” ‘There, in the middle of the broad, bright high-road—there, as if it had that moment sprung out of the earth or dropped from the heaven—stood the figure of a solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in white garments.’
Thus young Walter Hartright first meets the mysterious woman in white in what soon became one of the most popular novels of the nineteenth century. Secrets, mistaken identities, surprise revelations, amnesia, locked rooms and locked asylums, and an unorthodox villain made this mystery thriller an instant success when it first appeared in 1860, and it has continued to enthrall readers ever since.”
Thoughts: It is interesting to note that scholars now credit Wilkie Collins with not only creating the detective story genre (The Moonstone) but also with developing suspense fiction, also known in today’s vernacular as thrillers. It is also interesting to note how often Mr. Collins’ The Woman in White is described as a Gothic novel. To describe The Woman in White as creepy or spooky or perfect for Halloween does the novel a disservice as it intimates that the book contains ghostly elements and unanswerable questions. Rest assured, the novel is anything but spooky. There are no Gothic elements that cannot be resolved in the light of day. All questions are answered in a satisfactorily manner, and all characters get their just desserts. Like any good thriller, it keeps a reader guessing and contains many a plot twist, but there is nothing otherworldly about The Woman in White, as many others besides myself may have been led to believe.
If the plot of The Woman in White seems familiar, that is because it is. As the first of its kind, it has been oft-imitated, borrowed, and retold in multiple ways. A strange encounter with a mysterious woman with an enigmatic message, a hapless and poor hero, a dashing heir, a gorgeous but docile sweetheart, her trusty sidekick, a nefarious foreign villain – these are all elements of very popular stories, especially of the soap opera variety. However, their familiarity does not breed contempt in this case. If anything, a reader can better appreciate the first time they were ever used as plot devices. Not only that but Mr. Collins’ writing stands the test of time and remains as enjoyable and intense as it was when the novel was first released in serial form.
It is always important to remember the context in which a novel was written, and this is especially true of something as historical and iconic as The Woman in White. As was appropriate for the era, women, their abilities, and their rights are severely limited. Marian, the trusty sidekick, is more than capable of taking on the Big Bad but is unable to do so because of her gender. Laura is the epitome of the docile, beautiful china doll – sweet but fairly incapable of being anything other than a decoration. Countess Fosco, for all her descriptions of being a volatile feminist before her marriage, is completely ruled by her husband, so much so that she does not act or talk without his permission. It can be troubling for modern-day readers to see the female sex degraded to such levels, even while a reader can appreciate how much things have changed since the book’s release in 1860. The key is to not get caught up in what used to be but rather to appreciate the story for what it is – a twisty mystery thriller and the first of its kind.
Once one realizes that this book does not contain the supernatural elements that define Gothic novels, and once one recovers from the shock and/or horror at the portrayal of women in the novel, the reader can sit back and appreciate what Mr. Collins did. Walter Hartright doggedly follows what few clues he can find, determined to get answers and right wrongs. He does this with very little money and a large amount of stubborn fortitude. Remarkably, even though the story is told in epistolary form, as affidavits of events by key witnesses after they happened, a reader never feels separated from the action. In fact, there is something surprisingly intimate with the format used, as it allows readers to get into the mindset of each of the narrators, allowing the reader to pick and choose among their stories for the most important clues and nuggets of information to help resolve the mystery.
The mystery itself is a fun and simple ride with the requisite mistaken identities, mysterious figures, hereditary and monetary dealings, and one in which each character introduced plays a key role in the unfolding drama, in true Dickensian fashion. This is more indicative of the influence Charles Dickens had on Mr. Collins and his work. Predictable and familiar, The Woman in White retains a freshness that is due to Mr. Collins’ skill at creating characters and building scenes. While it is not the spooky read initially thought, it still remains an enjoyable thriller and excellent flashback to a time where hereditary titles and social rank were still extremely important to the functioning of society.
Acknowledgments: Mine. All mine.