Monday, 19 May 2014

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (4/5)

First published: 1860
Page count: 649
The back says: ‘There, as if it had that moment sprung out of the earth or dropped from heaven, stood the figure of a solitary woman dressed from head to foot in white garments.’
Thus begins the action on a lonely moonlit road in north London of what is still the greatest mystery thriller in the English language.
A close friends of Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins aspired with him to be a story-teller and social reformer: but it is undoubtedly as a great master of melodrama that he achieved his greatest success. When The Woman in White first appeared in 1860 it caused enormous excitement, and it has never lost its power to entertain and enthral.
The intricate plot, brilliantly orchestrated, filled with suspense and a cast of carefully located characters – among them Count Fosco, the Napoleonic villain whose corpulent figure and eccentric habits add superb actuality to his role – all combine in a story of confused identities whose unsuspected surprises and dramatic compulsiveness make it impossible to put down.
I say: I knew nothing about the plot when I picked this up, which is a good thing because I don’t really enjoy Victorian novels, “sensation novels” or mystery novels, and The Woman in White is considered to be one of the first of the two latter. However, I didn’t hate it as much as I thought I would.
In fact, I didn’t hate it at all.
Not really.
All in all it was in interesting story, but it was far too long, with far too many inane details and plot twists that I could easily have done without. Towards the end of the novel – and there was a time when I wanted to quit, but pressed on due to my seemingly endless 100 Classics Challenge – I kept reading because I wanted to find out what the secret was, and was tremendously disappointed when the revelation came. Not to mention the unbelievably silly progression and culmination of Count Fosco’s part of the story.
Come on...
The novel starts with a preamble by Walter Hartwright letting us know that the story will be told by several narratives, which I instantly knew was going to annoy me.
Which it subsequently did.
The majority of the characters in the novel are asked by Hartwright to tell their side of the story in letters, apart from Marian, whose diary is used. I am not too averse to this way of telling a story, and I think my dislike of it here has more to do with my dislike of Hartwright. The best narratives were those of Marian Halcombe and Mr Fairlie; Marian because she was observant, intelligent and gave just enough information needed without going into too long ramblings, and Mr Fairlie because he was such a silly man. Hartwright was the archetype of the character that wearies me with his sentimental nonsense and inability to know when to stop. He does get a little bit more tolerable towards the end, but I still couldn’t stand his narrative.
Having zero interest in the Victorian era and the tendency to get worked up about the social injustices women had to face made this a frustrating read. Laura Fairlie was the female version of Hartwright – of course – and, rather needless to say, I didn’t like anything much about her. Sir Glyde was you stereotypical villain and Marian was the ugly sibling that was strong and full of character because no man would ever want her. To cut this short, all characters were stereotypes, apart from Count Fosco who brought some flavour to the story.
All in all, I give this 4/5 because it is well-written and intriguing up to a certain point.

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