The woman in white – Wilkie Collins (1859)

Following two blogposts of literary British literary highlights from the 20th century. I like to pay attention to a mid 19th century successful crime novel. I read this book some years ago in December.

The woman in white by Wilkie Collins (1859)

The woman in white is a legal thriller about mistaken identity and fraud. The story evolves against the background of 19th-century London and of life in the country. The book also has characteristics of the Gothic Novel (18th century Horror stories).  Although the story has a lot of gloomy moments, it is witty in other parts.

In short, the story is about a young woman Laura Fairlie who was under a pledge of her deceased father to marry Lord Percival Glyde. Early in the story, she is still under the authority of her guardian (a sickly and uninterested uncle). During their honeymoon in Italy Laura finds out that her brand new husband Lord Percival is just after her money. Back home again, apart from her husband a dissembling friend of his, and a few other untrustworthy persons surround her. Although her husband puts her under pressure Laura refuses to sign a document that would give him control over her money.

She is lucky to have her intelligent and brave half-sister Marian who comes to the rescue together with their live-in drawing teacher Walter Hartright. Together they try to sabotage the evil plans Lord Percival and his friend foster. I know this sounds like a two-penny novel but in my opinion, this is worthwhile to read. In part that is due to the figure of Marian.

She has a prominent role in the story, she is more enterprising than Laura and as such, she is the true heroine of the book. Furthermore, the somewhat scanty “damsel in distress” story I sketched above, turns out to be more complicated than seems at first. And on top of that, the novel was written in a different time, when unmarried women had no rights. A fact that is a recurring issue in the book. A time without electricity, telephones, and motorized traffic.  In spite of the 19th century’s slowness of the novel, the tension builds up slowly but surely. Early on it is clear that Laura’s safety is at risk but how things will unfold remains unclear for a long time and some mysteries are only solved towards the end of the story. Several different narrators tell the story as witnesses in Court. They tell how the crime took place. Crime fiction became a popular genre in the 20th century. This writer was one of the fathers of crime fiction. This book was an immediate success after publication. Readers loved it, but Critics did not like it very much. Much to the author’s dismay, because he had literary ambitions.

The author was a competent narrator, both a chase in the dark on foot, on a country road, as well as Marian overhearing a conversation on the veranda on a hot summer night, are rendered vividly. The main characters in the story (Walter, Marian, and Laura) are believable. Although Lord Percival is a typical crook. This book has been rendered in film more than once. Quite understandably so.

December 2022

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