The Woman in White

woman in whiteI feel as though nearly every post lately has been somehow related to academia–books or poetry I’ve read or lessons I’ve taught (and subsequently learned). My life is consumed with this realm; ergo, my blog reflects that. You’re welcome.

Yesterday morning, I read page 617 of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White and snapped the book close with a sigh. There’s something incredibly satisfying about finishing a book so massive. Especially a Victorian novel, crammed full of detail and description, twisted plots and deception, and several delightfully intriguing characters.

The Woman in White is a story too involved to be contained in a simply summary; however, I’ll try. A woman named Laura Fairlie marries a man named Sir Percival Glyde, although she loves her drawing master, Walter Hartright. Sir Percival attempts to get Laura to sign away her inheritance so that he can pay his debts, and she refuses because she does not know what she is signing. This refusal, this rebellion sparks a chain of events involving mistaken identity; purloined letters; secrets of Sir Percival’s parents’ marriage; and Laura’s doppelganger, the mysterious woman in white, named Anne Catherick. Playing very important supporting roles are Marion Halcombe, Laura’s loyal, strong, and feisty half-sister, and Count Fosco, the charismatic, controlling, deceptive mastermind, who may be one of the greatest villains ever written.

The story is considered by some to be a precursor to postmodernism, though it was published in 1859-60 (serialized and edited by the wonderful Charles Dickens). Walter Hartright is the lead narrator, who brings all the pieces of the story together in narrative form. Many characters (major and minor) have a say in the narration; the bulk comes from Marion’s diary and Walter’s narrative. However, even Fosco gets a chance to tell his story, and his section was my favorite in the book. He’s charming and witty and audacious, and I loved him while I hated him. Through the entire novel, the reader must determine the truth, which is often ambiguous and relative.

Interestingly enough, the two characters who should have the most to say about this situation–Laura and Anne Catherick–have little to no voice at all. Only though small sections of dialogue written by other people do we ever hear their side of the story. Neither has a section written in her own hand.

There are so many more issues I could discuss here–gender roles (and the inversion thereof), the concept that one’s identity is bound with one’s signature, the theme of imprisonment (both literal and figurative).

We’ll just leave it at this: Wilkie Collins is magnificent. I got a little bogged down in the middle of the book–I was tired of reading, and I was ready to invest my life in something else. 617 pages is a lofty commitment. But having finished, I really wish I had time in my life to pick up another Collins work–Katherine has recommended The Moonstone, and I look forward to reading that one as well. I really love Victorian literature–detailed and verbose as it is. 🙂

2 thoughts on “The Woman in White

  1. Rachel says:

    Hi there,
    I was just wondering, what do you think the purpose of the doppelganger (anne catherick and laura) was?
    Thank you

    • Haley says:

      The doppelganger, I believe, was used to show how interchangeable these women were. If people honestly couldn’t tell the difference between Anne and Laura, then the women were not valued as independent and unique. Also, the doppelganger was a huge plot device. Without having Anne to “replace” Laura, Laura could never have found any semblance of freedom.

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