The Woman in White
I just finished reading The Woman in White and all I can say is: Wilkie Collins, where have you been all my life? This book is a huge, bulging confection of florid phrasing, melodrama, suspense, delicate Victorian sensibilities and plot twists to make the mind boggle. I loved it.
Would I have loved it quite as much if I’d read the whole honking huge thing, rather than listening to it performed by the incomparable Simon Prebble? I don’t know. He mesmerized me with his performance of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, as well–another weighty volume of fantastic stuff that made me regret getting out of the car at the end of my commute. I have a subscription to one audio book per month and, wanting to get the most bang for my buck, gravitate toward the long novels that will keep me entertained until the next month’s credit kicks in. While my January listen to Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment felt undeservedly–well–punishing, Collins delivers a real treat.
Thirty years ago I had my first encounter with a novel like this. Great Expectations was assigned for 9th-grade English and most of my classmates trudged through it and waited for better days. I submerged myself and came out a different reader. Great Expectations was the watershed moment that turned me from the early adolescent devourer of literature–indiscriminate, fast, un-reflective–to a Reader. And the plot twists, the archaic language, the enitre world Dicken’s held together with his skill and words is what did that for me. The way the myriad narrative threads were tied up in a bow, explained and accounted for, at the end of the novel set a kind of bar in my mind that affected (for good or ill) the way I read novels for years.
The Woman in White is generally regarded as the first “suspense novel” or work of “suspense fiction.” There is the mystery of the woman in white herself, who appears to haunt two families (at least) while she is alive, suggests that some wrong has been done to her or by her and sets the tone for the treatment of women in the novel–as potentially both threatened and threatening creatures. This is compounded by the sinister schemes of Lord Glyde and Count Fosco and the selfish indifference of Mr. Fairlie toward the fate of his niece and her half sister. Typical of nineteenth-century novels, this one revolves around questions of agency for women–is it possible?–and questions of class and rank–what is true nobility? And then there is Collin’s pacing: his narrative proceeds at a steady pace until–GASP–he stops to minutely describe a feeling, a sensation, a worry. At this point his observance of the characters and the plot fades into the background while he devotes all his time, energy, and verbiage to exploring the inner territory of someone’s “sentiments.” The pacing masterfully manipulates the reader–in spite of myself, I was anxious for the fact-finding mission of the main plot to continue; I was worried about what would befall the three central female characters.
I’m not much of a re-reader. In part because there is so much out there left for me to read and I’m greedy for those new experiences; in part because I know that loving a piece of literature is sometimes tied to time and place in a way that makes the re-reading of it necessarily diminished. So, I’m unlikely to go back to Great Expectations (although I do go back again and again to the German novels and novellas I teach). The Woman in White served, however, as an excellent reminder of why I love nineteenth-century novels so very very much.