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The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins


The Woman in White

By Wilkie Collins

Oxford World Classics, 1996

What a treat! This 1860 novel, originally published in serial form over a period of a year by both Charles Dickens’  weekly London magazine, All the Year Round and simultaneously in the United States in Harper’s Weekly, has the reputation of being one of the first “whodunit” mysteries. It certainly fits the bill, although the villains are evident from the time they are introduced, though their motivations are not revealed until well into the novel. The story also has the unique characteristic of being told by a number of different voices, each character able to share only his or her perspective, which in many cases is quite limited.

The story is a much a romance as it is a mystery. Because of the changing perspective, it is somewhat difficult to identify the main character, but it probably is Walter Hartright, an artist and art teacher who tells more of the story than anyone else and whose love for Laura Fairlie, the young heir to a small fortune and the family estate of Limmeridge, occupies much of the novel and provides Walter’s motivation for uncovering the plot that has disinherited Laura.

The author’s style of writing is dramatic, in the style of a romance, and he deliberately leaves clues and hints for the reader to use in guessing what will happen next or who has evil intentions. The pace of the book is leisurely (it is over 600 pages!) and the vocabulary satisfyingly sophisticated. One has the feeling of reading a classic and, because of the date at which the novel was written, of re-entering the world of 19th century England.

The plot of the Woman in White was apparently taken from an actual event, of which the author learned by reading a book on famous legal cases. The young Laura Fairlie and Walter Hartright fall in love when he provides her watercolor lessons, but she is promised to be married to an older man, Sir Percival Glyde  and the two young people conceal, even from each other, their mutual feelings. Sir Percival, it turns out, is only after Laura’s money and after their marriage he is cruel and abusive toward her and her half-sister, Marian Halcombe who is Laura’s protectress. Sir Percival is convinced that Laura has learned, from the mysterious and disturbed Anne Catherick, the ‘woman in white’ the secret that he has stolen his title and estate rather than inherited it. Sir Percival, along with his friend, the powerful and sinister Count Fosco, an Italian who is married to Laura’s Aunt, plot to take Laura’s money and do so via a circuitous set of actions involving taking advantage of the death of Anne Catherick, who is a look alike and probable half-sister to Laura by claiming that it is Laura who died and shutting Laura up in a private lunatic asylum, claiming her to be Anne but with the delusion that she is Lady Laura Glyde, Sir Percival’s now deceased wife.

I’ve told enough of the plot to give away much of the novel, but also, I hope to whet the reader’s interest enough to read the book. Anyone who likes romances, mysteries, or just well-written classics will not be disappointed.

Casey Dorman

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