Saturday, September 28, 2013

Victorian Mystery

The Woman in WhiteThe Woman in White 
by Wilkie Collins

"This is a story of what a woman's patience can endure, and what a man's resolution can achieve." - Wilkie Collins

What is a mystery? The very term baffles the imagination... A mystery purveys the element of shock and awe. We explore hidden paths, or explore the unknown, until we discover the truth. A mystery is usually presented in the form of a novel like this one, or a short story like those of Poe or Doyle.
With "The Woman in White" Wilkie Collins added the element of sensationalism to the mystery*.  The discovery by Collins of "a young and very beautiful young woman dressed in flowing white robes that shone in the moonlight" inspired this story. In the novel, Walter Hartright encounters a woman in white. The novel involves crime, poison, and kidnapping. The author develops the story through multiple layers from a variety of narrators. They tell a story filled with both appealing characters and equalling unappealing villains.
The plot involves Walter Hartright, a young drawing master, who one evening sees a mysterious woman dressed in white, apparently in deep distress. The household in which he works includes Mr Frederick Fairlie, a reclusive valetudinarian; Laura Fairlie, his niece; and Marian Halcombe, her devoted half-sister. Hartright finds that Laura bears an astonishing resemblance to the woman in white, called Anne Catherick. Hartright and Laura fall in love. Laura, however, has promised her late father that she will marry Sir Percival Glyde, and Marian advises Walter to leave Limmeridge. Laura and Glyde marry in December 1849 and travel to Italy. Hartright also leaves England, joining an expedition to Honduras.
The narration continues to unfold with further mysterious developments involving Laura's inheritance, the relationships of Count Fosco and Glyde, the status of Anne Catherick, and whether young Walter Hartright will ever return to England to pursue his love for Laura.
This brief description does not really do justice to the complications of the story, but as is true of most mysteries disclosing more details would detract from the reader's joy of discovery while engaging the novel for himself.
Wilkie Collins succeeds by the creation of convincing characterization, especially Walter Hartright and Marian Halcombe. He moves the story along seemingly without effort; slowly but judiciously increasing the suspense and mystery of a variety of characters whose importance only gradually becomes evident. Finally, he successfully creates a milieu that is believable - presenting a sort of aura that surrounds the happenings - mostly in a country manor - with a subtle intensity. There is also an element of historicity that is important to understanding the plot; specifically the legal restraints on women in mid-nineteenth century England.  The plight of Laura Fairlie results as much from these restraints as from her personal character while Anne Catherick suffers from certain restraints that may still be present today. 
Wilkie Collins is impressive in bringing together elements that I have encountered in other authors like Bronte or Dickens while creating his own thrilling mystery. It is a novel worthy of the popularity is has enjoyed for more than a century.

*This review is part of the Readers Imbibing Peril seasonal reading event. View all my reviews


Brian Joseph said...

I have never read Collins but I would like to. I have been on a little bit of a Dickens kick and based upon your description and the Goodreads description there does seem similarities. In particular these Victorian novelists crafted characters in a very intriguing, though not necessarily realistic, way.

James said...

Having read almost every Dickens novel at least once I can assure you that if you like Dickens you will find Collins style amenable.
They share the ability to create fascinating characters and an interesting plot. The narrative style of this novel was smoother than much of Dickens,
while the mystery was reminiscent of Dickens' unfinished masterpiece, Edwin Drood.