Thursday, July 24, 2014

Friday Reading Assignment: A Shocking Tale

The Woman in White probably can't be considered a classic, in the strictest sense, but I included it (and The Moonstone) on my list for the Fifty Classics project.  I have been meaning to read it ever since Jon and I were blindly channel surfing several years ago and stumbled on an absolutely mesmerizing movie which turned out to be Masterpiece Theater's adaptation of The Woman in White.

Written in 1859 by Wilkie Collins, it is the first suspense novel in English.  It is written in a breathy, much-imitated Victorian style.  At first I thought Collins invented it, but then I realized I'd encountered this style before in Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794).  (So not Victorian at all.)  Lots of rooms with "gaily-coloured carpets" and "low tables."  Lots of trembling hands and dainty feet and flashing eyes and becoming bonnets.

The story is totally engrossing with satisfying plot twists and shocking developments.  Considering the year in which it was published, it must have been downright scandalous.  At the center of the story are two sisters, Laura Fairlie and Marian Halcombe who become the victims of a despicable plot after Laura marries the monstrous Sir Percival Glyde.  Meanwhile the mysterious woman in white, an escapee from an insane asylum, appears at intervals trying to warn Laura about her husband.  Walter Hartright, Laura's drawing teacher prior to her marriage, is the hero of the tale.  This is all very thrilling and mysterious and I really was eager to be able to read this at the end of every day.  Work has been especially stressful lately, so it was nice to have something to escape into.

That said, the modern woman (or man) may not be able to read this without some eye rolls.  Laura Fairlie, one of the two main female characters is beautiful, sweet-tempered, dainty, delicate, and helpless.  She faints at inconvenient moments and other than a few feeble attempts to defy her husband, is utterly incapable of acting or thinking for herself.  The main male character, Walter Hartright, is head-over-heels in love with her.  Naturally.  The other main female character, Marian Halcombe, is smart, sensible,  resourceful, and a good conversationalist, which can't be said for her sister Laura.  Walter tells us that Marian has a bodacious body, but she has an ugly face!  All the men in this book, even the villain, respect the hell out of Marian, but nobody loves her.  Smart women can't be beautiful or lovable, and beautiful women can't be smart.  Another female character, Madame Fosco, is married to the evil Count Fosco.  Before her marriage, we are told, she was a vocal advocate for women's rights, but under the count's thumb, she's like an malevolent wind up toy.  Finally, there's the Woman in White herself, hysterical, unpredictable, irrational, slightly mad, athough in a benevolent way.  She is a woman outside the bounds of polite society.  Still, if you can make allowances for the era in which it was written, you would enjoy The Woman in White.

The movie that Jon and I thought was so engrossing gets mixed reviews among Amazon customer reviewers.  Many objections to the fact that it deviates from the novel.  I will have to watch it again.


  1. Back in the age of dinosaurs I was very young and caught the first episode of The Moonstone on PBS, then was shuffled off to bed. I didn't know how it ended for YEARS, until I finally wised up and read the book. I don't even have a bodacious body but that sure was DUM.

    I think I'll add The Woman in White to my reading list.

  2. This book sounds absolutely fabulous! I need a little something over the top and thrilling to read.

  3. Interesting--this is one of my friend's favorite books EVER. Now that I know what it's about, I'm intrigued to read it.

  4. I've read both of those books and liked them. It's been a while, so I'm probably due to read them again.