Friday, July 22, 2011

Book Review : The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (Penguin 1999)

Having decided to read up on the emergence of 19th Century detective fiction, I am naturally drawn to The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. But first, Collins' other great blockbuster, the original and best Sensation Novel - The Woman in White. It was first published in weekly serial form in Dickens' All the Year Round, where it created a sensation itself akin to modern Harry Potter book launches, with crowds forming outside the offices of All the Year Round on the days of publication, and William Gladstone cancelling a theatre engagement in order to continue reading it. 

Even today, the reaction is understandable - it is very compelling. I was reading it on the train to work and was very reluctant to prise myself away mid-chapter when my station arrived, and Collins was the master of the cliffhanger which would end each weekly edition. Excitement, titillation (by Victorian standards), a labyrinthine plot, compelling characters - it all made for a heady brew. 

However, perhaps the first surprise is that however great a plot-constructor Collins may be, he is certainly not a great stylist. He may not quite be in the Dan Brown mould, as he can write fluently, but even atmospheric passages are lightly sketched, seldom more than one or two sentences long, with the emphasis always on driving forward the plot. But what a plot...!! Summarising it could not do it justice: suffice to say that it relates to a pretty young heiress who is married to a rogue who needs to perform some legal gyrations to get his hands on her money, and the efforts of her companions to protect her.

The other glory of the book is its characters. As ever, the goodies are weaker than the baddies. Marianne Halcombe is not an attractive lady, but she is intelligent, loyal and courageous. Her sister Laura Fairlie has all the personality of a wet lettuce leaf - but she is beautiful, very rich and betrothed to Sir Percival Glyde, although she is  falling despite herself for her painfully honourable art teacher Walter Hartright, who swiftly absents himself to Central America in order to escape the feelings he is harbouring for Laura. Sir Percival appears to be very solicitous, but he displays some nervous tics and has a lawyer who plays hardball in drawing up the marriage contract, so all is not what it seems.

But standing bestride the book like a colossus is Sir Percival's companion Count Fosco - one of the truly great creations. We first meet him and his wife when Laura returns from honeymoon to Sir Percival's deeply indebted estate, Blackwater Park. Immensely corpulent, yet compellingly handsome with steel-grey eyes and a face like Napoleon's, he is both menacing and gentle, letting his white mice climb over him and his birds climb up his fingers. His orotund speech and elaborate courtesy mask a steely will - but in extremis will his chivalry outweigh his icy determination? Fosco is a genuinely complex character, beautifully drawn, who overshadows all the other rather one-dimensional personalities in the story.

As literature, The Woman in White doesn't really hit the top notes of Collins' many great contemporaries. As a great thriller novel, however, it is of the first order. So much of today's densely plotted thrillers owe much to Collins' elaborate stories, and in doing so Collins contributed to the democratisation of quality mass-market fiction.

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