Friday, December 29, 2017

Book Review - The Woman in White

NOTE: As an apology I want to clarify that the length, style and tone of this review was initially meant to illustrate some of the impressions of the style, tone, etc of Victorian literature as perceived during my reading of The Woman in White. I fear that my attempt at flattery via mimicry has failed in great regard. As such I beg your pardon and hope that you will find the following words somewhat worthwhile. Perhaps at some future date I may try to amend this review into something more satisfactory. Until then, I present this narrative to you in its unadulterated state for your perusal.

Even though I graduated with a degree in English, I had never read anything by Wilkie Collins either as part of curriculum or through my pleasure reading. I had heard his name from time to time and knew generally of (his arguably) most well-known work The Moonstone, largely because of its fame as being the first English detective novel. I had also heard of The Woman in White but new nothing more than its name. As far as his other works, I was completely ignorant.

I suspect his oversight in the English curriculum is due largely to the eclipse caused by Charles Dickens and the Bronte sisters who dominate the studies of the Victorian period. Indeed, Collins himself was a fan of his contemporary author friend Dickens and it seems the two even worked together from time to time.

Those familiar with the Victorian period won't be surprised by the length of The Woman in White nor by the denseness of the writing. I remember stories about the authors of the 1800s intentionally stretching out their vocabularies to earn more money due to being paid by the word or by the page in their serialized stories. While there is some truth to that, it should also be remembered that the companies publishing the stories also wanted to make money so they weren't just going to push out 500 pages of verbose drivel without making sure it was coherent, engaging and marketable. As a reader, especially in the 21st century with our short attention span and our desire for quick flashy bite-sized reads, it's easy to get bogged down in lengthy scenes with intricate details and descriptions along with thoughtful, methodical and often minute actions and progress.

All discussion aside about my delay in becoming acquainted with Collins and in the nature of Victorian literature, I transition now to impressions about this novel in particular. As I began my reading, I had no clear expectations for the plot or characters in this book other than knowledge of the title character. I speculated that perhaps there may be gothic elements and that the Woman may turn out to be a ghostly apparition or otherwise influenced by supernatural means. That theory was quickly destroyed but was replaced by a concept that still left more questions unanswered. We walk the streets of London with Walter Hartright late one night and encounter the titular Woman in White. In his own words, seeing her brought his blood "to a stop." He was entranced, not necessarily by her beauty but by her mysterious and strange appearance. He briefly accompanies her and provides words of friendship and compassion while trying to unravel the mystery of her appearance and person. When she hurries on her way he is left wondering about her. Moments later he is more confused when confronted by men pursuing her as an escapee from an asylum. For reasons unknown, he guards her secret and lets the men continue on ignorant of her location but Walter is left contemplating ore on the Woman in White.

The book is written in a series of narratives, each from a different author. Hartright serves as a principle protagonist and acts as the one compiling the various narrative elements into a chronological tale. The narratives try to explicitly avoid exposing plot elements before they are chronologically relevant. For some of the narratives, their tales are written "in the moment" as sorts of journals or testimonies of recent events and as such they contain no foreshadowing. Other narrators, especially Hartright, tell their stories already knowing future events and as such their words sometimes drop hints of foreshadowing. Early in the story, the foreshadowing is either completely glossed over or just gives the reader more questions since the reader doesn't yet have all relevant information. Later in the story, some of the foreshadowed phrases are based on imperfect knowledge of the character and thus provide imperfect hints to the reader. In both cases I found this a fun and intriguing way to unravel a mystery while keeping it mysterious a little longer.

The plot reveals itself slowly and methodically like the petals of a flower slowly unfolding from a spring bud to an elegant and glorious bloom. Initially we are given a gothic feeling mystery of the identity of the Woman in White. Then we are presented what seems to be a standard story of workaday life in Victorian England. Next, we move into a balance between commentary on British aristocracy and a seemingly standard Victorian love story. The story twists into a psychological tug-of-war between characters attempting to keep up the most civil outward appearances while also trying to undermine and destroy the lives of other characters. Each newly exposed element adds new beauty as well as new questions each element that came before.

For the first many chapters, we follow the narrative of Walter Hartright. We begin in London with his strange encounter with the Woman in White and then follow him as he takes employment at a wealthy home in the country. There he teaches art to a pair of young women. Without spoiling too much of the plot, a romance is kindled but a love triangle is exposed and the lovers are forced to keep their love hidden and separate. For the next many pages, the narrative is picked up my one of the young women, Marian Halcombe before being handed back to Hartright for the conclusion. Scattered throughout the novel are small narrative sections by both minor and major characters. I found the narrative styles of Walter and Marian to be very similar yet with very subtle differences that helped establish their own unique voices. The narratives of the minor characters were somewhat generic in feel partly due to their comparative brevity. Late in the novel we have a (comparatively) "brief" narrative by Count Fosco who has one of the more unique voices of the whole story. Overall the narrative style was entertaining and engaging. Despite having multiple distinct narrators, the story maintained a cohesive feeling and tone that allowed the reader to comfortably navigate the pages without jarring transitions between narrators in spite of their unique voices.

The main characters, and even many of the minor characters, are well developed and a lot of fun. While many of their traits are somewhat stereotypical for the era their motivations and actions are engaging and delightful. Hartright is the virtuous and persistent hero you would expect in a story like this. Full of vigor and courage he is often able to thoughtfully work through tricky situations but he still makes some foolish and impulsive decisions. Marian Halcombe is, in many ways, the female version of Hartright. Had the novel been written a few centuries later, it's entirely possible that she would have been even more central to the plot than she already is. As it stands, she is responsible for much of the forward movement of the plot and unraveling of many mysteries. The ideals of the Victorian era seem to have stayed Collins' hand and kept her from taking the forefront in even more of the adventure but she is a courageous and strong character and justifiably earns the admiration of the colorful villain in the story. Count Fosco is probably the most distinct of the characters with his flamboyant mannerisms, voice and motivations. Each of his interactions are both a lot of fun to read and strangely confusing to ponder over and try to discern.

I don't want to reveal too much of the plot. Even if I wanted to outline the entire plot, it would be difficult to do so quickly and concisely due to the many multiple layers and intricate relations. At its heart, this is a love story that shows the lengths that people will go to help the people they love. Working outward it becomes a story about appearances and expectations particularly with regards to social status. Twisted into the plot are additional stories of love, deception and even political intrigue.

Overall this novel is amazing in all that it accomplished and the depth and elegance in which it does so. Even with its hefty 500+ page count, the writing is efficient and tight especially considering everything it delivers. Readers will come away from the book with memories of rich characters, a well-developed mystery and a satisfying conclusion. It may not be Dickens or Bronte, but The Woman in White deserves praise and is a Victorian novel well worth reading. Great fun and definitely recommended.

4.5 out of 5 stars

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