Thursday, 15 April 2010

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

This is the first of my Classics Challenge 2010 books. I had tried to read it before, but didn’t care for the style of writing and gave it up, despite having heard how good it was. This time I went for the audio addition, as they are usually easier for me to get through when I have problems actually reading a book. Sometimes the narrator can bring a book to life where my own imagination failed. Unfortunately, this wasn’t one of those times. The narrator, Gabriel Woolf, interpreted the book in the same way I did and the narration remained languid, wordy and soporific. I can’t fault the narrator for this, however, as it is really the way the book was written and trying to invigorate it would be forcing something on the book that isn’t there in the first place. This book just sounds much more exciting than it really is.

Walter Hartright, a poor drawing master, secures a place at Limmeridge House teaching the young Laura Fairlie how to draw. Upon his arrival at Limmerage, Hartright meets a young woman dressed in white who is fleeing from a sanatorium where she says she is being kept unjustly because of what she knows. Hartright helps her escape and then immediately becomes interested in this woman and her connections with Limmerage. With the help of Marion Halcombe, Laura Fairlie’s half-sister, he endeavours to find out more about this mysterious woman. Unfortunately, Hartright falls in love with Laura, and she with him, before he has much of a chance to find out more. Their relationship is, however, doomed before it even began. Hartright is penniless and Laura has been promised to Sir Percival Clyde from a young age. Clyde was her father’s favourite as a husband for her daughter and she feels bound to marry him. However, from the very beginning, the worst is feared about Clyde. Although he seems to be perfectly honest and upright in his dealings, one has the suspicion that his intentions towards Laura aren’t truly honourable and that he is really only marrying her for her money. Indeed, the woman in white writes a letter to Laura saying as much and intimating that she should look into her husband’s affairs well before coming to a final decision regarding her marriage. Unfortunately, the only person in a real position to help and defend her is Mr. Hartright who has, in the meantime, left England for South America in a bid to forget Laura. Her half-sister Marion, who is like a sister to Laura, does her best but as a woman without means is unable to exert much influence and must resort to subtle tactics in order to protect Laura.

As the novel progresses, it turns into something of a chess match between Miss Halcombe and Clyde’s closest friend, Count Fosco. Marion knows Fosco is the brains behind the whole operation and she tries to counter him at every step. For every action, there is a reaction. Fosco himself seems to enjoy the game they are playing and decries Halcombe as a treacherous, but very worthy, opponent. His admiration of her earns him no favour with her though and she continues to attack and counter attack him as vigorously as ever.

Like I said before, this book sounds much more exciting than it really is. Collins’ verbosity undoes everything his plot and characters manage to achieve. It takes him much too long to get to where he’s going and most of the time my attention flagged before he finally got there. I’m afraid I won’t be rushing out to buy any more of Collins’ books. This one rates 3 out of 5.

Classics Challenge 2010
Typically British Challenge


Lula O said...

Nooooo, this is one of my all time favs! But you're right, he does take awhile doesn't he. And Collins was such an ass, but I read the book anyway.

Jeane said...

I have read so many reviews of this, but never yet felt motivated to try and read it myself. The cover image you share is really striking, though!