The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

Picture by Sandy Millar in Unsplash.

I read this book when I was a teenager and had never re-read it until some weeks ago. I chose to listen to the audio book and realised that I did not remember anything about it. This wasn’t so surprising — my memory isn’t the greatest and first reads tend to be skim-reads, so details usually escape me.

These days, I notice that my attention wanders when I read (a symptom of our difficult situation or just me?), and listening to audio books works much better as I’m not tempted to skip sections when someone is reading me the story (I usually listen while I cook or when I’m working on my miniatures.)

I admit I was daunted by the length of the book — 25hrs — but it hardly felt that long. The chapters are short and the pace is brisk. Wilkie Collins first published this novel in installments, from 1859 to 1860, in All the Year Round, a magazine that belonged to his close friend Charles Dickens magazine (and also in Harper’s Weekly in America), and he knew how to keep his readers in suspense and wanting to know what would happen next!

The Women in White (Tantor Classics Audio Books) read by Josephine Bailey and Simon Prebble.

For those who are unfamiliar with the book, its title may suggest that it’s a ghost story, especially if it brings to mind Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, written many years later but more familiar to many thanks to the film adaptation starring Harry Potter. Plus, in this part of the world (Malaysia), female vampires in white are infamous and even beloved (to me at any rate). Unfortunately, The Woman in White is not a supernatural tale.

The title refers to Anne Catherick, a young woman who chooses to wear only white. The scene in which she first appears in the novel is quite eerie and unsettling, but Anne is not a ghost, but only an unfortunate woman who suffers all kinds of wrongs at the hands of a despicable man.

I won’t say much more for fear of spoiling the story — Collins wrote it in such a way as to reveal information little by little and every detail is closely linked to the next.

I will just add a little about my thoughts about some of the characters.

Anne Catherick, while being the woman in white, is not the heroine of The Woman in White. The love interest, Laura Fairlie, is not (in my opinion) the heroine either. Collins may have intended for Laura to be the heroine of the piece, but she has nothing to recommend her apart from her good looks.

The hero, Walter Hartright, falls for Laura and it’s almost embarrassingly predictable that he does. After all, the alternative is Laura’s half-sister Marian Halcombe, whose personality and conversation is far more interesting, but who possesses a low hairline and moustache! I swear, Collins gave Marian the moustache because he knew that if she were even just average in looks, she would be deemed a more desirable mate for Walter. However, he knew that none of his readers would be likely to wish a woman with whiskers, no matter how sparkling her wit, on the hero of a novel! (Marian does have an admirer, but in keeping with the Victorian reader’s sense of right, he is only an obese Italian Count …)

Personally, I think Collins was forced to make Marian physically unattractive because he needed a female character with her strong personality to make his plot work. At the same time, he couldn’t have the hero fall in love with her, and he couldn’t have his readers wanting the hero to fall for her either. He also needed Laura to be the rather unexciting person she is for his story to make sense. Thus, Marian is, to all intents and purposes, the heroine of The Woman in White and, as she is one of the novel’s narrators, we get to know her well, unlike Laura, whom we only see through the eyes of other characters.

In the 2018 BBC adaptation, Marian does not have a low brow or a moustache, which I feel is a pity because why should women in TV shows always look conventionally attractive? However, Marian, played by Jessie Buckley, wears trousers and perhaps that’s meant to signal that she wouldn’t welcome the attentions of a man anyway. It’s more likely that any decent man would view a trousers- and waistcoat-wearing woman as exceedingly odd and would avoid her like the plague unless he were a dodgy Italian Count. But the Count himself is given a makeover for TV. Perhaps it was decided that modern audiences would not be able to accept that a uncommonly fat man might feel passion for a woman with a moustache, and that the sight of two such individuals being attracted to one another would be bad for ratings!

Marian Halcombe and Count Fosco, illustration by James McLenan, from the Harper’s Weekly serialisation of The Woman in White (17th March, 1860, pg 1730).
Jessie Buckley as Marian Halcombe and
Riccardo Scamarcio as Count Fosco in the 2018 BBC adaptation of The Woman in White.

As for Walter, he is as hot a mess as he is in the book. His type of woman is so obviously sweet blonde Laura although she is at least livened up for the screen. Having said that, I feel there is sexual tension between TV Walter and TV Marian. Walter may be programmed to prefer Laura, but I think he is also busy suppressing a ‘strange’ and ‘unaccountable’ attraction for Marian. It would probably do him a world of good to be bossed around by Marian. She would probably widen his sexual horizons too. There is even a scene in which Laura suggests to Walter that he is in paradise, but that Adam, in this version of Eden, has two Eves! Sadly, this idea is not developed. (Did the script writer/director lose their nerve?)

Collins’s personal life would have given the author enough fodder for a more unconventional type of relationship than Victorian novels portray, but even what we do get in The Woman in White, although quite a common scenario in that era, definitely makes 21st century me go ‘Hmmm’.

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