Sep 18, 2009

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

The mystery begins when Walter Hartright, on his way to an estate in Cumberland to tutor two sisters in the art of drawing, meets the woman in white. It’s a dark night, and the woman in white is walking alone on a road in north London. Walter helps her find her way, and later discovers she escaped from a lunatic asylum. But the most intriguing thing of all is that in their short time together, she mentions Limmeridge, the house in Cumberland which is Walter’s destination.

I won’t tell you anything more, as going into this book knowing as little as possible is half the fun. You know how spoilers for classics are almost impossible to avoid? Well, in this case I somehow managed to, so I was able to read The Woman in White with fresh eyes. The plot, however, wasn’t as surprising as it must have been a century and a half ago, as so much of what happens here has become a cornerstone of Gothic fiction.

Take, for example, the structure. The story is told by multiple narrators through letters, journal entries, and testimonies. In the preface to the 1860 edition, Collins explains what he tried to achieve by doing this – to tell the story “as an offence against the law is told in Court by more than one witness.” It made me smile that he explained, as this structure has become so common today.

But common structure and unsurprising plot elements or not, there were still a few twists and turns that did surprise me. And regardless of how unexpected the plot is, who doesn’t love a tale of madness, crime, forgery, secret societies, mistakes, conspiracies, and gloomy mansions? (On that note, how ominous a name is Blackwater Park?)

The Woman in White is so very Victorian. This shows in many ways, including in the language, the setting, the gender roles. But it’s especially Victorian in that the plot itself is only made possible by a very particular social structure. The secrets at the heart of this novel just wouldn’t be possible in today’s world.

One of the things I found the most interesting was the fact that the story explores the cracks in this social structure. It doesn’t quite question it, but it manages to be subtly subversive. Laura is the traditional damsel in distress, but then we have Marian, who is resourceful, brave, and anything but helpless. The story goes beyond social appearances, blurring the lines between gentlemen and villains, questioning what was then thought to be a “natural” association between money, property and education, and strength of character. Nothing is fixed; nothing is what it seems. And the events described bring danger into the domestic sphere, into the hearts of respectable and wealthy homes. There’s also the fact that the central event in this novel highlights the helplessness of married women before the law.

Returning to the structure, I loved the fact that it reinforces this lack of rigidity, and the theme of the illusory nature of appearances. Because we see events through the eyes of several different characters, there is no definitive version of the truth, which makes the story more ambiguous and complex. For example, Eliza Michelson, the housekeeper at Blackwater Park, maintains her positive opinion of a certain character until the very end. In the light of certain revelation it’s likely that most readers will disagree with her, but we’re still forced to see how someone else views this character. I thought this was very clever, and it adds so much to the story.

And in addition to doing all the things it does, The Woman in White also manages to be a very entertaining piece of storytelling. To everyone who told me not to be intimidated just because this was a Victorian chunkster: you were so right. It was so readable, so difficult to put down, so gripping and atmospheric – and funny too! While the story does unfold at a slow pace, especially at first, I was never bored. I so enjoyed the mood, the language, the characters and their interactions – seriously, how brilliant a creation is Count Fosco?

Other Opinions: (Lots and lots of them)
Rebecca Reads, Trish’s Reading Nook, Book Nut, Girl Detective, Musings of a Bookish Kitty, A Reader’s Journal, books i done read, The Zen Leaf, Stella Matutina, Books N’ Border Collies, Bibliolatry, 1 More Chapter, BiblioAddict, A Garden Carried in the Pocket, Reading Reflections, Library Queue, Andrea’s Book Nook, Tip of the Iceberg, The Blog Jar, A Book Blog, Period

(Please let me know if I missed yours!)

PS: BBAW has been lots of fun, but also slightly overwhelming, which is the reason why I’m behind on replying to comments, visiting other blogs, and don’t even get me started on e-mail. To my new visitors, welcome! I hope nobody will feel ignored. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate all the comments I’ve been receiving. I hope you’ll make yourselves at home, and I look forward to interacting with you.


  1. I love the hell out of this book - Count Fosco particularly. The section narrated by him charms me nearly as much as Miss Clack in The Moonstone. I did slightly hope, when I was first reading it, that the hero would fall in love with Marian instead, since she was so obviously better, but then he was so bland and bland and bland, I decided he didn't deserve her.

  2. This book is so wonderful, and I look forward to his other books so much. I'm so happy to have read this. How awesome is Marian? She seriously made the book for me.

    I'm a little overwhelmed with all these posts, too. In fact, ive found I'm commenting on less and less of the BBAW ones I find in my Reader. Sigh. Ah well.

  3. Finally started this a couple nights ago, and can't wait to sit down and read more this evening! I just loved The Moonstone...have you read it?

    I think BBAW has us all a little overwhelmed..there's so much to keep up with - lol!

  4. wow and thank you big time! I was so waiting for you to review this book! I think it's next on my tbr pile!!! I only put it off a bit (reading Shadow of the Wind now) becaise I just came off of reading Drood (783 pgs) and couldn't face a second in a row lol..
    this is great! now I am really looking forward to reading the woman in Drood it and moonstone are mentioned time and again!

  5. I liked this book better the first time I read it, but it is a must-read classic in my opinion. I'm dying to re-read The Moonstone though. It was a favorite of mine in high school!

  6. Great review! I can't even add anything clever. :-) This was such a good book. And thank you so much for the link!


  7. I totally agree that it sort of subtly subverts conventions without doing so outright. The hero loves Laura, not Marian, and Marian's described as if she were a man, but surely the fact that she's intelligent is inspiring.

    Anyway, I thought this was a wonderful book. I'm glad you felt the same way.

  8. Wow. I have seen many reviews of this book and none of them piqued my interest, but you make it sound so intriguing I think I might read it. You do such a fantastic job of giving a clear idea what thematic elements a story has without giving away the story itself (I wish I were better at that).

  9. Ooh, I saw the film of this very recently, and I definitely want to read the book. Excellent review!

  10. You know this a book I've heard of a bazillion times yet still managed to know very little about it, too. I knew it was Victorian and looooong. Which was enough to scare me away. Now you're here telling me to ditch those fears. Great. ;)

  11. I have really got to read this book.

  12. I've read many positive reviews of this book. I think it's time to add it to my list.

  13. Lately everyone seems to be reading this book and it sounds so good. I definitely have to add it to my list!
    Great review.

  14. I vowed to read a Wilkie Collins for RIP IV and am torn between this one (which everyone seems to be reading) and The Moonstone (which everyone seems to have read)! From your review, I think it will be this one, after all. Thanks--you did a fabulous job.

  15. You've made some awesome points about the subtlety. This's one of those great books that it's possible to enjoy whether you skim the surface or dig deep. The story itself is entertaining enough that you don't really need more, but Collins dishes it out anyways.

  16. I'm looking forward to reading this!! I'm totally behind on blogs, too... oh well!

  17. I feel like I had never heard of this book and then all of a sudden everyone was talking about this book. I'm getting it e-mailed to me via Daily Lit; I'm on like, day 10 of 297. It's going to be awhile :)

    Thanks for the review!

  18. Isn't Fosco great? Him and those little white mice--and in a way very Dickensian as well. Now you HAVE to read some Dickens. :)

    I loved the illusions and deceptions and perspectives in this book as well--really goes to show how subjective our experiences and perspections really are (except you say it much better).

  19. You have me so interested in this book that I just bought the audio version from Audible. Seriously! Thanks.

  20. Excellent review! Noble Nymeth! Splendid analysis!

  21. I shall confess to knowing very little about Wilkie Collins. I have heard of the Woman in White but know very little of the story, other than it is a mystery. Your review has intrigued me though. Thanks!

  22. I've been wanting to read this book for 3 years now. Really need to do this. I didn't know that it was formatted in the way you described! Being told through letters and all that. Sounds sort of similar to Dracula in a way as far as the narrative. I had always assumed this one was just a straight forward novel!! I like that. Sounds cool!! I really really need to read this one!! And it does sound like something that Deslily will like too :)

    As for the hectic nature of this week, I'm with you my friend...I haven't responded to ANY comments on my blog and I just feel horrible about that!!! I've been so so about commenting on other blogs this week, but there have been some days that my reader has just completely overwhelmed me. I think we're all being understanding of each other this week though :p I think we're all understanding all the time actually, but especially this week! We'll get back on track!!

  23. I'm skipping over your review of this one for now because I'm right in the middle of it but I promise to come back and check it out when I'm done with my book. It may take a while but I'll look for it :)

  24. Yes, the epistolary device is used a lot now, but this one was actually done well. I really enjoyed it, and I too went in to it completely fresh. I found it somewhat predictable, but I wasn't ever sure how it would get there!

    I'm glad you enjoyed it!

  25. I added a link to your fabulous review over on my blog! Great job! Count Fosco is one of my all time favorite villains :o)

  26. I've had this book loaded on my Kindle for some time now, as I had heard SO MUCH about it, and I love The Moonstone. I know just a tiny bit about it, mostly spoiled by "The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher", which talks about a real life murder mystery, and how it influences all of the Victorian writers. I think I am going to read this with Simon at Savidge Reads later this year.

    I think we all understand the chaos of BBAW. On top of the fact that I've just been exhausted keeping up with everyone's posts, discovering new blogs and adding them to the fray, I've been on vacation! Can you imagine? I get up at the crack of dawn and fire up the laptop, before I get hell from my husband. Then we fight over who gets it when we return from our daily activities. Ack! I am used to responding to all of my comments, and everyone on my reader, and I have been lacking. I've been trying like hell to listen to that Blog Talk Radio thing from a few days ago, and haven't gotten the chance yet! (I'm headed there right now!)

  27. Now you have to read No Name! It's less Gothic, but much more Victorian subversive. ;)

  28. I've been wanting to read some of Wilkie Collins work ever since I read Drood. It sounds like this is a good one to start with.

  29. sounds incredible! must get copy now! :-)

  30. I have got to reread this book--I read it quite awhile ago and read for plot so quickly that I didn't savour it. Just the season for a nice meaty Victorian novel.

    >But it’s especially Victorian in that the plot itself is only made possible by a very particular social structure.

    Interesting point--especially since I just read Turn of the Screw, which drives this point home in spades

  31. To be honest, I'm not sure I can read anything by Wilkie Collins after Drood. There are Wilkie-related images that are burned into my mind from that book. But my mom did buy The Moonstone for me a few a years ago, so I might try that.

  32. I loved this book and Moonstone even more. Love the cover on your copy. Great review.

  33. There seems to be a lot of reviews about this one! How interesting, especially for an older classic. But I'll be honest. It's just not screaming out to me.

  34. I beieve Bram Stoker's Dracula is also written in that form ~ a combination of letters, journal entries, and newspaper articles, that is. It's an interesting approach, and certainly keeps readers well informed on different character's feelings and thoughts about events.

  35. I've heard of this book a WHOLE lot but I don't really know what it's about. Still haven't decided if I'm going to give in and read it though...

  36. I have a copy of this just sitting on my shelf, begging me to read it... and I avoid it because it is so long! I know it will be great - everyone who reads it loves it - but I always find excuses not to read it! Must rectify that post haste!

  37. I have to read The Moonstone first, but this one also sounds engaging. Great review!

  38. I haven't read this one by Collins, but I read his Armadale, and it seems like some of the structural components you discuss are the same. I really strongly disliked the main female character in that book, Lydia Gwilt. But it was interesting how he chose to portray her and her motivations- he was certainly an author of his time. I wonder sometimes, if he wasn't a great friend of Dickens and influenced by him, if he would have written in a different tone.

  39. Nymeth: I see you got the profile pics to work with your comments. Congrats!

  40. Hmmm...I suspect it's the reading by Dan Simmons I went to that turned me off this book! I'll have to give it a go sometime though.

  41. I'm reading this right now. Slowly, though, because it's on my iPhone and that's a hard format for me to read in. I'm hoping to finish it for RIP.

  42. Excellent review on this one. This seems to be the book everyone is talking about lately. I loved reading about it so much I ordered it and am waiting for my Amazon copy to arrive:)

    Thanks so much for adding to The Woman in White frenzy :0

  43. Ah! I just reviewed The Woman in White. I think our thoughts about it might be differing though ;p

    Count Fosco was amazing! He might be one of my favorite literary characters of all times!

  44. Great review Nymeth, i've been meaning to read this one for a while.

  45. Hello! ;)
    Well, I haven't read the book but excellent review you got there. The Woman in White is certainly going to my wishlist. Now I know why Memory likes your reviews. Very engaging. ^_^

  46. I am so glad you enjoyed The Woman in White, Nymeth. I knew you would. :-)

  47. Jenny: He didn't! Marian was better than Walter and Laura put together.

    Amanda: She and Count Fosco made things so much more interesting!

    JoAnn: Not yet, but I'm determined to read it before the end of RIP!

    Deslily: I can't wait to hear what you think of this! I think you'll enjoy it :)

    Tricia: And I'm dying to read The Moonstone for the first time :D

    Lezlie, you're most welcome!

    Meghan: I wonder if Collins was undecided about all those gender and social matters, or if he just didn't want to openly defy convention. Either way, the contradictions make it more interesting to read!

    Jeane, I think you ARE good at that! But thank you so much for the kind words :)

    Verity: I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

    Debi: It almost scared me away too. But yes, ditch those fears! :P

    Loren Eaton: Your wife has good taste :P

    Chris, yes you do!

    Charley and Bella: Do add it to your lists! It's such a fun read.

    ds: I haven't read The Moonstone yet, but several people have told me they prefer it to this one. So now that I'm no longer intimidated by Collins, I decided to go ahead and read both for RIP!

    Memory: He really does!

    Daphne, I think you'll really enjoy it :)

    Kim: It'll be worth your time, you'll see!

    Trish: You know, the day I finished this I started thinking that yes, I DO have to read some Dickens. The problem is deciding which :P And Trish, you said it perfectly, you know!

    Beth: yay! Enjoy :D

    raych: Why do I worry that you're being sarcastic? :( Aaaah! *frets*

    Mariel: Going in knowing as little as possible will make it even more enjoyable, you'll see!

    Chris: Yes, the structure is similar to Dracula! I actually wonder if The Woman in White inspired it. And yes, I think we understand and forgive one another every day...but I STILL feel guilty :P

  48. Iliana: I really look forward to hearing your thoughts on it!

    Rebecca: Exactly! I could guess a lot of things, but never exactly *how* they should happen.

    Terri, thank you for the link! And yes, Fosco is a fabulous villain!

    Sandy: After I read The Moonstone I think I'll feel brave enough for The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. It's Victorian true crime, after all! And EEK! BBAW + vacations? I have no idea how you coped!

    Eva: *adds No Name to the list* Victorian subversive, wheeee :D

    Kathy: Yes! It was my first and I can't imagine a better introduction.

    Marie. Yes you must :)

    JaneGS: I'm glad you said that, as The Turn of the Screw is on my pile! It really is the perfect season for novels like this :)

    heidenkind: Now I really hope that Drood won't ruin Collins for me!

    Framed: Isn't it an amazing cover? I LOVE these Wordsworth editions.

    Natasha: It's probably because of the RIP challenge!

    Allegra: It is, yes! I loved Dracula, but I need to read it again as it's been years and years.

    Ladytink: I hope you do give it a try! It's such a fun read.

    Steph: I understand - I tend to put off reading longer books, too. Even more so if they're classics. But this really doesn't read like a Victorian chunkster!

    Andreea: I'm reading The Moonstone soon too :D

    Aarti: That's an interesting question - why did he write the characters the way he did? Like I was telling Meghan, reading this made me wonder if he was full of contradictions himself (which is very possible, as so many of us are) or if he just didn't dare to question conventions openly in his novels.

    Blackin: Jason at Moored at Sea fixed it for me :D

    Amy, I hope you do!

    softdrink: Sorry to hear about the formart! But I hope you do finish it.

    Diane: I can't wait to hear what you think! I hope you enjoy it as much as the rest of us have :D

    She: I'm going over to read them in a minute :) And I can see why about Fosco!

    Naida, I hope you enjoy it!

    pachuvachuva: Thank you for the kind words :D

    Wendy: You know my taste well :D

  49. I read WIW for the first time this year because so many bloggers were, and I loved it, too. Count Fosco is a wonderful character I don't think I'll ever forget. Also, in my edition, it was remarked that readers (mostly men) of the day wrote many letters to Collins wanting to know what Marian lived and how they could get in touch with her. Collins sort of backfired trying to make her sister the female lead because everyone was enamored of Marian! (Which is sort of how I felt.) BTW, I rented the BBC movie version of WIW because I thought it looked so good -- Colin Firth, etc. -- and it was the absolute worst adaptation of a novel ever. The relationships between the characters were different, and there were liberal doses of rape and incest thrown in which, as you know, are not in the book! I finally turned it off halfway through.

  50. Ana, you give the best reviews and that includes this one! This is the first time I come across it.

  51. I'm going to put my two cents a few days late and say, I'm SOOOOO glad you liked "Woman in White!" I knew you would.

    I think I remember reading some list that named Count Fosco one of the greatest literary villains of all time. I'd definitely have to agree. And I LOVED Marian. I think Collins was ahead of his time with his writing of strong, female characters.

  52. LOVE THIS BOOK! Your review of it was great, I don't think I could have done it justice like that!

  53. Inspired mostly by your post, I decided to host a mini-challenge for reading Wilkie Collins. (The challenge includes reading and/or watching movies.) I don't know if you'd be interested in this or not, but I thought I'd share the link just in case.

  54. Great review, Nymeth! I really need to move this book up the pile after reading so many good reviews on it. I guess the reason why I haven't started this book is because I'm intimidated by the thick volumn. :P

  55. Great review! Unfortunately I am not too excited about reading this book because the ending was spoiled for me. Up until it was, I had been really excited about it and thought it would be a great read. I may give it a chance sometime anyway, but it might be awhile.

  56. I have this one sitting on my shelf to be read, it just looks and seems so darn good, plus I am a sucker for a classic.

    Also am a sucker for bloggers who review the classics! Your review is awesome and I like how you pick up on how maybe Wilkie Collins may be exposing cracks in social structure. That's fricken awesome.

  57. Verbatim: That's so interesting about Marian! I also thought that she was much more of a lead - and a much more interesting one - than Laura. And thanks for the heads up about the movie!

    Alice: It's such a great book :) I was surprised to enjoy it this much.

    J.S. Peyton: You were completely right! I should've listened to you and read it last year :P

    S. Krishna: Thank you for the kind words! I bet you could, though :P

    Becky: I'm reading The Moonstone soon anyway, so yes, count me in :D

    Melody: I know...I was too! But it's worth the time investment, you'll see :)

    Zibilee: Oh no! I'm so sorry. I hate spoilers :/

    April: I think that in many ways he went along with the status quo, but then there are all these little things that are a little off...something that I've noticed is not uncommon in Victorian lit! Anyway, I hope you enjoy the book as Much as I did!

  58. Which Dickens? Start with Great Expectations. :) I haven't read a TON of his stuff, but I really like that one. I also really like Our Mutual Friend, but it's much longer and I think I'm in the minority in liking (had to do a seminar paper on it--always attaches me to a book more).

  59. I can't wait to start reading this one. It's been in my home for over a year now and it needs to be read!


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