Book Review: The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

The Woman in White
Wilkie Collins

Rating: 5 out of 5.

If you’re looking for an excellent classic mystery, I highly recommend The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. It was first published in serial form in 1859-60, in Charles Dickens’ magazine All Year Round and in Harper’s Weekly and in book form in 1860. So it’s an old book, set in Victorian England, but don’t be put off by that because the plot is so clever and varied and the characters surprisingly relevant and modern, I never felt bogged down. I should mention that the book is also very long: the print version is 720 pages.

We’ve gotten away from reading long books, don’t you think? We live in a world in which there’s too much content to absorb and talk about. I feel like it all has to be done in the fastest time possible so we can move to the next book, show, movie, song, etc. I’m just as much a victim of that mentality as everyone else, but I also feel myself shifting to a different reading attitude. When readers were first enjoying The Woman in White, they were reading it a chapter at a time and looking forward to the next installment. Just like TV shows that used to be weekly and gave us time between to look forward to what might happen next. Now everything is a binge. Okay, rant over, time to talk about the book!

Set outside and in London, the story begins with drawing instructor Walter Hartright who accepts a position to tutor two young women at their estate (Limmeridge House). Marian Halcombe and Laura Fairlie are half sisters and they live with Laura’s reclusive and uncle, Frederick Fairlie. The night before Walter leaves for Limmeridge House, he meets a mysterious woman in white who has escaped from an asylum. She asks him to help her and he agrees.

At Limmeridge and as predicted, Walter falls in love with the beautiful Laura and she with him, but the relationship cannot be acknowledged because Laura is betrothed to Sir Percival Glyde, an arranged marriage. Meanwhile, the mysterious woman in white, Anne Catherick, who looks a lot like Laura, is seen around Limmeridge. While that’s one of the mysteries readers will need to be patient about, we learn early on that Anne had local connections and was taken under Marian’s mother’s wing for a short period of time. Now it’s getting complicated, but wait! In a plot to get Laura’s money, Sir Percival and his closest friend, the slick-talking Count Isidor Ottavio Baldassare Fosco from Italy, concoct a scheme with shocking results. I don’t want to give anything away, so I’ll leave the rest out. There are plenty of twists, close calls, and dramatic scenes to keep you wanting more.

I do need to note that Marian Halcombe is one of the best and most likable characters in the story. No surprise that one of the book’s major themes is about women’s rights, as Marian is a strong woman with a smart mind. I also enjoyed Fosco’s character. You can’t trust him, but he’s extremely accommodating and pleasant and so fun to observe.

Besides being about women and their rights during the mid-1800s, the story is also about class, titles, money, inheritances, land rights, deception, suspicion of foreigners, international intrigue, love and friendship. The book begins and ends with Walter Hartright’s narration, but Collins includes substantial testimonials by Marian Halcombe, Frederick Fairlie, Fosco, solicitors, housekeepers and other minor characters. The last section reads like a detective novel and helps solve the mystery.

I highly recommend The Woman in White. If you don’t have time for the book, there are plenty of adaptations to enjoy.

Have you read this classic? Are you interested now? What’s your opinion of long books and the rush to consume content? Leave a comment.

Interested in more books by Wilkie Collins? Read my review of The Moonstone here.

Thanks for visiting – come back soon!

30 thoughts on “Book Review: The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

  1. Barbara, thanks for bringing our attention to another engaging read. I look forward to reading in due course. By the way, my copy of The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon arrived yesterday. So far, I’m hooked and intrigued.

  2. It was one of my favs when I was a kid. I’ll have to give it a re-read soon, as it’s been so long it’ll take a re-read for it to all come flooding back.

  3. I am definitely interested! I know of this book but have never read it, so I will add it to my ever-growing pile of to-be-reads (I retire in 13.5 months and the book list awaiting me is very long!). I agree that we have moved away from long reads and how deeply involved we can become when it’s a slowly unfolding story.

    1. Hi Lynette – yes, that’s exactly right “deeply involved” in a “slowly unfolding story” and time to think about it too! Congratulations on your upcoming retirement – that must be exciting to think about what you will read, even though your list is already long 🙂

  4. I can’t remember if I read this when I was much, much younger, but I do remember The Moonstone, which I’ve read twice. So this goes on my TBR list!

    1. Hi Noelle – I read The Moonstone a couple years ago – also excellent! I hope you like The Woman in White! Thank you for the visit and for commenting 🙂

  5. I am definitely interested in reading this book! I’ve had so many people recommend it to me over the years. I agree with your point about we readers in general tending to shy away from longer books. I know I’m guilty of this!! There are always so many books to read, and I start feeling under pressure when I spend a long time on just one book. (This is a bad habit for sure, and one I need to break!)

    1. Hi Lisa – yes I totally get that – I also like to “consume” books and I think that many modern books are written for that purpose. Especially thrillers, which I can’t resist! And now that I’ve read some long books this year, I want to read something shorter! Thank you for reading and commenting 🙂

  6. Your “rant” is a perfectly valid statement, making an excellent comparison with modern TV shows – incidentally streaming gives us the opportunity to wait a week no longer. Your excellent review is sending me back to my copy to reread it after my current book.

    1. Hi Derrick – thank you for reading my rant and review! I’ve binge watched several series because they have been so addictive, but I’m also watching an old show, two episodes, but only once a week. So enjoyable that way. Thinking about what will happen is so much fun. I’m glad you’re going back to re-read The Woman in White. Now I feel I should read a Dickens book!

    1. Definitely lengthy but IMO worth the effort. Thanks so much for stopping by. I hope if you do get the chance to read it this summer that you enjoy it as much as I did!

  7. It was the first Victorian period novel I really enjoyed and from there I loved thr Moonstone, moved onto others and never really looked back. Have you read the Barchester chronicles by Samuel Trollope?

    1. Hi Geoff! Yes I also really liked The Moonstone. Wilkie Collins was such a clever writer and the plots are excellent. I haven’t read the Barchester Chronicles – I’ll have to look that up – thanks for the recommendation and for reading and commenting!

  8. I remember recommending Collins’ The Moonstone to my students, probably because I thought they’d like a detective novel. Oddly, I’ve not read The Woman in White. I’d probably like the character of Marian: strong, smart, and likable.

    You’ve whetted my appetite for this novel, Barb! 😀

    1. Hi Marian – our mystery group read The Moonstone a couple years ago. I also enjoyed that, but I think The Woman in White is a little better. Thanks so much for reading and commenting!

    1. I’m not either, Ann. Although I had to read The Woman in White for work, I enjoyed it very much. Sometimes the long books are just what we need to really escape from the stresses of life. Thanks for stopping by 🙂

    1. It took me a lot of years to get to Wilkie Collins, but I’m so glad! Thanks, Charley, for reading and commenting. Thinking of you and hoping your school session is going well!

  9. HI Barbara, I agree that people like shorter books and short stories. I think it is because there are so many demands on our time these days. I listen to longer books via Audible but I rarely read them. This books sounds very interesting and covers a lot of topics.

    1. I’m going to have to revise my list of all-time favorites to include The Woman in White. I don’t mind reading long books, but now that I’ve finished, I’m going with some shorter ones next. Thanks for stopping by, Robbie!

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