Book 36: A book that scares you, The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
I chose this novel for an October “spooky” or “thrilling” story to get me in the mood for Halloween. While I would not categorize it as either spooky or thrilling after reading it, I would definitely say I found this mysterious and engaging. It kept me guessing the entire time with multiple plot twists, and I felt very invested in the characters. I could not wait to see what happened in the end, and boy, was I surprised. It was nice; when you’re an avid reader, all too often you guess the ending before you get there just because you’ve seen so many different stories. This was a fun surprise. Also, I must confess that I absolutely loved the 1980’s film Lady in White. For some odd reason, I really thought maybe the book would be similar to that movie (it’s not, at all, except for the titular character).
Anyway, let’s dive in!
A beautiful young woman named Laura and her penniless half-sister Marian are orphaned and left under the care of their invalid Uncle, Mr. Fairlie. The nature of his disability keeps him from taking a great interest in their lives, and he serves as Guardian in name only. Laura’s father, before his death, arranged Laura to marry a gentleman by the name of Lord Arthur Glyde.
Before the marriage is set to take place, Mr. Fairlie engages a drawing instructor at the request of his nieces. Mr. Hartright comes to their estate to educate the girls on drawing, and he unfortunately falls in love with the young Miss Laura–a woman well out of his league due to her rank in society; Also, she is already engaged to be married. Unluckily for her, she also falls in love with him. The two are caught up in a love that cannot be, so Laura’s prudent older sister Marian suggests that Mr. Hartright leave the country and try to let both parties get over their unfortunate love.
Before he arrived to the estate, Mr. Hartright encountered a mysterious woman dressed completely in white upon the road. She asked for his help to escort her to London, with which he assisted. Although the episode was strange, he never thought much of it until he later learned that she was most likely Anne Catherick, escaped mental patient. This encounter creeps up again before Mr. Hartright leaves the country to escape his love for Laura. Laura receives a letter from an undisclosed author claiming that she will fall into ruin should she undergo her marriage to Lord Glyde. Mr. Hartright manages to piece together a series of events that points to Anne Catherick being the authoress of the letter, and this leads to the discovery that Lord Glyde was the person who shut her up in the asylum from which she escaped. All of this scares Laura to a great degree, upon which her sister Marian launches an investigation into the character and merit of Lord Glyde. Although instincts warn her otherwise, Marian cannot find reason enough to legitimately free Laura from the engagement. At this point in our tale, Mr. Hartright leaves the country, Laura marries Lord Glyde, and the whole world for these two women becomes flipped upside down. In true Victorian fashion, there is a clear villain, a damsel in distress, and a plethora of drama as readers to unravel the mystery of the Lady in White and determine the outcome for the unfortunate Laura Fairlie and her counterparts. With plenty of red herrings and odd happenings, this twisty-turny mystery will keep you engaged from start to finish.
Important to note–Wilkie is a Victorian writer. Victorian-era prose definitely isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. In today’s modern world, we pride ourselves on the succinct nature of our language. We’ve abbreviated entire words into a few letters (lol!) and completely replaced some words with clever emojis. Twitter allows you to keep your thoughts within a certain number of characteristics, all of these indications leading us to believe that yes, language DOES always simplify and in our fast-paced world, and we love it simple. I say this because if you are nodding your head, then Victorian era literature probably isn’t for you. This book is roughly 600 pages long. I would wager at least half of that pagination is descriptive prose; in other words, information that does nothing to further the plot, it’s just beautiful language describing everything from Lord McButterbutt’s underpants (Sorry, Count Fosco, couldn’t resist) to the color of the leaves on the shrubs they skulk by while trying to spy upon one another. If you ain’t got time for this level of description and the long, drawn out process from beginning to end, this may not be the book for you. If, however, like myself, you glory in relishing the gorgeous language, this will be a fun adventure. Consider yourself forewarned.
One of the things I truly enjoyed about this novel was the manner in which Wilkie plays with perspective; we see the story unfold through multiple character perspectives, including entries from Marian Holcombe’s diary, testimony from Mr. Hartright, Mr. Fairlie, and Count Fosco’s servant, and more. You really gain a sense of how the more cunning characters “pull one over” on the less cunning characters as you can see how one act is interpreted by multiple different people involved in the plot. I do not believe many writers were experimenting with diverse point of view during Wilkie’s time, so I find it even more commendable that he had the idea and that he was able to pull it off so well. It truly gives the mystery a more robust feeling to have seen the case from multiple sides.
I truly loved some of the characters. What a bunch of loveable weirdos. Even the sort-of bad ones, like Count Fosco. Look at this guy! Even though you know he’s got his rather corpulent hands in all of the misdoings going on throughout the story, he is oddly likeable to every character, even those who know of his true motivations, which makes him all the more disturbing.
Plus, let us not forget Mr. Fairlie. I still don’t know what is wrong with this guy, other than being a huge introvert who literally can’t even right now, which I can totally get behind. If only I could be a rich white guy who sits in a dark room rubbing coins like a Golem all day because, f*ck it, I can!
If this isn’t enough to inspire you to read the book, I don’t know what else will, so I leave you with this. What the deuce?! Read to find out!