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THE WOMAN IN WHITE cover, from an 1890 printing

Source: Cover art 1889 Chatto & Windus yellowback [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

Copyright by Flora Breen Robison

 

This review was originally published last year on another website. Because the way that mothers raise their children-or don’t raise their children – in this book before the characters became adults bares a heavy weight to the way the characters behave and the actions taken by certain characters- I am choosing to republish this review on my own blog on this Mother’s Day 2012.

 

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Revisting a Classic Gothic Mystery

Wilkie Collins was a prolific writer from the 19th Century who is best remembered today for writing two iconic mysteries :The Moonstone (1868) and The Woman in White (1860). The Woman in White is one of the longest mysteries ever written and is full of evil men-and women;long-suffering women; nineteenth century mores; terror and suspense; subterfuge; double lives; secrets; mistaken identity; fraud; pain; attempted murder; courage; faith; strength, and patience. At its core is a trio of characters who love each other and gain courage and strength from their love and patience.

In reading anything from an earlier century, never mind from an earlier era than you were born in general, you must approach it from what was known or accepted in that society. You cannot properly appreciate a 19th Century book, particularily a Gothic mystery, from the perspective of the 21st Century-or the 20th Century when I first read the The Woman in White. You will just end up being angry, depressed, or insulted. How dare you talk that way to your wife, daughter, sister, etc. like that! No, don’t you dare say “I am only a woman.” I don’t care if you promised your dying father you would marry this man, you don’t love him and he is just after your money. Who says you cannot marry above your station. Women have the right to speak their minds. No, the man doesn’t have the last word. Women shouldn’t be expected to be weak or fragile if they want to get married. They shouldn’t be expected to be shy, quiet, or reserved if they want to be accepted into society. I was unable to accept this when I first attempted to read The Woman in White. As a result, I skimmed over several passages that made my blood boil and didn’t finish it. The second attempt was better. I spent much of time still feeling the earlier responses to the events in the book, but I read everything instead of skimming, and I finished the book.

I first read this classic title as a teenager. From an early age I decided I wanted to read all famous and critically acclaimed mystery titles-even if they were not in my favourite sub-genre of Murder Most Cosy-before I die. I read The Moonstone before I read The Woman in White-I loved it and expected to love The Woman in White as well. After all, Wilkie Collins insisted that the transcription on his tombstone reference the fact that he was the author of The Woman in White. He must have been prouder of that novel than he was of The Moonstone. The same love for The Woman in White that I felt for The Moonstone didn’t materialize for me.The problem for me was that there is a degree of evilness in The Woman in White that is quite strong and permeates every entry of the originally serialized mystery. There wasn’t much evil at all in The Moonstone.

In regards to my problem with The Woman in White: It is not enough to point out that in the 19th century, women and men had strict roles in society, people had strict roles according to class, or that people were expected to marry within their own class, and that is your lot in life. After all, Jane Austin is a highly popular author who wrote of the same society. Her characters dealt with the same mores. But Austin’s books were romances where everything turns out for the best for all the honorable characters in the novel. You know that whatever pain and suffering the heroines face will be rewarded in the end. So you put up with characters taught to expect to be poor and stay poor, to have their marriages arranged or at least have their fiances approved by their parents before an engagement is announced, women having limited choices, women having fewer rights than men, women being seen as the weaker sex, and so forth. You know the book ends happily for the main characters.

Eventual happiness of any honorable character is never sure in any Gothic mystery. Some Gothic literature does end up happily most of the time-this is known as Gothic Romance. There are several elements that these sub-genres of Gothic literature share. These include stormy weather, castles, ghosts, and women who faint. And there is often some degree of romance in Gothic mysteries. This is true in The Woman in White as Hartright and Laura are deeply in love, despite their difference in class and her engagement and marriage to Sir Percival Glyde. But these are separate sub-genres. Murder and tragedy are always hovering in a Gothic mystery, and characters that appear sinister are usually sinister in reality.

In fact, there is a high likelihood that honorable characters will end up dead or scarred for life-physically or emotionally- either through violence, sickness, or misadventure. Not to mention the fact that it is quite possible that at least one of the evil characters will either remain unpunished totally, or will get less punishment than befits the crime committed. And in The Woman in White, much of these worst case scenarios either come true,or are just narrowly avoided. Without giving away the eventual fates of any one the characters by name to anyone who has never read the book before, here is a rundown of *some* of the tragedy and horror of The Woman in White:

– A young woman is locked up in an asylum to protect a secret

-A woman nearly dies of pneumonia

-The likeness between two women is exploited to commit a fraud and potential murder

-An evil mastermind is wonderfully charming and gets away with virtually everything as a result

-Not all of the evil characters are men

-the gentle, happy, and intelligent nature of a young woman is shattered,likely beyond repair even is she does survive

 

I recently reread The Woman in White as part of a book club that focuses on mysteries. It had been over ten years since I had last read it. I might not have read it again otherwise, while I do plan on rereading The Moonstone from time to time. I’m older now, and put up with the issue of social mores of the 19th Century. But I still get angry with the evilness in this book and I had to read only a half hour at a time and then cool down. No chance of starting it one morning on a Saturday and finishing by that night. That is something I often do with my favourite authors. I admire The Woman in White greatly. It is well written, the story is tight, the mystery well planned, and it contains a great shock regarding a trick the author plays on the reader. Unfortunately, I admire The Woman in White more than I enjoy it.

 

Gothic Mystery Elements in The Woman in White

Gothic Element
Present in The Woman in White?
Large, lonely castle or mansion
Yes, more than one
Ghosts real or faked
Not needed as there is enough terror from real characters
Secret Passages
Not a factor in the mystery, although there are plenty of locked rooms and an asylum
Weak women who are dominated by powerful sometimes dangerous men
Definitely, although some women are stronger than others
Women who faint, cry, scream
Two of the women are quite fragile and there is illness and dispair
Stormy Weather
Yes, in fact one woman becomes extremely ill as a result
The Metonomy of Gloom and Horror
Several: approaching footsteps, squeeky hinges, storms, creeky steps
Terror
Especially in the title character
Sinister characters
Several, both male and female
Ancient Prophesies
No
Omens
No
High, strong emotions such as terror or hatred
Quite prominent
 
 

Main Characters in The Woman in White

Walter Hartright

Laura Fairlie

Marion Halcombe

Sir Percival Glyde

Count Fosco

Countess Fosco

Frederick Fairlie

Anne Catherick

 

 

LINKS:

Wilkie Collins Pages

THE WILKIE COLLINS SOCIETY

 

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