Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Review: The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins

Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White is considered to be (perhaps) the first in two genres: the mystery novel and the sensation novel. Written in 1860, it also seems to be progressive in other ways. The novel's use of many narrators is a practice that is more common today, but even so it has a unique flair, combining the epistolary novel with first person narrative. Collins' novel also portrays his outrage at the injustices inflicted upon women, something our society is still working on today. Yet in this regard, Collins still can't help but turn to the old stereotypes of women as the more frail and emotional sex, which are qualities that are very important in forwarding the plot. And yet this remains an excellent and unforgettable thriller.

The story begins from the perspective of Walter Hartright, who collects and compiles the many different perspectives that form the whole novel. As a young man in his twenties, Walter finds himself at a crossroads in his life. He is a drawing master, but hasn't had much drawing work for some time. That is, until his good friend Pesca discovers a wealthy family, the Fairlies, in need of a drawing master to teach the young women of Limmeridge house. Walter accepts. On the way to the house, he meets a strange young woman, dressed in white, who is fleeing from somebody. She mentions a fear of a baronet, and Hartright helps her make her getaway. Only afterward does he realize she has escaped an asylum, and he becomes concerned.

Limmeridge House is run by Frederick Fairlie, a man with a weak constitution, easily stressed by loud noises and light. He would rather be alone and free of all social obligations, except for his poor servants, who somehow manage to put up with his abuse. He is the uncle of the two young woman living there: Marian Halcombe and Laura Fairlie. Marian is the older one, a half-sister to Laura. When Hartright first meets her, he is awed by her womanly curves and body, but, unfortunately, when he arrives at her face he describes her as ugly. Ugly or not, she turns out to be one of the strongest characters of the novel, within the limits of her womanhood, of course. Being ugly, however, means she will not be the love interest for Walter. That distinction would fall to Laura, the pretty, yet frail, woman. It's a shame that the strongest woman in the novel must be made ugly, while the love interest to the hero must be made intellectually dull, but Collins knew what his audience wanted.

After this lengthy set-up, the main conflict of the plot begins to take hold, particularly when it is discovered that Laura is already engaged, under shady terms, to a baronet named Sir Percival Glyde. Walter assumes this must be the same baronet who spooked the woman in white he had met earlier, and he can't help but be suspicious of him. Later events serve to alternately heighten and shrink this suspicion. However, Laura feels duty-bound to enter marriage with Percival. The marriage brings in Percival's friend, Count Fosco, the most frightening character of all, whose love for sweets and little mice serve to mask something far more sinister. The events that unfold slowly turn the reader's rage from simmer to full boil as the men plot to exploit the power the law grants a man over his wife. What happens happens because Laura has less say over her own property than does her uncle and her husband.

Though Collins is certainly a champion of women's rights, he still betrays old-fashioned paternalistic attitudes towards women. It is not just the law that weakens the women in this novel, but their own inherent fortitude. In Victorian era novels, it's not uncommon for a woman to suddenly become so ill she is out of commission for many weeks, maybe months, at a time, unconscious. This illness does not have to come from any outside source, but often it comes as a result of some sudden shock. I'm not saying such a thing is impossible, but it's far too convenient that a healthy young woman should so easily fall ill, and that it should happen so often. Collins' contemporaries perhaps believed it was the nature of women to have a frail constitution. It also conveniently helps advance the plot in favor of the villains.

Laura is one of Collins' major flaws of the novel, as she lacks a distinct personality. It's easy to imagine Walter growing smitten by her good looks and her occasional blushes, but it's difficult to imagine him falling in love. She has no real ambition but to be pretty and she enhances her qualities of beauty by playing piano and drawing, but when push comes to shove, I would rather have a Marian Halcombe at my side, as she is a woman who you can rely on in a tough situation. At the same time that I don't care for Laura as a character, I do care for her as a person, and in this novel I think that's more important. Laura is at the heart of the conflict, anyway, though we never see anything from her perspective (and I also find it interesting that only one of the female perspectives does not come from a diary or letter, while none of the male perspectives do). Collins succeeds in making us care for her because most people have a hatred for injustice, especially if committed towards a kind, helpless person - in this case a young, pretty woman.

Collins also does an excellent job of making us suspect a character, and then later doubt our suspicions. This is partly because those characters we trust also doubt those suspicions, but it's also because we can't be sure whether to trust the judgment of the heroes and heroines of the story. Everything comes together nicely in the end and, except for one crazy revelation, there appears to be no cheating. The novel keeps you guessing for a long time, and even when you reach the point where you no longer need to guess, it reveals new information at every turn to keep the pace going. The mystery is revealed with painstaking detail, which adds some elements of excitement. Slower revelations are always more fun than fast revelations. If you learn something too quickly, there's nothing more to look forward to.

The ideas towards women in this novel aren't really all that backward, however, when you think about it. It's true that today we are used to women who can brandish a sword and swashbuckle with the rest of them, yet our modern movies and stories still have trouble allowing these women to handle their problems without the aid of a stronger, more capable man. Laura may be the victim, but it's a man, Walter who plays the hero, attempting to rescue her from a vile monster. I'm not trying to blame Collins; I'm just pointing out the attitudes that existed during the time he wrote this and were pervasive even in his own thoughts. Many of these attitudes still persist today, though we've gone a long ways (one hopes). Collins' views were, nonetheless, a step in the right direction. One should feel horror and rage at injustice towards a class of women (married) who have no rights. Collins successfully elicits these responses, and he rights a damn fine novel in the process.

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