The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

Do not under any circumstances start reading The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins unless you have nothing else to do, because once you pick it up your week will be shot. This book was originally released in serial format and was a huge sensation and by golly it’s still pretty hair-raising now.

The Woman in White has been called one of the first mystery novels as well as one of the first Victorian sensation novels. It also works nicely as a Gothic novel, given the recurring appearance of the mysterious woman in white, the shambles of the aptly named Blackwater Park, and the sheer number of over-the-top plot devices, each one of which I shamelessly adored. It also has pastoral moments as well as reliance on logic, deduction, and evidence.

The book is also packed with social commentary, most of it quite progressive for its time. The book addresses, in different ways and in harrowing detail, how women are at the mercy of their guardians and their husbands. There’s a lot of discussion about “foreigners” but at least one of the foreigners in question is great (another…not so much). The book features a heroine, Marian, who is absolutely wonderful. Even the villain gets a crush on her.

Allow me to try to introduce the characters and the basic conflict with the help of gifs. Our story begins on a misty night when a woman dressed all in white accosts a man named Walter. This woman drops the hint that she’s super scared of a Baronet and then off she goes. Some guys run up and ask Walter if he’s seen a woman in white, explaining that she has just escaped from an insane asylum. Walter doesn’t rat her out, but he does make this face:

owl is shocked!

Walter is an art teacher who subsequently gets a job teaching two women who are half-sisters (same mother, different fathers). The women are being raised, if you can call it that, by their comic relief useless uncle. One of the two women is Marian, who is whip smart and ferociously loyal. Marian is, alas, considered unattractive by Walter, on the grounds that Marian is not sufficiently feminine. Walter is an ass.

Marian’s half-sister Laura is the epitome of Victorian Angelic Womanhood: super pretty, incredibly passive, and dumb as a bag of hair. Laura is one of the only characters who never gets to narrate a chapter — in a story which is ostensibly about her, she remains voiceless. Dumb Walter falls madly in love with her immediately.

Basically, here’s poor Laura, as described by Marian:

woman faints extremely gracefully and slowly
“My sister is in her own room, nursing that essentially feminine malady, a slight headache.”

In contrast, here’s Marian, the kind of Victorian heroine who keeps modestly claiming that she has only a woman’s courage as she marches off to smash patriarchy.

wonder woman smashes a window labelled (patriarchy)
A quote from Marian: “No man under heaven deserves these sacrifices from us women. Men! They are the enemies of our innocence and our peace—they drag us away from our parents’ love and sisters’ friendship—they take us body and soul to themselves, and fasten our helpless lives to theirs as they chain up a dog to his kennel.”

Alas for Walter and Laura, Laura is promised to another man. He is a Baronet! Coincidence? Oh, I think NOT!

Laura tells the Baronet, Sir Percival Glyde, that she is in love with another and he’s all, “Girl, you are a rich orphan and your uncle is useless, so off we go to get hitched! Bwah Ha Ha!”

When Laura comes back from her honeymoon and is reunited with Marian, Laura is already a shadow of her not-very-robust former self. To no one’s surprise, Sir Percival turns out to be a huge jerk. Sir Percival’s best friend, Count Fosco, is super great to read about, though he is described as enormously fat (our generation did not invent fat-shaming). His size is referred to as a repulsive quality – as is his fondness for his mice – and both may indicate that the Count, who appears to be friendly and helpful, might instead be sinister.

And yes, he really loves his pet white mice and lets them climb all over him.

No, no. To each their own! No judgement! I’m sure the Internet is full of people who love their pet mice so I will just leave that factoid here.

In my favorite bit of Victorian trivia to date, when The Woman in White came out people started naming their cats Count Fosco. This makes me almost ridiculously happy.

orange cat with mustace blinks
Count Fosco says, “I say what other people only think; and when all the rest of the world is in a conspiracy to accept the mask for the true face, mine is the rash hand that tears off the plump pasteboard, and shows the bare bones beneath.”

ANYHOO, of COURSE the Count, who is clever, is plotting with Sir Percival, who is not, to get Laura’s money, which is considerable. Of course, this means that only Marian can stop them — up until the point when she gets typhus from standing in the rain on a roof while eavesdropping and Walter returns from South America (!) where he was nursing a broken heart and turning into an action hero. At this point Walter kicks his butt into gear to save Laura with Marian’s help.

The events that follow include but are not limited to:

  • False identities
  • Secret babies
  • Comic relief
  • Satire
  • Secret meetings
  • A deadly fire
  • Poison
  • Insanity
  • And terrible art

I cannot possibly sum this up. It’s a busy book.

I had not expected that a book with so much horror and tragedy would also be so funny. Here’s the extremely cranky Mrs. Catherick:

“My hour for tea is half-past five, and my buttered toast waits for nobody.”

Here’s the useless uncle, AKA the laziest man in the world, on why actual children should be like the cherubs in Italian Art:

Quite a model family! Such nice round faces, and such nice soft wings, and-nothing else. No dirty little legs to run about on, and no noisy lungs to scream with. How immeasurably superior to the existing construction!

There’s Mrs. Vesey, an elderly woman who tends to doze off at table and who answers everything with “Yes, dear,” and the awful uncle again, complaining that his lawyer refers to a servant, who is being forced to hold up a book of etchings for the uncle to peruse, as a ‘man’:

“What can you possibly mean by calling him a man? He’s nothing of the sort. He might have been a man half an hour ago, before I wanted my etchings, and he may be a man in half an hour hence, when I don’t want them any longer. At present he is simply a portfolio stand.”

As you may detect, the awful uncle is only funny in the sense that he is so awful that he crosses the line twice – and leaves considerable social commentary in his wake.

The Woman in White wraps up with karmic justice and unusual living arrangements. Many college essays have been no doubt been written about portrayals of sexuality in the book, not to mention gender, identity, and the consistent description of Laura as “childlike” whereas Marian, who ran away with the book when it was published and who still does, is described as “masculine.”

All this intellectual content does not keep the book from being incredibly fun. I spent many happy hours turning the pages and saying, “Oh HO!” and “WHUT?” and “NO! He DIDN’T!” I strongly suspect that you will, too.

This book is available from:
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins


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