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[228] The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins


“Is it Laura’s reluctance to become his wife that has set me against him? Have Hartright’s perfectly intelligible prejudices infected me without my suspecting their influence? Does that letter of Anne Catherick’s still leave a lurking distrust in my mind, in spit of Sir Percival Glyde’s explanation, and of the proof in my possession of the truth of it? [177]

Marian Halcombe and Laura Fairlie are half sisters who are best friends. They live a quiet life under their selfish invalid uncle’s guardianship at the Limmeridge House until Laura’s marriage to Sir Percival Glyde, who expresses himself to the base imputation of marrying her entirely from mercenary (and ulterior) motives. In the marriage settlement, Percival makes an audacious proposal that the personal inheritance of Laura Fairlie, which amounts to over thirty thousand pounds, shall roll over to him in the event of Laura’s death. When Marian stumbles upon his insidious design but cannot account for the state of her feelings, an anonymous letter addressed to Laura advises her to inquire into the past of her fiancé.

. . . the one perpetual thought in Laura’s mind and mine [Marian], that we were to part the next day, and the haunting dread, unexpressed by either of us, and yet ever present to both, that this deplorable marriage might prove to be the one fatal error of her life and the one hopeless sorrow of mine. [184]

The strange appearances of a young woman who claims to be conversant of Sir Percival Glyde’s past secrets also prejudice the sisters against the baronet. Their drawing master, Walter Hartright, has assisted this same mysterious woman, who dresses in complete white, to escape from the asylum. Meanwhile, the bond of Percival and Count Fosco is strengthened by their similarity of pecuniary position. Taking advantage of the deplorable calamity of Marian’s illness, the partners in crime are able to induce a series of falsehoods that thwart Anne Catherick’s (the woman in white) communication with Lady Glyde (Laura). The disclosure of the secret that Anne Catherick beholds would ruin Sir Percival Glyde and thus the monetary prospect.

Who could wonder now at the brute-restlessness of the wretch’s life—at his desperate alterations between abject duplicity and reckless violence—at the madness of guilty distrust which had made him imprison Anne Catherick in the Asylum, and had given him over to the vile company against his wife . . . [493]

The Woman in White is an epistolary novel that is told in different narratives, but more of a chronological manner that the persons concerned in the story only appear when the course of events takes them up. That many of these characters are isolated renders them most susceptible to the chicaneries of the perpetrators. In a way, the purpose of the manipulations is to create “blindspots” in everyone involved so that one is often led to court suspicion that is wrong for the sake of diverting himself from other suspicion that is right.

The intricate details and occasional discrepancy of the narratives contribute to the ingeniousness of plots in The Woman in White. The story is at one point long-winding (as a result of Collins’s punctilious style), but the suspense often makes me wonder if it’s possible that appearances in one case has pointed one way while the truth lay all the while unsuspected in another direction. How Collins take seemingly disjointed pieces of the puzzle, plots that don’t at the first glace add up, and orchestrate them into a story so coherent and yet convoluted is beyond my comprehension.

609 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss]


41 Responses

  1. Hi, Matt! What a coincidence! I just bought this book at the Manila bookfair last weekend since the premise does look interesting. The only Wilkie Collins novel that I’ve read was The Moonstone and I loved it. (I think I was 12 when I read it, so I might need to re-read it just so that I get everything correctly this time).

  2. I just bought this after reading Nymeth’s review. Now I see yours. I got the audio version, and I’m hoping it holds up well in that medium.

  3. I loved the Moonstone and plan to read this one soon. I am so pleased that you enjoyed it. I am looking forward to unravelling the puzzle.

  4. I usually love epistolary novels, but this one may be a bit too much for me!

  5. Matt, you make a really interesting point about the “convoluted” nature of this book and how it all manages to add up in the end. I haven’t read this yet (but I want to!), but I recently read Madame Bovary and was blown away by how intricately plotted it was, how evident Flaubert’s care and expertise was. There were so many parallels and images that course through that novel, that you know they cannot have simply happened by chance. I think one reason I need to get back to the classics is because they are so skillfully crafted! I own a copy of The Woman in White, and now after your review I’m even more excited to read it!

  6. Everyone is talking about thise book (my copy is enroute from Amazon). Your review, along with others I’ve read makes me all the more anxious to read the book. Thanks

  7. Now that you’ve read them both, did you like this one or the Moonstone better? Of the 3 books by Collins I’ve read so far this is my favorite. It’s a shame he didn’t write more suspense thrillers.

  8. I felt the same way about the Moonstone. Somewhere in the middle of the book, I was just perplexed as hell, and thought “I would really like to have the answer to this riddle right now!”. I am planning on reading this later in the year with Simon, and I can’t wait. That was a great review! (As usual.)

  9. I read this novel some ten or more years ago. I think I need to refresh my memory by re-reading. The only fact I do remember about the novel is the one big spoiler which can’t be revealed!

  10. I read this last week and I agree with you – his style is long-winded, but the book is so masterfully plotted. I found it a joy to read, much to my surprise.

  11. I always wondered how to write a proper epistolary novel and this seems like an interesting guide into the format. I am often fond of author machinations that stir characters into suspicion without certainty as well as confusing the reader in the mystery.

  12. After seeing the cover of The Woman in White featured in your current reading list & you mentioning it in some previous posts made me think how much I liked the book when I read it a long time ago in Finnish. So, last week I bought a paperback version in English & plan to re-read it in the not too distant future in original language this time. Thanks for the inspiration! 🙂


  13. Mercy, everyone’s in love with Wilkie Collins these days. I am well happy about this! I feel like Charles Dickens gets too much hype and Collins not nearly enough. (hooray!)

  14. I am so pleased that you enjoyed this Matthew its one of my very most favourite books, along with Rebecca, does that say alot about me hahaha.

    If you want to read more Wilkie Collins do join in The Sensation Season. Armadale is shaping up to be as good if not better than The Woman in White!!!

  15. I have a strange relationship with this book! Before I read it, I loved the idea of it. Then when I actually got around to reading it, I didn’t think much of it. Probably the most annoying thing about it was its continuous climaxing and cliff-hangering – inevitable, as it was originally serialized, I suppose?
    But as time passes, I’m beginning to like the general idea of this book, more and more. So I’m back to where I started 😀

  16. Peter:
    I read The Moonstone a couple months ago and loved it! I held on to The Woman in White and decided to read The Moonstone first because everybody on here told me how great WIW is! Hope you enjoy. Let me know what you think. 🙂

  17. Beth F:
    I wonder how long it takes to listen to the audiobook? The book is 609 pages long. Let me know how you like the audio. The numerous narratives would be fun to listen to. 🙂

  18. Jackie (Farm Lane Books):
    This one is even more convoluted than The Moonstone, which I decided to read first, kind of saving the best for last!

  19. Amy Reads Good Books:
    I have to wade through so many details in this book. Back-tracking, and re-reading passages would be necessary throughout the process of reading. It’s actually a very enjoyable read. 🙂

  20. Steph:
    You’ve said it! Not that I don’t enjoy the books of our modern times, but every once in a while I have to go back to dig those classics that have exemplified the art of fiction. I think authors somehow get away with writing books that are skimpy in prose. The many details that populate the prose of classics give me the satisfaction of trying to piece together the clues that are necessary to resolve a resolve in a book like The Woman in White.

  21. diane:
    Yes! Wilkie Collins is all over the book bloggers’ radar! I wish you enjoy this book and have fun wading through all the details.

  22. Mish:
    The Woman in White is so much more complicated and convoluted in the story. So many deceptions going on that even the characters were not fully savvy to the truth. The Moonstone is more straight-forward that makes The Woman in White a bit long-winding. But in both cases, Wilkie Collins is very witty in tying up the bundle pretty neatly.

  23. Sandy:
    Oh you would have to be patient with this one. Every time you think you’ll nail the truth the tide changes! That’s all I’m going to say. It’s convoluted! 🙂

  24. Rhodora Online:
    The big spoiler would be such a thrill at the end after persevering with all the clues and decoys. Woo hoo! It’s such a release when I read to the final chapter!

  25. Nymeth:
    Like I said, how he actually managed with all the plots, subplots, and deceptions and still pulled off at the end nicely is beyond my understanding!

  26. Harry Markov:
    This would be perfect demonstration of a novel that comprises of a suspenseful plot, tidy ending, and etched characters.

  27. Tiina:
    It’s amazing that everyone is either talking about the book or is reading it now! I hope you enjoy reading it. I had so much fun doing so myself.

  28. Jenny:
    Even though his novels were quite popular at the time, Wilkie Collins fell into the category of overlooked authors. It was said that he wrote suspenseful thrillers, which was considered second-rate to novelists like Dickens and Austen’s works.

  29. savidgereads:
    The Woman in White and Rebecca would be the front runners of my readings for this year! I would definitely join in for the reading of The Sensation Season because I cannot get enough of Collins! 🙂

  30. tuesday:
    Ha! I know what you mean! At one point, probably a third from the end I was saying to myself: “Okay Collins, enough of this cliff-hanging and red herring, just give me the ending. I wanna know the truth so badly.” But the reward at the end was worth reading all the narratives and few of the long-winding, dispensable chapters!

  31. I recently read this myself. I enjoyed it. I hadn’t realized it was going to be suspenseful, but I found it definitely was! I felt I know what the ending was going to be (in general) but I was very satisfied with how it got there.

  32. You’ve written another wonderful review, Matt. Thank you. I enjoyed The Woman in White quite a bit when I read it earlier this year.

  33. rebeccareid:
    I was a little bit (just a tiny bit) impatient when he kept on looping around from telling the truth. But I still enjoyed it a lot. 🙂

  34. Literary Feline:
    Thanks Wendy. The Woman in White could easily be one of the best books I have read so far this year.

  35. ok never read any Wilkie but I’m getting the impression I should read this one first and then Moonstone. Convoluted mess? sounds good to me. I like plots that keep me guessing.

  36. I just finished this one and just loved it. I agree, I couldn’t see how it was all going to come together in the end. What impressed me was the suspense it built and how at one point I didn’t trust anyone! I definitely have to read The Moonstone now!

  37. […] The Woman in White Wilkie Collins The intricate details and occasional discrepancy of the narratives contribute to the ingeniousness of plots in The Woman in White. That many of these characters are isolated renders them most susceptible to the chicaneries of the perpetrators. In a way, the purpose of the manipulations is to create “blindspots” in everyone involved so that one is often led to court suspicion that is wrong for the sake of diverting himself from other suspicion that is right. […]

  38. […] and newest book read? Two of the oldest books read were both by Wilkie Collins: The Woman in White (1859) and The Moonstone (1868). The oldest book was The Dialogue of the Dogs by Cervantes (1613). […]

  39. […] du Maurier furnishes one of the best unexpected endings in my reading. Also highly suspenseful, The Woman in White nourishes a surprised ending except that Wilkie Collins adroitly creates “blindspots” […]

  40. […] format: The Guernsay Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, and A Meeting By the River by Christopher Isherwood. I prefer prose over verse […]

  41. […] Waters is known for her convoluted plot and surprised endings. Also highly suspenseful, The Woman in White nourishes a surprised ending except that Wilkie Collins adroitly creates “blindspots” […]

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