A Sensation of a Novel!
(A Book Review of The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins)
Replete with surprises and electrifying intrigues, The Woman in White is the classic Victorian fiction that launched the career of Wilkie Collins as a novelist of note and fame. Appearing first in serial form in Charles Dickens’s All The Year Round in 1859, this densely-plotted page-turner has never been out of print and continues to enthrall and entertain readers to this very day, and remains one of the prime examples of the genre called Sensation novel.
The story begins on a strange night when Walter Hartright, walking on his way home, was touched on the back by the cold grip from a ghostly woman all dressed in white who seems desperate for help and to impart a dark secret. Arriving the next day in Cumberland for a teaching post in Limmeridge House as a drawing master to half-sisters Marian Halcombe and Laura Fairlie, Hartright discloses the extraordinary event of the previous evening. What seems to be a simple incident of a nighttime encounter soon plunges these characters deep in the center of a crime, abduction, insanity, revenge, international secrecy, and ultimately in uncovering the identity of the mysterious woman in white.
I know that the book’s sheer mass may make some balk at reading it. However, if you are the kind of reader who thinks he has the stamina and perseverance for it, you are sure to be rewarded with a tale whose enigma will preoccupy you in every waking hour; whose strong characters you will certainly root for; whose cliffhanging scenes, chock-full with shocking twists, will make you turn the pages all too quickly.
What makes Collins’s novel phenomenal is its masterful narrative. The book is narrated throughout by each character giving account of his particular part and participation (from his point of view) in the on-going tale, much like what witnesses do during a court trial which mainly was the inspiration that Collins imitated when he once attended a courtroom proceeding. In the hands of less capable writer, this device may come off as ineffective and oft times clumsy, yet Collins indeed has the talent and right instinct to pull it off perfectly.
Granted this narrative device initially has a resemblance in the epistolary form of narration, what is evidently the masterstroke in the novel is that it gives the reader a restrained access and view as to how events in the story take place, captivating him in the process as the characters, with the deft hand of the author, reveals secrets within secrets, schemes within schemes, creating an exciting tapestry so thick you can cut it with a knife; demonstrating devious plotting that can make you restless that its only surcease is figuring out and knowing what ultimately lies at its dark, beating heart.
What I like most with novels that have the length and breadth similar to the The Woman in White is you totally get to know its characters through and through, thereby subjecting the reader in every minutiae of their thoughts and actions. And make no mistake about it, this book has some of the most memorable characters to make you deeply involve in their struggles, to make you feel intensely their storm of emotions, to make you fervently wish for the success of their endeavours. As of writing, I still think of the resolute Walter Hartright, of the strong-willed Marian Halcombe (one of the best female protagonists I’ve encountered), the charming yet deadly Count Fosco.
More than giving his Victorian reader their fair share of thrills, Collins, through his book, also takes the cudgel to battle prevalent social ills such as the gross injustice done to females during the era, more so the alienating disposition and the apparent lack of legal recourse to aid women once they marry, as well as the restraining social norms of the time. It also wants to address the malpractices and improve the worst condition of some mental institutions in England, a hot button and scandalous topic back then.
If there is there is a book to make you laugh hysterically, cry anguish tears, devour you with suspense, recoil in horror, root for your heroes until the final pages, it is most definitely The Woman in White. This is a wonderful beast of novel. It has an electrifying power within and beyond it to make anyone instantly become a passionate devotee of Wilkie Collins’s works.
Published by Barnes and Noble
(Hardcover, 2005 First Printing)
Read on: December 26, 2015 – January 8, 2016