percival's best horse instantly, and tear away on a night-gallop, eastward, to meet the rising sun - a long, hard, heavy, ceaseless gallop of hours and hours, like the famous highwayman's ride to York. Being, however, nothing but a woman, condemned to patience, propriety, and petticoats for life, I must respect the house-keeper's opinions, and try to compose myself in some feeble and feminine way. /p. 225/
I am sure someone has already thought of it, but I am thinking that in honour of wonderful Marian Halcombe, one day I will order a T-shirt saying "Petticoats for life!".
* And somewhat of a honourary mention - Professor Pesca, friend of Walter Hartright (hilarious character nr 4). There was not enough Pesca in the book! One could only theoretise how this novel would have felt like, had Pesca been carrying out the role of Hartright and teamed up with Ms Halcombe.


  1. I love the idea of this as a book to encourage teens to continue enjoying the classics -- I bet that would be a very interesting topic to make into a list of recommendations given how many classics you've read :) I know I would be interested in such recommendations because as much as I say I want to read them (having joined the classics club and all) I still have ended up feeling a bit intimidated by them and have been unreasonably hesitant to actually get on with it!

    1. I am sure it's different for us from different countries, but the topic of classics we have to read at school always generates a lot of discussion. For example given the geographic peculiarities we had to read more Russians (and Estonians, of course). I remember some of the books were simply too difficult for children that age! But why not introduce some of the authors that are easier to read; from Wilkie's books there is plenty of stuff to discuss - for example how the attitude has change towards women and the rise of feminism, and all that.

      I hope you will find more time for classics next year, if that is what you want - after joining the Classics Club I definitely realised that not all of them are huge monsters written deliberately in a difficult manner - 75% I've read this past year have actually been excellent and very enlightening reads :)

  2. Thanks for the words of encouragement :) And you are right that classics do not need to be as scary or difficult as they are sometimes made out to be!


Leave a comment if you feel like it - it warms my little bookish heart. :)