The Woman in White

Note from Thursday 22 July

This is the last month of my first year of DIY English Literature education. I’m desperately trying to finish off what’s left on my reading list and The Woman in White is one of them. It was written by Wilkie Collins and was published in 1859. It’s lengthy: my physical copy is just under 600 pages and the audiobook is nearly 30 hours. I’d like to record some thoughts before reaching the end of the story.

Firstly, I was very surprised to find it a thriller. I didn’t look at any synopsis of the story before I started so it was a complete surprise. (I increasingly find that knowing nothing about a novel before getting into it is more preferable.) Like The Time Machine pioneered time travel and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde coined split personality, when Anne Catterick first appeared in the middle of the night on an empty London road like a ghost, I thought to myself, could this be another genre prototype? The tension and the dangers from the watchful eyes in the dark and the chases along lonely country roads feel very much like Sherlock Holmes stories.

The second thing that stood out was that from very early on this book reminded me strongly of Fingersmith by Sarah Waters. There are many parallels: two women in and out of a madhouse, the identity swap, the evil husband claiming the wife’s fortune, the gentleman turning out to be a fraud. I wonder if Sarah Waters was inspired by The Women in White? Fingersmith is led more by the two female characters and there’s mostly one mystery at the bottom of it all. The Women in White is led by various male characters. Although Marion Halcombe is an incredibly intelligent and capable woman, she’s ultimately helpless against the enemies. And there are mysteries behind many characters, it’s a bit overwhelming (and lengthy!)

The multi-perspective narrative is unique among the victorian novels I read this year. The story is presented like testimonies at court from many witnesses. The reader is invited to come along to the investigation, see and hear all the evidence, and piece information together like a giant puzzle. The author switches seamlessly between different voices: man and woman, master and servant, urban and rural, English and Italian. It’s excellent.

Lastly, good voice actors are treasures. I listen to the LibriVox recording and it was read by a few different people. Some people can read fluently, some can read with feeling, but some can really act with their voices. Genius voice acting adds ten-fold to the story that is printed black and white on paper.

Note from Monday 26 July

A few more thoughts now I have finished the book.

It’s oddly unsatisfying. I think it’s an excellent murder mystery but it’s too longwinded. If I understand and apply George Saunder’s wisdom correctly, Wilkie Collins underestimated the intelligence of his readers and explained all the details in too minute a fashion.

However, according to Wikipedia, “The novel was first published in serial form in 1859–60, appearing in Charles Dickens’ magazine All the Year Round (UK) and Harper’s Weekly (USA). It was published in book form in 1860″. I think it more highly knowing it was serialised originally. Wikipedia also confirms my association by listing Fingersmith as a “reimagining” of The Women in White.

I can now safely go and watch the TV adaptation and play spot the difference.

For reference to all who are interested in a good story as well as a good physical book: my secondhand copy is a 1987 hardback ‘the Great Writers Library’ edition published by Marshall Cavendish, found in a charity shop.

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