The Woman in White: First Epoch

The Woman in White
Wilkie Collins
First published in the UK 1859-60
This edition 2007, Vintage Books
ISBN: 9780099511243
609 pages
Score 2/5

This was the last of Mrs Offence’s selections.

Frankly, The Woman in White is a difficult book to review. The writing is frequently great, but there’s much too much of it. The book could do with being about half as long. In this post I’m going to share my impressions at the end of the first book (or the first epoch, as Collins calls it, and to be honest it felt that long).

Also a few weeks ago I arranged a blogpost-swap with Clothes in Books. Clothes in Books (which I think is a great idea for a blog) reviewed the Patricia Highsmith classic Strangers in a Train for Past Offences: read her thoughts here. Meanwhile, you can read my thoughts on clothes in The Woman in White here and the men’s costumes here.

What happens in the first epoch? Walter Hartright, London drawing master, takes a job in distant Cumberland teaching the two female charges of a Mr Fairlie. On the evening before he catches his train to the north, he encounters a mysterious woman in white on the Finchley Road and helps her evade capture by the staff of the asylum from which she has escaped. By an staggeringly unbelievable coincidence, she knows the Fairlies, and drops obscure hints about her background.

When he arrives in Cumberland, Walter is introduced to his neurotic and selfish employer Mr Fairlie.

‘Pray excuse me. But could you contrive to speak in a lower key? In the wretched state of my nerves, loud sound of any kind is indescribable torture to me. You will pardon an invalid? I only say to you what the lamentable state of my health obliges me to say to everybody.’

Walter resolves to see as little of his employer as possible.

He gets on much better with Marian and Laura, his pupils. In no time at all (100 or so pages) Walter falls in love with Laura, the prettier of the two. Unfortunately for Walter, Laura is betrothed to a Sir Percival Glyde. Unfortunately for everybody else, Laura is one of the wettest characters in any book I’ve ever read. Essentially everybody treats her as if she were six years old, and she goes along with it. Did Victorian men really find this attractive? Apparently so.

Walter and Marian (because Laura couldn’t handle it) investigate the mystery of the woman in white and discover her to be Anne Catherick, a beneficiary of Marian’s mother’s charity and a dead ringer for Laura. This resemblance is so heavily laboured that it completely undermines future plot developments.

At the end of the first epoch, against everybody’s advice, Laura has selflessly submitted to marriage with Sir Percival and gone off to Europe on an extended honeymoon. Walter has done the honourable thing and made himself scarce, joining a perilous expedition to Honduras to help himself forget. And Anne Catherick has seemingly vanished from the face of the earth.

Famously, the book is divided between different narrators. In the first epoch we have three voices. Walter is the first, a serious and priggish young man, and to be honest too wordy by far.

I loved her.
Ah ! how well I know all the sadness and all the mockery that is contained in those three words. I can sigh over my mournful confession with the tenderest woman who reads it and pities me. I can laugh at it as bitterly as the hardest man who tosses it from him in contempt. I loved her! Feel for me, or despise me, I confess it with the same immovable resolution to own the truth.

The second section purports to be written by the Fairlies’ family solicitor Mr Gilmore. In contrast to Walter he has a sense of humour about himself and his profession. His negotiations with Sir Percival’s solicitor and attempts to talk sense into Mr Fairlie are some of the best sections of the book.

The third section takes the form of extracts from the diary of Marian Halcombe. Marian is one the most bizarrely introduced characters in literature – I won’t spoil Collins’ punchline, but believe me you’ll be offended on her behalf.  I was looking forward to Marian’s section as in Walter’s narrative she comes across as funny, resourceful and strong. And yet, give her a pen and a diary, and she’s just as wet and Laura-obsessed as he is.

So, to summarise the first epoch, 2/3 of the narrators are annoying, the romantic leads are insufferable, and we haven’t even met the famous Count Fosco yet. Is it worth ploughing on? Hmmm… I did, but hmmm…

The University of Virginia holds the full text of The Woman in White.

Creative Commons License Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

About pastoffences

Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
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13 Responses to The Woman in White: First Epoch

  1. Yes, it’s wordy, but I hope you plowed on. The style was like that of Dickens and Austen–one suspects they were paid by the word–does that help soften the length?


    • westwoodrich says:

      I think the difference between this and Dickens (and in fact between this and The Moonstone, if I’m remembering The Moonstone correctly), is that other Victorian books tend to be enriched by their length – subplots, a greater number of characters. This just seemed inflated rather than enriched.

      I did get to the end, and although I’d have been sorry not to encounter (enCounter) Fosco, I don’t think I’ll remember much more of the story.


  2. Sarah says:

    I prefer ‘The Moonstone’ to this book although I did like Woman in White when I read it as a teenager. I’m not really in any hurry to read it again though.


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