27 Apr 2020

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

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Anonymous said...

This is certainly a narrative for visual readers since the descriptions are detailed and colourful. The hidden omniscient narrator keeps a tight grip on the tale through these intricate embellishments. Thus is so despite a brave attempt at masking his hold by introducing different narrators. Due to the descriptive embellishments we see the main narrator constantly intervening.

These descriptive slideshows hold up the pace of the narrative evolution and may bore some modern readers. The plot seems to advance ever so slowly and the reader is kept waiting for the next step by voluminous decorative scenes. This, of course, would have been necessary in the 19th century non-cinematic era but today may seem excessively ornamental.

The characters are credible, well-drawn and escape from the dickensian tradition of cardboard cutouts which was comforting for his readers but not suitable to Collins's thriller. This is certainly an advance in literary style for the period.

Language is well used in the dialogues to underline a basic theme of the book: class. The reader has little doubt about the educational level of the characters through their conversation just as their status is displayed through description of their behaviour which is exceedingly formal, another cultural obstacle for the modern reader.

We are also clued about the ethics of characters by hearing them describe their own feelings and reactions, a fine literary touch by Collins. However formal some dialogues may appear they are not cliched as in Pesca's constant use of worn phrasing. There we are shown the difference between formality and poor thinking. However there may be a subtheme of nationalist superiority to this since Pesca is Italian. Another cultural gap, hopefully, with the modern reader.

All in all an innovative attempt to entertain the 19th century reader but it may fall short as a modern novel. Not a classic.


Pat Vingoe said...

“This is the story of what a Woman’s patience can endure, and what a Man’s resolution can achieve “- the first line of Walter Hartwright’s narration.

Woman in White is a 18th century mystery novel driven by the plot which is unfolded by a series of narrators, witnesses to the events of the story.
Miriam, the half sister of Laura, the focus of the story, is the patient woman. Walter, Laura’s admirer and eventual husband is the resolute man, a very thorough and excellent detective.
It is a novel of honour and dishonour portraying much anxiety about hidden identities, and wealth.
In his quest to solve the mysteries of various characters backgrounds and Sir Perciva’ls secret Walter is helped along by the author putting him in the right place at the right moment. It is difficult to find these coincidences credible, but this is fiction!
Many of the characters are rather dry but Frederick Fairlie , the hypochondriac Uncle, is humorously described. He doesn’t want anyone or anything to disturb his peace of mind. He is contented to be in isolation.
I enjoyed the skilfully and precise writing of Woman in White but found it rather long. We have to remember though that it was written to be read as a serial over several months. I think it is an impressive early detective mystery and has probably been the model for many novels following it.

Renée said...

After thoroughly enjoying Moonstone by the same author, I was looking forward to reading this book. Unfortunately, either because of my own mindset or the quality of the writing itself, I was disappointed. The story started off well enough, though I was surprised that the narrative scheme was the same as in Moonstone: the same story told through the eyes of different narrators. This led me to wonder whether all his books followed the same style or if he ever varied. However, while in Moonstone, the action happened quite rapidly, in Woman in White, it seems to take forever to reach what for me at least was almost a foregone conclusion. I have to admit that the last 25-30% of the book was a struggle for me.
Having said all that, it is true that the characters were well developed, which made me love and empathize with some of them (Hartwright and Marian) and thoroughly dislike others (Laura).
The theme of identity - mistaken, hidden, etc - was present throughout the book as well. Besides the obvious similarity of the woman in white with Laura, many of the characters have pasts that they are trying to hide behind a new identity.
Since this novel was written in a similar style to Moonstone but in my opinion was not as good, I wondered which was written first. Was Woman a first novel and he learned from his mistakes? Or was Moonstone first and he attempted to replicate its success with a second novel? Surprisingly, Moonstone came before Woman. I was also interested to learn from this same internet search that Collins co-authored several books with other writers, including many with Dickens. This made me curious to know how they worked out the logistics of this. Did they take turns in writing episodes? Or did they actively collaborate on each episode? I was not able to find an answer to this question and if anyone can supply one, I'd be interested.
I did discuss this novel with Pat, and some of my comments are the fruit of this discussion. For example, I give credit to her for the idea of mistaken identity, which I am sure she will be able to develop much more coherently than I have.