The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins, 1859
Well, mystery novels sure got off to a whiz-bang start with this genre-starting book. I mean, dang, is The Woman in White ever a startling departure from the literature that came before it? Yes. The answer to that question is yes.
- Multiple perspectives. The premise of The Woman in White is that an earnest young drawing teacher, Walter Hartwright (get it, his heart is, you know, in the right place), has a crime to document and expose, so he has gathered the testimony of all persons who can shed light on the mystery. The novel consists of the narratives he gathered from these persons. This narrative structure turns the reader into a lawyer reading transcripts of depositions and trying to piece together a coherent idea of the events. Fun!
- Multiple styles! I find texts written from multiple perspectives either incredibly enjoyable or incredibly frustrating. When Mary Shelley switches from Robert Walton to Victor Frankenstein to the monster without once varying her writing style, because, you know, different people express themselves differently, I want to throw the book across the room. C’mon, Shelley, get it together. However, when the author varies their style to suit the quirks, personalities and agendas of the various narrators: fun, fun fun. Collins does this. Hooray! I loved hopping between perspectives. Every part of the novel is written in first person, so there is much more stylistic range than, say, Game of Thrones.
- Psychological intimacy. It’s addictive. These lengthy Victorian novels allow the reader to really get to know the characters. Even though Frederick Fairly dictates only one relatively short interval in the book, I know him. I’ve got his number. I have a nuanced knowledge of the motivations, fears and desires of Marian Halcolme and Walter Hartright among others. Detailed novels provide an intimacy with the thoughts of other (fictional) human beings that goes beyond the intimacy we have with our co-workers, most of our relatives, some of our good friends. I get to go inside their (fictional) brains and think their thoughts. If “I think therefore I am” than “I read Jane Eyre, therefore I think Jane Eyre’s thoughts” and “I read therefore I am Jane Eyre.” Reading is magic.
- That length is problematic. Or is it? I don’t know anymore. Bring on the long, Victorian novels! 700 pages seems daunting when I turn the first thirty pages. However, somewhere around page 300 I become so immersed in the world of the book that I never want to leave. Around page 500, I start to feel anxious, because I know I will reach the end and the period of my life when I am well-acquainted with and deeply concerned about the affairs of Blackthorne Park will end and I will be unceremoniously booted from the lives of the characters I have grown to know so well. Can you tell that I’m feeling a bit emotional about finishing this book? You know what, I should take length out of the bad category, because it’s goddamn patronizing of me to assume that you won’t read a long book. The Woman in White is underrated and you’re a fool if you don’t read it. I’m not going to tell you that it’s too long to be worth reading, because that’s a idiotic thing for me to say. You’re a grown adult.You’re more than capable of sticking with a long novel.
- I really thought that I was going to hate this book based on the first few lines. There’s some problematic stuff when it comes to gender relations. But, I’m going to give Wilkie Collins a break. I have a relatively uncommon concept of gender relations, because I went to Oberlin and Obies don’t believe in gender. I can hardly expect a mid-19th century novelist to have the concept of gender roles that I have. (They don’t exist. They’re a harmful societal construct. It doesn’t matter what genitalia you have, you can do, be, think, like and act any type of thing and any type of way. You’re not a boy or a girl, you’re a human being with a nebulous identity that no one can classify with a silly little word like boy/girl/man/woman/male/female. You’re not a dude/lady, you’re a rainbow.) So, yeah. Wilkie Collins probably didn’t feel that way about stuff. It grinds my gears to hear one of the only strong women in pre-1900s literature hate on herself for being female and think that her femininity and her strength can’t go together. (wait, just to be clear, femininity isn’t a thing.) Redo: think that her body and her moral fortitude can’t go together. Marian Halcolme is a badass and she dislikes herself for being female and constantly talks trash about her gender and generally feels like she was born in the wrong body. She wasn’t born in the wrong body. Just because every female in literature before her fainted at the first sign of danger (ok, not Lady Macbeth), doesn’t mean that her resolute perseverance, her cool-headed tenacity and her indomitable courage are in some way not female/feminine. If a woman is brave she is not acting like a man. She’s a woman who is brave, because women can be anything and men can be anything. Please just let your children be themselves and discipline your children when they don’t let other children be themselves.
You might like The Woman in White if:
- you dig mysteries.
- you enjoy books with multiple narrators.
You might not like The Woman in White if:
- you don’t have the attention span for long novels. But you do. Don’t wuss out on a book because of length. You’re better than that.
Final thoughts: This is an incredibly fun novel. Adventurous readers will enjoy it. I found it gripping and I can’t wait to read it again.