DISCLAIMER: spoiler free!
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars | Read: 17 February – 21 February, 2018.
I recently read Wilkie Collins’ humongous novel, The Woman in White, and loved it so much I had to write this review straight away (although it’s been sitting in my drafts for almost a month, I’m sorry). This was the first book I’ve read by Collins, and it definitely won’t be my last. It was so good. As the story is incredibly complex, I find summarising it quite an impossible task. I wish to avoid giving away any major spoilers, so I’m going to rely on the blurb of the Penguin English Classics to give you an insight into this novel:
The first and greatest of the bestselling Victorian thrillers known as ‘sensation novels’, The Woman in White opens with a chilling encounter between drawing teacher Walter Hartright and a ghostly female figure on a moonlit road. From this moment Walter is drawn into a terrifying world of intrigue, crime, disguise and insanity, as he tries to save his beautiful pupil Laura from the sinister plans of Sir Percival Glyde and the ‘Napoleon of Crime’, Count Fosco, in one of the most gripping plots in English fiction.
I think this blurb captures the narrative brilliantly. It was definitely one of the most gripping plots I’ve ever read, and I can’t quite put into words why this was. To begin with, for the first four-hundred pages or so, nothing monumental happened. Quite frankly, it was just waffle, but it was the right kind of waffle. I was drawn in, despite never learning anything of importance for the first half. I put this down to the writing style; Collins made something out of nothing, doing so through such beautiful descriptions. He framed his sentences so wonderfully that you couldn’t help but be swept along with the narrative. I don’t think I ever got bored during this, which is incredibly rare for a novel so big.
The Woman in White definitely played with my perception. I think this is another reason why I enjoyed it so much; I was fully immersed in the narrative. I was in a state of perpetual confusion. The numerous narrators detailed everything they saw and heard, but these were just observations. They did not provide us with concrete evidence, so I felt out of the loop. I liked the challenge it set me; I had to pay attention to detail and work hard at reading. This was definitely a defining quality of the novel.
Additionally, I liked the way the narrative was framed. It was done through a series of journal entries, letters, statements, and so on. It had a variety of narrators. This was quite refreshing; I don’t want to read a 700 page novel from the same perspective. It jumped from Walter Hartright to Marian Holcombe, from Mrs Michelson to Count Fosco, then back again. We are never with the same narrator long. I think The Woman in White needed this style of narration to be successful. I don’t think it would have worked quite so well if he framed it any other way. Each narrator added something to the story, whether that was a clue or a false tale to throw us off balance.
Moreover, I enjoyed the host of characters. They were all unique, and each had their own defining quality. In particular, I liked Marian Holcombe. The latter was a resourceful character who drove the narrative for the most part (besides Hartright). She has definitely become one of my favourite Victorian heroines; she was headstrong, fiery and caring. A very layered character, I guess you could say. My only critique is her lack of narration after Hartright came back. I was fooled into believing she’d play a bigger part than she did.
To a certain extent, I even liked the bad characters. Despite their evil nature, they were written so brilliantly that you couldn’t help but praised them. They were incredibly smart, secretive and (moderately) charming. Just like all the other characters, the bad one had many layers to be uncovered. Even though I knew they were the bad guys all along, the way Collins framed their chapters made me doubt everything. I was constantly thrown off guard by how calculated they were. Count Fosco, in particular, was really interesting. He would flit between being a decent human being and being completely slimy; I never knew where I truly stood with him. Despite being a sleazeball, he was a very intriguing character.
Honestly, this was just such a wonderful novel. I was reluctant to read it at first; I don’t have the best track history with crime fiction. They tend to be so unsatisfying for me (*cough* Sherlock Holmes *cough*), but I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this one. It was a very large novel, but the way Collins framed and wrote it made it seem like such a breeze. I was completely mesmerised by the story. I think it developed at a brilliant speed, and the climax was written brilliantly. I’d really recommend this! Once you get past the intimidating size, you have yourself a really good book.
Thanks for reading, Lauren X