Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Woman in White

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins is one of the first (and finest, if you believe the jacket cover) mystery thrillers ever written. It’s also one of the first in the genre of Victorian 'sensation novels' in which writers took the terrors of the gothic novel—madmen, vampires, dark castles—and moved them to familiar, domestic settings, building their plots around similarly thrilling or sensational themes like insanity, insane asylums, and wrongful committal, dark secrets like bigamy and identity theft, and all manner of crime and villainy, including muuurrderr. (To be read in the voice of Sideshow Bob in the Simpsons episode where he tries to exact revenge on archnemesis Bart by marrying aunt Selma and blowing up their honeymoon suite... you know the one).

This story begins with an eerie midnight encounter between art master Walter Hartright and a mysterious woman dressed all in white. She is in a state of confusion and distress, and Hartright helps her to find her way to London. In return, she warns him against a certain unnamed baronet. After they part, Hartright learns that she escaped from an asylum.

The next day, in his new position as art tutor to two young women (homely-yet-fascinating Marian Halcombe and her beautiful, wealthy half-sister, Laura Fairlie), he finds that the story of the woman in white is entangled with the lives of the two sisters. To further complicate matters, Walter and Laura fall in love, but he is poor and she is already engaged, by her dead father's wish, to a (gasp) baronet named Sir Percival Glyde.

Determined to learn all they can about the mysterious woman in white, Walter and the heroically capable Marian delve deeper. Engaging in a battle of wits with Glyde's enigmatic Italian friend Count Fosco, they “soon find themselves drawn into a “chilling vortex of crime, poison, kidnapping and international intrigue.”

As you can plainly see from that last line (again from the jacket cover) this was a fun book. It’s mostly fluff, but it kept me engaged and guessing. I found it compulsively readable, an excellent specimen of top-notch storytelling.

Being a Victorian novel, this is a long one, so by the end I was kind of glad to be done with it. But it was undeniably suspenseful, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it if you’re looking for good old fashioned entertainment. Too, it reminded my why I once found the Victorians and their literature so fascinating—their merciless social strictures, the beautiful courtesy and formality of the language, and above all the terrible plight of female protagonists who are, against the odds, brave and good and resourceful and always so composed.