The First Mystery Novel: Is Spectacular. You Should Read It.

the woman in white

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.

The Good

  • 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.

The Bad

  • 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.

The Ugly.

  • 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.

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3 thoughts on “The First Mystery Novel: Is Spectacular. You Should Read It.

  1. I am commenting because you just said in your great expectations post people don’t comment so much if they agree. So I thought I better comment. I agree this book is flipping amazing. I love the different voices, I love the atmosphere, I love the intrigue….a get a bit frustrated with wimpish women but things were different in those days and it wasn’t their fault. It was an insidious all pervading down troddi g of women who had no say, no vote, no inheritance, no ability to work etc etc…
    I don’t comment so much because you do such brilliant critiques….I am a scientist and scientists do non adjective boring writing.. Don’t always know how to write how I feel about books…but when I read your posts I am impressed.
    The woman in white is the most perfect mystery novel because for me it combines a brilliant plot with descriptions and character tears that become alive. It is long but it isn’t sloppy..I would have wept if it had been shorter.
    There! A comment that agrees!

    • Thanks, Tilly! I’m so happy that you enjoy my posts. It means so much to me. This book is truly wonderful. I agree about the wimpish woman, but she is balanced out by a strong woman, which is great. It fills me with joy when you do comment!

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