Plot summary (from the publisher): “There, in the middle of the broad, bright high-road—there, as if it had that moment sprung out of the earth or dropped from the heaven—stood the figure of a solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in white garments.”
Thus young Walter Hartright first meets the mysterious woman in white in what soon became one of the most popular novels of the nineteenth century. Secrets, mistaken identities, surprise revelations, amnesia, locked rooms and locked asylums, and an unorthodox villain made this mystery thriller an instant success when it first appeared in 1860, and it has continued to enthrall readers ever since. From the hero’s foreboding before his arrival at Limmeridge House to the nefarious plot concerning the beautiful Laura, the breathtaking tension of Collins’s narrative created a new literary genre of suspense fiction, which profoundly shaped the course of English popular writing.
Warning: Spoilers below!
- As the description above states, this book launched a whole new genre of fiction. These days, we’re so used to mystery and suspense that The Woman in White comes off as a bit tame. But can you just imagine the popular reception it must have received in Collins’ day? (I’m aware that the critics hated it.) Amazing!
- I like the technique of using different narrators to give firsthand accounts of important happenings in the novel. This is another Collins trademark that he used to similar effect in The Moonstone. Here, both Walter and Marian’s stories were riveting, while Fosco’s was a bit scary (just because it showed that he had got hold of Marian’s diary).
- Marian Halcombe was a brilliant character. She was smart, capable, and competent in a time when women weren’t generally considered those things. All would have been lost for Laura without Marian’s counsel and action.
- Walter and Laura got together in the end. I usually don’t go for the love story angle, but in this case the Walter-Laura romance was kept so far in the background that I didn’t mind rooting for them. I’m glad they got their happy ending, though I knew Collins would have to find some convenient way to get rid of Sir Percival before that could happen.
- The end took far too long to play out. Once Sir Percival died in the vestry fire, I just wanted Walter and Marian to be able to prove Laura’s identity and wrap things up. But then that whole showdown with Count Fosco had to take place, with the secret society angle included. I admit that I started skimming by then.
- Was Anne Catherick’s (the eponymous Woman in White) resemblance to Laura ever definitively explained? It was sort of hinted that they may have been half-sisters because of Laura’s father’s philandering ways, but I don’t think the author came right out and confirmed this. Would have been nice to know for sure.
- Sir Percival was such an odious character that I had a hard time believing Laura would agree to marry him, the promise to her father notwithstanding. He was more than 20 years older than her and had no money or anything else that could possibly make him a good match (except, perhaps, that ill-gotten title). I know that was a completely different time and such odd matches were probably a lot more common then, but still. Laura was so sweet and innocent and the father wasn’t even around anymore! There’s no way Marian would have let her get married!
This seems to be a year for me to revisit a bunch of old literary favorites. I first read The Woman in White in high school and remembered liking it a lot. I’m happy to report that the intervening decades have done little to diminish my enjoyment of the book. I give this one 4 stars out of 5.