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.

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On binge watching and reading

If you’re a certain age, you may be thinking about how younger people today have no idea what it means to eagerly await a weekly television show. Let’s go back to the 1970s. Who else remembers the excitement of ABC’s line-up of Friday night shows? The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family, Room 222, The Odd Couple and Love, American Style. Perfect, am I right? I could not wait until these shows came on!

My weekly anticipation didn’t end in the 70s. In college, my friends and I built our nights around watching Dallas and Hill Street Blues.

Anyone remember the obsession with Twin Peaks?

Then there was Cheers, Seinfeld, King of Queens.

But now? What do people do? They get the whole season, binge watch and then they’re done. I’m guilty of some binge watching. Why not watch the next episode if it’s queued up? I think something is lost.

The same thing can happen with reading. Such a rush to finish a book, get through a series. I’m guilty of that, too. In the old days, people read their fiction in weekly installments. Serialized fiction goes back to the 17th century (you can read all about its history here), when books were expensive and moveable type made it easy for publishers to print serials.

Now modern readers can get a taste of serial fiction with the Serial Reader app. Got 10 minutes? Read an “Issue” of a classic and eagerly await the next installment. I’m reading Little Women by Louisa May Alcott—how fun! And I feel no pressure, just anticipation.

Serial Reader is free for iOS and Androids and I heard about it from Lisa at Bookshelf Fantasies. Be sure to check out her blog for reviews and interesting book news.

What do you think about binge watching and binge reading? Have you tried Serial Reader?

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