The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins.

I have fond memories of the first time I read The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, but I was surprised when I saw on Goodreads I'd only given the novel three stars, which, by my methods of rating, suggests I wasn't into it at all though respected it. I don't know why this would be, but perhaps when I first read it in February 2012 I wasn't keen at all, but the more I thought about it the more I liked it. Whatever the case, after my second read, The Woman in White gets a very firm and hearty five stars.

It was first published in  Charles Dickens' magazine 'All the Year Round' between 1859 - 1860, and first published in book form in 1860. It's Wilkie Collins' fifth published novel, and as much as I loved Basil (1852) and The Moonstone (1868), I think this is my favourite so far. It's said to be one of the first sensationalist novels (this opinion, I think, does a disservice to Basil), full of mystery and intrigue with a strong element of the Gothic. It is so full of twists and turns, each and every page is an event and it does demand concentration, but it is a most pleasurable read. 

It's divided into three volumes (called 'Epochs' in the novel) and contains, like The Moonstone, a variety of narrators in the forms of accounts, diaries, and letters. It begins in London with Walter Hartright, a young art teacher who, with the intervention of his dear friend Pesca, is to go to Cumbria (or Cumberland as it was then known) to teach art to Laura Fairlie and her half-sister Marian Halcombe. On his way there he meets a woman dressed entirely in white, apparently appearing from nowhere, though we do learn she was hiding in the hedge. She is very disturbed, and she asks Walter if she's on the right road for London. When he assures her it is she questions him, most notably if he knows "Many men of rank and title... many men of the rank of Baronet?" He names a few that he knows and she is relieved - the Baronet she is apparently so frightened of is unknown to Walter. She then tells him she is from Cumberland; Limmeridge village, which, by coincidence, is where Walter is headed, however she is unwilling to talk in any depth about it so by way of conclusion Walter hails a cab so she may be driven into the city. As she is driven away, another carriage passes, stops, and talks to a nearby policeman:
Wilkie Collins by Frederick Watty.
I was on the dark side of the road, in the thick shadow of some garden trees, when I stopped to look round. On the opposite and lighter side of the way, a short distance below me, a policeman was strolling along in the direction of the Regent's Park. 
The carriage passed me—an open chaise driven by two men. 
"Stop!" cried one. "There's a policeman. Let's ask him." 
The horse was instantly pulled up, a few yards beyond the dark place where I stood. 
"Policeman!" cried the first speaker. "Have you seen a woman pass this way?" 
"What sort of woman, sir?" 
"A woman in a lavender-coloured gown——" 
"No, no," interposed the second man. "The clothes we gave her were found on her bed. She must have gone away in the clothes she wore when she came to us. In white, policeman. A woman in white." 
"I haven't seen her, sir." 
"If you or any of your men meet with the woman, stop her, and send her in careful keeping to that address. I'll pay all expenses, and a fair reward into the bargain." 
The policeman looked at the card that was handed down to him. 
"Why are we to stop her, sir? What has she done?" 
"Done! She has escaped from my Asylum. Don't forget; a woman in white. Drive on." 
The Woman in White
by Frederick Walker (1871)
And there is the first mystery in The Woman in White.

When Walter arrives at Limmeridge House he tells the very amiable Marian about the encounter, and how the Woman in White once knew the now dead Mrs. Fairlie, Laura's mother, and she bears an uncanny resemblance to Laura, who Walter quickly falls with, however Laura is to marry Sir Percival Glyde despite not loving him. Marian and Walter are determined to find out just who the Woman is, how she knew the family, and how she came to be put in an asylum, and how and why she escaped...

This is such an excellent read I don't want to deprive anyone of the enjoyment of reading it. What I've written only gives a basic summary of the first 60 or so pages, a mere 10% of the novel. Once I began it I couldn't put it down, even though I'd already read it a few years ago. It's an absolute joy to read, and has in it some great characters - the strong and impressive Marian, the selfish, irritating invalid Frederick Fairlie (Laura's uncle), the sweet, vibrant Pesca, and, of course, some of the best villains in Victorian literature. Though some 600 pages, there is no time wasted, no long and drawn out padding; no unnecessaries at all. This is a very fast-paced novel indeed. And there is so much more to say but it would be a crime to spoil this for anyone. I'm not even including illustrations in this post in case I risk over-sharing plot details. So I'll conclude by saying this is a must read and for anyone who is joining in with the R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril Challenge, this should be on your list. Please read it!


  1. just listened to it! Loved it, yes quote gothic and spooky

    1. Oh, it would make a good audiotape! I should try and get that! Never listened to an audiotape before :)

  2. "the strong and impressive Marian". Oh no no no, not that again. I don't understand why everybody keeps saying that about Marian whilst it's not the case.

    1. I *was* impressed with her. How is she not strong?

      I was told that she's strong, independent, intelligent, resourceful, admirable... but didn't find any of that in the book (no, I don't care what Walter or Fosco says). Nor did I see her as a great, impressive character. The best characters in The Woman in White are, in my opinion, Count Fosco and Mr Fairlie. Marian's stupidity and slowness are needed for the plot.

    3. I'm not convinced, I'm afraid :) I thought she was a great character!

    4. I make a clear distinction between what other characters (and the author) say about Marian and how she appears, based on what she says and does. Her strength and independence is seen only in the scenes where she protests against Laura's husband's demands and insists that Laura doesn't sign anything without knowing what it's about. Other than those, there is nothing but the words of Walter and Count Fosco. Marian may appear fascinating at the beginning, but once she takes over the narrative, I start to see how slow and dim-witted and imperceptive and passive she is, she notices nothing and simply isn't on the same level as Count Fosco, and her stupidity and carelessness and tendency to leave everything behind for the villains to see are nothing but Wilkie Collins's tools for the advancement of the plot.
      I'd like people who ascribe such wonderful qualities to Marian to point out exactly where she's intelligent or resourceful or whatever.
      Besides, I think she's not a great character in the sense that she doesn't have the liveliness and uniqueness of Count Fosco or Mr Fairlie or even Pesca, she doesn't have anything that belongs just to her.
      Tom at Wuthering Expectations said the same thing in the last paragraph of this post:

    5. I think her actions speak the loudest, and I still maintain she is a strong character, though I do respect your (and Tom's) difference in opinion. To point out where she is strong and resourceful I can't help but say I would point to the entire book!

  3. I agree with you about Marian. I read her as strong, vocal, decisive, intelligent (especially in comparative terms), and resourceful; everything we wouldn't expect from a Victorian woman (especially a female character in a Victorian novel). The interesting part, to me, is that Collins plays with gender-bending throughout (many of the men are 'effeminate' and some of the women, but Marian in particular, are 'masculine'). This means that Marian is, perhaps, only strong because she is "manly" or, at least, androgynous. Does that make her a "strong woman" or just "strong?" I'm not sure. In any event - I like her, and I appreciate her presence. Even if she must be described as physically unappealing, she's still a woman with a spine and opinions of her own. I think her reaction to Count Fosco, her mixed-feelings, demonstrate that she is much more perceptive, not less so, than the other characters. For some reason, she reminds me of Gertrude Stein - paradoxical in personality: bold and coy; confident but introspective; smart and gutsy, yet not without her stumbles.

    1. Thanks Adam! I did wish that there wasn't the question of whether she was great simply because she was like a man in the novel, however, as you say, these 'male' attributes aren't necessarily 'male', they are simply 'attributes' in themselves. I wonder if Collins was making an observation on that, or if he just give her these 'male' attributes as a tool to make her a strong character without questioning it (I don't know enough abut Collins to be decisive). Whatever the case I liked her rebellion against gender roles - those parts when she said she was "just a woman" but often still went ahead and tried to battle in a situation.

      Not read Gertrude Stein and know little about her, but I do have The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas which I must read soon!

  4. I love this book! It's my favorite Wilkie Collins. And right now would be the perfect time to reread it. :)

    1. Definitely! It's getting very autumnal, and I loved the autumn beginning of the novel! :)

  5. I'm glad to hear this is an "excellent read"! I've been interested in it for awhile but the size kept from being too least I know it's worth it now! :)

    1. It definitely is! I hope you love it when you get to it :)


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