by Wilkie Collins
Published in 1860, The Woman in White, in its language and style, is very much a novel of its time, adopting first person multiple narratives, melodrama and bizarre coincidences in its telling. It is a mystery thriller, almost gothic in tone, combining themes that resonate even today: the equality of women (or rather absence of equality), and their treatment in Victorian society; attitudes to marriage, to mental illness, illegitimacy and, above all, the hypocrisy of Virtue.
For all its nineteenth century ‘feel’, The Woman in White is nevertheless a page-turner of a story that belongs in any century, a story of love, betrayal, corruption and ultimately natural justice. Many of its elements have been copied in modern literature, giving twists to the original that would have been incomprehensible to an 1860s readership. I am thinking here, for example, of Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, with its near-Dickensian plotline.
Walter Hartright meets Anne Catherick for the first time in London, on the eve of his journey to Cumbria to take up an appointment as drawing master to two young ladies. Anne has escaped from a private asylum and is being pursued by two men with the objective of unjustly reconfining her there. Walter helps her escape.
Arriving at Limmeridge, the country home of Frederick Fairlie, Walter begins teaching his two nieces, Laura Fairlie and her half-sister Marian Halcombe. He falls in love with Laura. However, she is betrothed by her late father’s wish to Sir Percival Glyde and despite her feelings for Walter refuses to withdraw from the match. It is clear from early on that Glyde is a villain, cares nothing for Laura and is only interested in her inheritance – which will come to him if she dies childless.
‘I hate Sir Percival! I flatly deny his good looks. I consider him to be eminently ill-tempered and disagreeable’ [Marian Halcombe]
The sinister scheme devised by Glyde’s equally grasping associate Count Fosco (related by marriage to the Fairlies and having thereby a financial interest himself) is brilliant in conception and execution. It has only one flaw, one that Walter, with Marian’s help, must discover if he is to save Laura.
Wrapped up in the main plot is a second mystery, a secret shared by Glyde, Anne Catherick’s mother and (possibly) by Anne herself. Glyde will go to any lengths to protect it. This element, along with the unusual physical resemblance between Laura and Anne, provides additional suspense throughout.
Collins does his best to give his characters individuality in their narratives but only partly succeeds. Many of their names are wonderfully onomatopoetic in a Dickensian sense. However, some of the players in The Woman in White, even the main ones, may be seen as types rather than true individuals. Despite this, the author succeeds in engaging his reader with his hero and heroine(s). We want to know what happens to them, that they get out of their predicament and are united in the end. And Glyde, Fosco and Eleanor (Fosco) are suitably despicable and villainous.
The one true original among the cast is Count Fosco with his corpulence, striking wardrobe and menagerie of exotic birds and mice. Despite his scheming he is not without good qualities.
‘There sat the Count, filling out the largest easy-chair in the house, smoking and reading calmly, with his feet on an ottoman, his cravat across his knees, and his shirt collar wide open.’
‘… he is immensely fat.’ [Marian Halcombe]
‘The same livid leaden change passed over his face … The deadly glitter in his eyes shone steady and straight into mine. He said nothing. But his left hand opened the table drawer, and softly slipped into it.’ [Walter Hartright]
‘Deplorable and uncharacteristic fault! Behold the cause, in my heart – behold in the image of Marian Halcombe, the first and last weakness of Fosco’s life!’ [Count Fosco]
One cannot admire Fosco; he is not a lovable rogue like Fagan. But there are few more unique, more colourful, and more scary villains in all fiction.