Commonly regarded as one of the first ‘mystery novels’ and an early example of detective fiction, Collins’ The Woman in White is a true nineteenth century literary classic.
First published in serial form in 1859 and set in Victorian England, the story examines the twisted circumstances surrounding the arranged marriage between young, innocent heiress, Laura Fairlie, and the older Sir Percival Glyde.
It’s the tale of social mores, class, gender inequality, love, treachery, mental illness, fraud – and a murder conspiracy investigation that made it so popular in its day. And it being written by Wilkie Collins, it’s also a prime gothic melodrama!
A young, handsome art teacher, Walter Hartright, is appointed tutor to Laura and takes up residence at the isolated Cumbrian estate of Limmeridge. A ward of her invalid (hypochondriac) uncle, Frederick, Laura lives a sheltered life with her half-sister, Marian Halcombe. Unencumbered with wealth, looks or social expectations, Marian is intelligent and feisty – and almost immediately befriends Hartright.
Love develops between teacher and Laura – socially unacceptable in Victorian England – and he is forced to curtail his three-month appointment. His departure is made more crucial by the imminent arrival of Sir Percival Glyde, a man betrothed to Laura at the wishes of her beloved father on his deathbed. A charming aristocrat who wins over the Limmeridge household, he is, of course, not what he seems. A dastardly, short-tempered older man in severe financial trouble is his reality, with creditors queuing for their monies – and a grand conspiracy unfolds with Laura, now Lady Glyde, the innocent victim and Marian, by her position as a woman in Victorian England, almost equally powerless. It’s only on the return of Hartright from self-imposed overseas exile that justice can move forward.
Told by a series of narrators central to the events as they unfold, The Woman in White stands out from novels of the time in that Collins has written complex, spirited and believable female characters. Whilst Marian Halcombe herself may talk of her limitations as a ‘mere woman’, it is unquestionably ironic, as Collins has created a woman of action who is not afraid to say what she thinks.
True to its time (and the fact it was published in serial form), The Woman in White is drawn out, verbose and occasionally pompous. It takes more than 600 pages to tell its tale as Hartright, Halcombe, family lawyers, doctors, housekeepers, maids all have their say and contribution to the narrative. Interestingly, the fraudulent conspiracy and its reveal take up only a little over half the novel: the social unmasking of the complexities of the dastardly deed take up a great deal of planning and careful scrutiny in the latter part of the novel.
It’s an entertaining and involving read, if occasionally long-winded. And whilst gender politics may grate by today’s standards, for it’s time The Woman in White is remarkably forward thinking (as well as an insight into English attitudes towards foreigners! Judging by comments proliferating social media today regarding Brexit, little has changed in more than 150 years…).