I have had The Woman in White on my shelf for at least a year. I’d been wanting to read it but it never made its way to the top of the pile. So when I signed up for RIP IV I thought perfect! And I added it to my list of books. And then I still didn’t get to it! So when the Classics Circuit decided to start off with Wilkie Collins. I knew this would be the absolute motivating factor. Only problem is, seems like everyone and their brother has already reviewed this book, so my hope is to share some new information that you may not have read yet.
The Woman in White was written by Collins in 1859 and published as a serial novel in 1859-60. In my mind, this is quite a feat–writing a serialization must be quite different than writing a novel. Collins knew he had to write the novel in a way that would be easily broken up–each part had to be memorable and leave the reader wanting more, which is why writing a mystery probably made the most sense.
The Woman in White is a compilation of the thoughts and experiences of a myriad of characters, but it all begins with Walter Hartright. Hartright is traveling alone one night when he comes across a woman dressed all in white who is apparently fleeing from someone. Hartright comes to find out she has just escaped from an asylum. His time with the woman is fleeting and she is gone before he knows it. The next day Hartright goes away to tutor two sisters, Marian and Laura. The two are half-sisters and completely different from one another–Laura is beautiful but flighty and weak, wheras Marian is the sensible and firm one. Hartwright becomes very close to the sisters, quickly falling in love with Laura. At the same time, the mystery of the woman in white is quickly unraveling.
That’s only the tip of the iceberg. The Woman in White is practically 500 pages and I have just barely touched on the plot. As I stated before, Collins felt it necessary to include a lot of information early on in the book, with the mystery continuing to become clearer and clearer, because writing the book that way lent itself to a serial publication. In that sense, it is hard to summarize the book without giving away too much, so I will stop while I am ahead.
I found an interesting article/letter in which Wilkie Collins discussed his method of writing. I have included an excerpt below, but for more information you can find the article in its entirety here. Please be aware that the following excerpt contains some spoilers.
My first proceeding is to get my central idea — the pivot on which the story turns.
The central idea of “The Woman In White” is the idea of a conspiracy in private life, in which circumstances are so handled as to rob a woman of her identity by confounding her with another woman, sufficiently like her in personal appearance to answer the wicked purpose. The destruction of her identity represents a first division of the story; and the recovery of her identity marks a second division.
My central idea suggests some of my chief characters. A clever devil must conduct the conspiracy. Male devil? or female devil? The sort of wickedness wanted seems to be a man’s wickedness. Perhaps a foreign man. Count Fosco faintly shows himself to me, before I know his name. I let him wait, and begin to think about the two women. They must be both innocent and both interesting. Lady Glyde dawns on me as one of the innocent victims. I try to discover the other — and fail. I devote the try what a walk will do for me — and fail. I devote the evening to a new effort — and fail. Experience tells me to take no more trouble about it, and leave that other woman to come of her own accord. The next morning, before I have been awake in my bed for more than ten minutes, my perverse brains set to work without consulting me. Poor Anne Catherick comes into the room, and says: “Try me”.
Because The Woman in White is lauded as one of the first mysteries, I find Collins’ writing process to be especially intriguing. The entire letter is quite interesting and I could have quoted practically the whole thing, but for the sake of time and place I went ahead and kept it short.
I know it seems that classics can be trying at times–I certainly feel that way. Since I graduated from college two years ago, I have been remiss in reading classics but the effort and time involved puts me off a lot of the time. If you’re willing to make just the tiniest bit of effort though, I would recommend picking up The Woman in White. As far as classics go, it is readable and engaging and of all the reviews I have read recently on other blogs, I can’t recall even one negative review.
To find tour dates for the Wilkie Collins tour, look here.