At 700 pages long Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White is the kind of sprawling Victorian novel that I rarely get around to. But it was on the reading list of an evening course I recently did at the Bishopsgate Institute with Sarah Wise (one or two of the anecdotes listed here are from her notes), so I began it then and I finished it off via this superb audiobook earlier this month, impeccably read by Ian Holm.
When The Woman in White was serialised in All the Year Round in 1859-60, it stirred up a sensation. The circulation of the journal rose from 38,000 to 350,000 and William Gladstone, then the chancellor of the exchequer, became so engrossed in the plot that he cancelled a theatre visit so he could stay at home and read. The Times wrote, “We defy anybody to read Mr. Wilkie Collins’s ‘Woman in White’ for the first time without admitting it to be one of the most thrilling stories he has ever perused.”
Thrilling it certainly is. Just a few pages in Walter Hartright, the novel’s redoubtable hero is accosted on a summer’s night near Hampstead Heath by a mysterious and anxious woman dressed head to toe in white. In a simple act of kindness, not unlike Pip’s to Magwitch in the graveyard at the start of Great Expectations, Hartright consoles the woman, then helps her to find her way to Regent’s Park.
It transpires soon afterwards that this lady is called Anne Catherick and she had just escaped from an asylum. The chance meeting between Hartright and Catherick – supposedly based on a real life encounter between the author and a woman wearing a white dress – is the spur for a story that is set around a case of malicious incarceration and an audacious fraud. It is kind of underhand treachery that the outwardly respectable Victorians would have been captivated by. It’s easy to see how they went for it.
I have to say I loved it too. The law, or rather exploitation of the law, is at the heart of the book and Collins cleverly models his structure on the form of a court case. First we hear from Hartright, then a solicitor, then from others as they become embroiled in the action. That Collins intends us to feel like these are the witnesses in the box is all too clear. On top of this there’s the switches in literary form and prose style. Some of the plot is told in straight narration, some is extracted from a diary, some is lifted from letters and in one natty moment (that you could well imagine appealed to Collins’ friend Charles Dickens) an inscription is inserted from a gravestone under the title – “The Narrative of the Tombstone”.
The characters are a varied lot. Hartright, a drawing master, is a tormented but stoic soul. The kind of man who might have found solace listening to Radiohead had he lived in a later age. The forbidden object of his desires, Laura Fairlie, is the quintessential fictional beauty: bland, beautiful, rich and delicate. Her half-sister Marian is a more appealing creation, full of good sense and courage. Their guardian, Mr Fairlie, is a whimpering invalid who can’t bear strong light or loud noises (on account of “his nerves”). He spends all day shut up in his chambers in a languid torpor, preening over his watercolour collection and complaining of the “Goths and Vandals” that conspire to ruin his peace.
But the moment The Woman in White gripped me was when the villains started turning up. The first of these is Sir Percival Glyde. It doesn’t take long for it to become clear that Glyde is duplicitous and despicable and that he has travelled from his home in Hampshire to the Fairlie’s house in Cumberland with sinister motives. His ambition to make Laura Fairlie his wife and spirit her off from her childhood home in the Lake District is unsettling from the off. Collins makes this all too plain. When one of Fairlie’s greyhounds claps eyes on Glyde for the first time he recoils – the instinct of an animal is the kind of device Collins likes to employ. Thereafter the first two thirds of the book tells of Glyde’s attempts to defraud the vulnerable Fairlie family in a bid to pay down his debts from a misspent youth.
On a different intellectual plain to Glyde is his accomplice, Count Fosco. Fosco appears later on – fat, sly and charming. He could easily be an Ian Fleming creation. Fosco loves animals and he has a sinister knowledge of chemistry – here Collins might well be echoing the Dr Palmer poisoning scandal of a few years earlier– and his habit of dropping a few grains of powder into coffee cups here and there helps to speed along Glyde’s underhand project.
These are the chief protagonists. What ensues is a long tussle between the courageous Marion, the clever Fosco, the rash Glyde, the malleable Laura and the heroic Walter. Often these characters are bound together, in cramped Victorian style, under the same roof. It’s a set up that allows for subtle interplay between the characters, with outward civility masking the schemes that are going on beneath the surface. Fosco and Glyde’s plans progress inch by inch until Hartright returns and the story ends in spectacular style with the burning of a church, the righting of a legal wrong and the death of two men.
A few other things of note. The whole idea for the book springs from the contemporary problem of malicious incarceration of women by men, often for financial gain. This is what we discussed at Sarah Wise’s evening course. But rather than delving into that particular issue here, I thought it was worth pointing out Collins’ broader points about womanhood.
The book is filled with observations about women. “No sensible man engages with a fencing match of words with a woman”, Collins speculates at one point. In another Marian declares that, “This is a matter of curiosity; and you have got a woman for your ally.” Alongside this there’s the usual period declarations about women being “nothing but children grown up”, but I thought there was something in The Woman in White that hinted of the change that was shortly to come. It is interesting that of the two chief female characters it was Marian Halcombe – the brave, clever and chess-playing sister – that won readers’ hearts. Marian is not the type to submit to the usual “patience, propriety and petticoats” and her journal from their time at Blackwater Park is the strongest part of the whole book (I don’t think I’ve ever been so miserable in my reading life as when Count Fosco finds it).
A word too on Collins’ language, which skims mellifluously along. This is a sensation novel – that is clear. The events, the personalities, the coincidences, the twists are all too unlikely to be taken seriously and in some places the melodrama is truly lathered on thick. But fiction by definition creates its own rules and the quality and breathless pace of the prose made me happy to forget my scepticism. The small misty rain falling on the road to Old Wellmingham church; the rapid, regular thump of feet; the maundering on; the fidgeting Mr Fairlie; “the icy stillness of perpetual suspense” or the “fervid lines” of a frantic letter. This is a flavour of Collins’ writing.
The plot is unveiled with a master’s touch, too. There’s a telling scene towards the end, when the Count Fosco turns to his nemesis, Walter Hartright. “One of the rarest of all the intellectual accomplishments that a man can possess, is the grand faculty of arranging his ideas. Immense privilege! I possess it. Do you?”
More on the social context of The Woman in White and lunacy incarceration here.
Image credit: Martin Beek on Flickr.