Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Uncanny Lit: Why We Love Wilkie Collins's "The Woman in White"

 


It is too hot to take autumn seriously (87°), and yet we have turned  already to Uncanny Lit:  Victorian sensation novels,  Gothic novels, and ghost stories by Sheridan Le Fanu rule the supernatural season.  I am happily reading Wilkie Collins, master of suspense and sensation. I opted for The  Woman in White (1859), which was dubbed the first sensation novel, and outsold even Uncle Tom's Cabin, the American best-seller of the 19th century.

Collins's prose is simple and effective, but the plot is more twisted than I had remembered.   Oh no, stop! I wanted to say as Collins guides us in and out of the depths of hell inhabited by theWoman in White, Anne Catherick, a Persephone-like escapee from a mental asylum. Her enemy, a baronet (we'll call him Hades), had locked her up in the asylum on false pretenses.  She knows his secret - which will not be revealed till much later.
   



Collins is a craftsman who narrates this rapid-paced novel from multiple points-of-view.  Each narrator's voice is distinctive; Collins rivals Dickens in character delineation. The first narrator is Walter Hartright, Teacher of Drawing. Discouraged by low-paying work in London, he has landed a four-month teaching job at Limmeridge House in Cumberland.  As he walks the road away from London, he is astounded by the apparition of a woman in white.

Collins dramatically sketches this strange scene.

There, in the middle of the broad, bright high-road - there, as if it had that moment sprung out of the earth or dropped out of the heaven - stood the figure of a solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in white garments; her face bent in grave inquiry on mine, her hand pointing to the dark cloud over London, as I faced her.  

I love the anaphora and the
vivid, almost threatening phrase, "her hand pointing to the dark cloud over London, as I faced her."  Walter is spooked at first, but when Anne asks the way to London, he gallantly accompanies her part of the way and finds her a cab.  After the cab takes off, two men appear and ask a policeman if he had seen the woman in white, who had escaped from the asylum.  Walter is aghast, but does not betray Anne, and does not regret helping her.

At Lammeridge House, we are fascinated by Marian Holcomb, a witty woman with a magnificent figure but an ugly face.  (A footnote speculates that Marian is based on George Eliot).  Marian is, in my feminist reading, the most important character in the book, after the Woman in White herself. It is in Marian's vivid diary that we read the most intriguing accounts of the mystery.  And we wonder if Marian's diary is the dark side of Esther Summerson's cheery-even-when-struggling diary in Dickens's Bleak House. (Dickens and Collins were great friends; Bleak House was published in 1852.)  Marian's half-sister, Laura Fairlie, is fair and gentle (a bit like Ada in Bleak House?), and almost identical to the woman in white, almost her twin. Walter falls in love with the sweet but submissive Laura, but she, it turns out, is engaged to Anne Catherick's evil baronet.

A case might be argued that Anne is the central figure of this intriguing novel. She is often in the background, but her appearances are like earthquakes. Not only does she uncannily resemble Laura Fairlie, but she was attached as a child to Laura's mother, Mrs. Fairlie. For a short time Anne and her mother lived in the village, and the late Mrs. Fairlie took a fancy to Anne; it was she who told Anne she should wear white. One day, Walter and Marian find Anne cleaning Mrs. Fairlie's gravestone.  A schoolboy had mistaken the white-clad Anne for a ghost. She had come to the village to send a letter warning Laura about the baronet.  No one believes her.  Don't you love a good sensation novel?

There is an odd thing about having read a novel long ago.  I had misremembered parts of the plot.  Didn't the brilliant, homely Marian  and gorgeous Laura give shelter to the mysterious refugee, Anne Catherick, the Woman in White?  No, they did not.  That would be another novel.   

It is a delightful book- so much so that I don't mind the unlikelihood of events and the stereotypical Laura. 

The Woman in White is a classic.  More Wilkie Collins later!

17 comments:

  1. [Without typo this time...] Agree, an excellent book. Ditto The Moonstone. Recommend Carmilla and Uncle Silas by Sheridan Le Fanu. Enjoy. G

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    1. Thanks for the rec! Carmilla may be in the "Ghost Stories."

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  2. I have a nice old Penguin edition of this but have not read it. Was it you who wrote about it a couple few years ago when you read it for the first time and loved it.... or maybe it was an article I read about someone reading it for the first time and how it skyrocketed to the top of their favorite book list....
    And I saw that you have Dickens's Our Mutual Friend on your fall list? A friend of mine swears by it! I just read David Copperfield and Great Expectations for the first time in the past year. Wish I hadn't overlooked Dickens when I was younger, but then books tend to find us -- and us, them -- at just the right time. Great Expectations, especially, was a joy from start to finish.

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    1. No, I wasn't THAT particular Collins enthusiast, but I am an enthusiast. I love sensation novels.

      You can't go wrong with Dickens. OMF is very dark, but one of my favorites and one of the best. As the nights lengthen, I may have to go for a "Dickens and Darkness" binge.

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  3. That's exactly what I was thinking -- longer books for shorter, colder days when I don't have to feel so guilty lying around indoors here in Colorado, where everyone is out on their bikes and jogging and walking, staying so fit in the sunshine. Currently breezing through shorter books -- currently reading and loving Banine's Days in the Caucacus. Just received one of Sylvia Townsend Warner's novels, The True Heart, which looks wonderful.... next!

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    1. Ah, the great outdoors! Perhaps if we read outdoors, it would count. Never heard of The True Heart, but I am a Warner fan, which reminds me, I do have a Virago edition of After the Death of Don Juan, but the cover is so hideous I've never managed to read it.

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    2. Reading Sylvia Townsend Warner's The True Hear now -- absolutely love it! Originally published in 1929. One of the top 5 or so books I've read this year. Highly recommended. Blackwell's website still down, last I checked.

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  4. Penguin has rereleased 5 or 6 of her titles in the past year, available in the UK editions from Blackwell's that I dream about like sugar plums dancing in my head.... Blackwell's website is currently down for the first time I've been aware. But $12-$13 for beautiful paperback editions, shipping included, is a bargain. More sugar plums...

    I think NYRB books has also released several of Warner's books -- I grabbed to NYRB editions of hers at a friends of a library bookstore recently -- Summer Will Show and The Corner that Held Them. I was reading sections of the latter -- it looks marvelous. But The True Heart is about a third is long, so I'm going to read it first!

    Reading outdoors counts, though I bet it only increases your heart rate if you're reading Wilkie Collins or a good thriller. I have yet to hear of "aerobic reading," but I'll be on the lookout for it!!

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    1. Oh my God! The Penguin dream. High time they wentfor Sylvia Townsend Warner. Off to Blackwell's. I just hope I don't spend any money. :)

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    2. Their website has been down for several days, which has never happened before and is a little odd. But yeah, when it's back up check out what they have by Warner and others and have your own visions of sugar plums, inspired by the beautiful covers of their editions. :-) Anticipating packages from Oxford, UK, in my mailbox helped me get through the pandemic!

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    3. Mail order is a blessing. But, yes, the website was down.

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  5. i loved, chillingly, Count Fosco and his canaries! and i just finished OMF on your recommend and was mightily impressed even tho i have liked other Dickens productions more...

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    1. Count Fosco is such a villain, only kind to mice and canaries. TWIW is even darker than OMF.

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    2. my ignorance is raising its ugly head: what's TWIW?

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    3. oh, darn... The Woman in White, of course... sorry... i laid my mind down somewhere and lost it for a bit, lol... it did indeed have its grim parts...

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  6. I am finding this comment late, but you got it!

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  7. I just read No Name and my husband read Armadale. Love Collins. Blackwell's is back up today. Down over a week. I buy my British books from them. Good prices and fast delivery. No shipping and no tax.

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