I just finished reading The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. Yes, it’s a 19th century work. But no, it’s not boring. At not a single point is it ho-hum. I’ve read a great many mystery novels, but none of them have been as complex, as thrilling and as satisfying as this one (with the possible exception of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd).
The story begins with what Dickens described as ‘one of the two most dramatic scenes in Literature’. Late one night on a lonely road, the hero, Walter Hartright, encounters a mysterious figure, the eponymous Woman in White. She’s lost and distressed and he helps her out. The next day, Hartright sets out for Cumberland, where he’s been appointed to teach drawing to two young ladies. One of the ladies, Laura Fairlie, bears an uncanny resemblance to the nameless woman Hartright had met the previous night. What follows is a tale of deceit, greed, loyalty and love, which forever changes the course of the drawing master’s life. And at the heart of it all is the mysterious Woman in White.
The tale is told from many different points of view. Collins got the idea from the way court proceedings are conducted. In his own words, ‘the story here presented will be told by more than one pen, as the story of an offence against the laws is told in Court by more than one witness…’
This style inspired other works, among them Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The characters, major and minor, are all well-fleshed out and have their own distinct voices within the narrative.
Collins got the idea for the novel from a book of famous French cases, Receuil des Causes Celebres. The inspiration for the hero’s encounter with the title character, however, originated much closer to home. Apparently, Collins and a friend were walking home one night, when they heard a piercing scream from a nearby villa. Running from the house in terror, came the figure of a beautiful young woman who was dressed in flowing, white robes. She was a widow with an infant daughter and she claimed to have been held captive by the owner of the villa . It is believed that this woman was Caroline Graves, who became Collins’ companion and who is buried next to him in Kensal Green Cemetary.
The Woman in White was a commercial and critical success of its time. Gladstone cancelled a theatre engagement so that he could go on reading it uniterrupted. Bonnets, perfumes and even waltzes were names after The Woman in White. To this day, it is one of Collins’ most popular books and is the prototype for many of the Gothic thrillers (including Dracula) which followed it. It’s popularity is well-deserved in my opinion. As the narrative unfolds, Collins proves to be an expert weaver of plots and machinations, concealing secrets with one hand even as he reveals them with the other. It’s certainly no surprise that this book has been called ‘one of the greatest mystery thrillers in the English Language’.
Image from Amazon