The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
I read this book as part of my efforts to read all 100 books from this list. This is #58 for me. I’ve been downloading them for free for my Kindle.
The Woman in White is a Victorian mystery story with mistaken identity, a love story, madness, spies, and lots of money involved. It’s told in fragments of narratives, diaries, and letters written by the characters. There are lots of coincidences and swooning.
A summary: The hero, Walter Hartwright, a painting teacher, meets a woman in white on the road and helps her escape some men he later finds out were sent from the insane asylum where she’s been for the past several years. Then he goes to an English country house to teach two young ladies, Marian and Laura, who looks just like Ms. Escapee. He falls in love with Laura, but she’s engaged to Sir Percival. He leaves and she marries Sir Percival, who promptly begins shaking her down for money. She and Marian both fall ill, and Sir Percival and his friend Count Fosso, the main villain, plot to switch identities between Laura and the crazy lady. Walter Hartwright returns to fix this big mess.
It’s a very legalistic book. Laura agrees to marry Sir Percival even after she falls in love with Walter Hartwright because she had previously agreed to it and would not go back on her word, and because her dead father had liked the idea. The lawyer’s narrative tells plot-relevant details about the pre-nup negotiations. There’s a tense scene where Sir Percival tries to get Laura to sign a contract without letting her read it. Sir Percival’s big secret turns out to be his illegitimacy, which was covered up with a forgery in a parish register. The flaw in the villains’ plot is a day’s discrepancy between the death certificate for the fake Laura and the real Laura’s arrival in London. The climax consists of an agreement with multiple conditions between Hartwright and the villain. Everything hinges on technicalities. This focus on details can be annoying, or satisfying, or both, depending on the reader’s perspective and patience.
One thing that catches my attention is the way Marian keeps saying things about how she’s “just a woman” or “only a woman.” I can’t really tell what is meant by this. The best possible interpretation is that Marian is an exceptionally capable person, and her self-deprecating misogyny is meant ironically, because there’s nothing that her gender keeps her from doing. Both the hero and villain have nothing but respect for Marian and describe her in phrases like “eminently capable.” Why the lack of confidence? Is it because she’s internalized the day’s conventional wisdom about women’s abilities? Is the author trying to prove through Marian that those sentiments are false? I would love to believe that she knowingly says these things with bitter sarcasm, aware that she proves the sentiments false. But that feels unlikely because she never displays bitterness or knowingness in any other part of the book; instead she’s brisk, honest, and straightforward.
Marian contributes to solving the mystery, but the most important and exciting sleuthing is left to Walter Hartwright, and Marian’s greatest efforts involve exposing herself to the elements, which result in an illness that keeps her from using what she learned to prevent disaster. She spends her life in service to her younger, richer, more attractive sister, and even after that sister has her happy ending, Marian refuses to give up her subservient position and find some happiness of her own. Seeing this smart and capable woman refuse to dream a dream for herself and accept a second-tier caregiving role in someone else’s house was kind of depressing. I know we can’t really expect a Victorian novel to be all that progressive, but there are a few exceptions that make other moments worth looking for. I can’t help seeing gender stuff in almost everything I read anyway.
If you like Victorian prose, you’ll probably like this book. It’s probably a third longer than it really needs to be, but some of the sentences had wit and interest. There’s something fun about the elaborate formality and the drama. Overdrawn characters like Mr. Fairlie and Count Fosco are entertaining in a “what will he say next?” reality star kind of way.