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, her face bent in grave inquiry on mine, her hand pointing to the dark cloud over London, as I faced her.
I first read The Woman in White in 2006 – it was the first Wilkie Collins book I ever read and the one that turned me into a huge fan of his work. I just wish I had discovered him sooner!
The Woman in White was the most popular book of the 1860s; when it was originally serialised in Charles Dickens’ periodical All The Year Round large crowds gathered outside the newspaper offices every time the latest edition went on sale; you could buy Woman in White perfume, bonnets and shawls and dance the Woman in White waltz…and all of this was 150 years before Harry Potter!
So what is it about? I won’t go into the plot in too much detail, as I don’t want to spoil the fun for those of you who haven’t read it yet. The story begins with drawing master Walter Hartright’s meeting on a lonely London road with a mysterious woman dressed all in white who has escaped from an Asylum. The next day Walter takes up a teaching position at Limmeridge House in Cumberland where he finds that one of his students, Laura Fairlie, bears a striking resemblance to the woman in white…
The novel follows an epistolary style, meaning it is narrated by several different characters in turn, sometimes in the form of journal entries or letters. I love the way Collins gives each of his narrators a unique ‘voice’ – he really makes the characters come alive. Another thing I love about Wilkie Collins’ writing is his sense of humour…some of the scenes involving Laura’s hypochondriac uncle Mr Fairlie are hilarious!
Marian Halcombe, Laura Fairlie’s sister, is one of my favourite female characters in literature. Contrary to the usual portrayal of 19th century women, she is a brave, intelligent, courageous person who on several occasions puts herself in danger in order to protect her sister Laura. Another great character is Count Fosco. One of the most unusual and memorable villains I’ve ever encountered in any book, he’s an old, fat, opera-loving Italian completely devoted to his pet canaries and white mice. I remember being surprised when I first read the description of Fosco, as he wasn’t what I had been expecting at all!
The Woman in White is an example of the genre known as sensation fiction – including elements such as forgery, identity theft and insanity. Although it was written in the 19th century it’s as exciting and gripping as a modern day thriller – even when reading the book for the second time and knowing what was going to happen! It’s a long book (569 pages in my Penguin Popular Classics version) but there’s enough tension and suspense to keep the reader interested right through to the end.
There are some classics that are a struggle to read but you persevere with them simply because they’re classics and you feel as if you should. The Woman in White does not fall into that category – yes, it’s a classic but it’s also one of the most readable and enjoyable books I’ve ever read.
If you liked this book I would recommend you read The Moonstone, Armadale or No Name next. As I mentioned at the start of this review, I am a big fan of Wilkie Collins so you can expect to see more of my reviews of his work coming soon!
Genre: Classics – Sensation Fiction/Pages: 576 pages/Publisher: Penguin Popular Classics/Year: Originally published 1859/Source: Purchased new from Amazon.co.uk
This review is part of my Great Books series.