I read The Moonstone a couple of years ago, and thoroughly enjoyed it, and so I’ve been looking forward to reading The Woman in White ever since. I also found out that this is my grandmother’s favourite novel of all time, and as she is a well read lady, I figured it must be pretty special.

The tale is told by multiple narrators, in a similar vein to The Moonstone. Wilkie Collins himself trained as a lawyer (though never practiced) and he structures the narrative as a series of accounts, as would be given in a legal case:

…The story here presented will be told by more than one pen, as the story of an offense against the law is told in Court by more than one witness…

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

The Woman in White offers a fairly long, meandering narrative, with new pieces of the jigsaw, so to speak, being presented by different narrators at different points. There are many twists in the plot and there is much suspense, often made all the more painful by the forced passivity of the central characters.

Highlights of the novel:

There is a great opening to the novel, where Walter Hartright, a young art teacher and the hero of the tale, is walking home late one evening, when he meets a mysterious woman dressed all in white, who is clearly much distressed. Walter is unable to get much information out of the Woman in White, however he manages to help escort her to a carriage and sends her safely on her way. Soon after this event however, Walter learns that the lady had escaped from an asylum.

This intriguing event is really well told – with just enough information to make us suspect that the Woman in White has been wronged and is in some kind of danger. This of course raises many question and ensures that our curiosity is well and truly piqued.

There are also some great characters in the novel too. There is the ever so pure and innocent (and to be honest, somewhat pathetic) Laura Fairlie, who is married off to the thoroughly mean and nasty Sir Percival Glyde. Then there is Marian Halcombe, Laura’s brave and intelligent half-sister, who some critics believe to be based upon Collin’s friend and fellow-writer, George Elliot. Then, best of all, there is Count Fosco – an almost comically overweight Italian, who is terribly cultured and charming, highly intelligent but also mysterious and menacing. He is truly a most memorably character – what with his bombastic speech, his eccentric habits and his seeming omniscience.

I have to confess that I felt the pace slackened somewhat in the middle, and I did find the helplessness and passivity of Laura and Marian at times exasperating, but overall this is a great mystery / detective tale. It is also quite bleak and harrowing at times. I mean, you kind of know that all will turn out well in the end, but there is a huge chunk of the narrative – probably three hundred odd pages –  in which the sisters are in serious (if undefined) danger, and seem to be able to do little about their predicament.  So, whilst The Woman in White is certainly well worth a read, for my money, The Moonstone is both the more accomplished and more enjoyable novel of the two.

Trivia: Wikipedia informs me that The Woman in White, published in 1859-60 “is considered to be among the first ‘mystery novels’ and is widely regarded as one of the first (and finest) in the genre of ‘sensation novels’.

If you liked this, you might also enjoy: Wilkie Collin’s other greatly celebrated mystery novel, The Moonstone.