Review: The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins

womaninwhiteThis is a review of the absolutely beautiful Penguin English Library edition. At 702 pages it was quite a beast to read but it had me at the start and, while difficult to keep plodding through I feel it was totally worth it.

It wasn’t at all what I was expecting, I’ll be honest about that. I was expecting more ‘ghosty’ and less crime! Truly, I thought this was a ghostly story but it was really nothing of the sort. It was crime, it was romance, it was a character building buffet. There were so many, very unique characters that made up this novel and while it was long, it was so very worth it.

Someone in a review on goodreads got it absolutely right, when this was written people didn’t have access to the media outlets we do now – TV, internet or even a radio and Wilkie Collins had to describe people and things so intricately so people knew the exact essence of it. Characters like Count Fosco had pages dedicated to their description because many readers of this book had never even encountered an Italian before, most readers hadn’t ventured from their county before, and Collins wanted to give them that moment, let them actually see this man.

Needless to say, the writing was amazing. It was a little lengthy, and bulky in places and I did feel that some of it wasn’t necessary, but the above statement I think clarifies why it could be a little hard going in parts and I can forgive it!

After the initial meeting in the dead of night between Walter and The Woman in White (Anne), I was expecting it to continue on that path of eeriness. What unfolded from there was nothing like what I expected. In a way, I felt it was a ghost story because Laura was a ghost of a character. Given that the book essentially revolves around her, she was very transparent and ghostly in her presence. Every other character was so very well fleshed out and she just wasn’t. There must have been more to her that I couldn’t see, because Marian and Walter were so dedicated to her and I can’t see that either of them would suffer fools (like Laura) lightly!

It is a story told through a series of documents, from varying points of view, each giving a unique voice to the story. It was something I found very effective. I loved seeing events through the eyes of those involved as I tried to piece together what was happening. There was romance and plots and schemes and I can understand why this is considered to be the mother of all suspense novels. Of course it is filled with the typical Victorian ‘coincidence’ to form the backbone of events, I do love the coincidence it is ever so predictable in places!

I found it quite dull around the middle, there were 200 pages or so that I felt were really difficult to slog through. Not much was happening and it was all plot building that I feel could have been achieved in fewer words to the same effect. But ultimately, every word was worth it. This book is just wonderful.

I was surprised to detect a slight feminist side to Collins; he is clearly sympathetic to the plight of the middle-to-upper-class Victorian woman, who either had to marry, often against her own inclination (Laura) or remain a spinster dependent on others for a home (Marian). I do wish, though, that Collins had not been quite so Victorian about the two women; he clearly portrays Laura as the only marriageable one of the two sisters because she is fair, delicate and doll-like (she is also dull, nondescript and as I mentioned before, ghostlike) where Marian is strong-featured (ugly, or so Walter thinks when he sees her) and strong-willed and therefore resolutely doomed to remain unmarried. It’s quite miserable really, because Marian is a much better character – a far more attractive, rounded, fleshed out character. Yes, I really liked her.

Essentially, this book was nothing like what I expected but so much better than I was expecting. That makes little sense but it’s true. Collins characters are just so well developed and the plot is intricate but never too hard to follow, there is always that little bit of intrigue and a little bit more to uncover. Needless to say I’m glad I picked this up and I will be reading more of Collins work (definitely The Moonstone as it’s in the PEL format, which I adore). It wasn’t quite the spooky October read I was hoping for, but it was brilliant in an entirely different way!


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