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Mystery Monday – The Woman In White

The Woman In White by Wilkie Collins

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

Victorian era novelist Wilkie Collins is known for two long novels that were originally published in installments in a weekly magazine.  The Woman in White, say some critics, was one of the first mysteries, published in 1859, and The Moonstone, published in 1868, is considered – by no less than the likes of T.S. Eliot – the first detective novel or police procedural.

In The Woman in White, a young drawing master is unfortunate enough to fall in love with a young woman who has been promised by her father to a milord. After the marriage, the milord turns out to be neither rich nor a gentleman in any sense. Mystery revolves around the milord’s secret, known to a furtive lady dressed in white, who roams, forlornly but conveniently for the plot, nearby our main characters. I cannot give away in a review an inexplicable death, which adds to the whydunnit aspect of the story.

True, there are some slow spots, since we are, after all, in the world of the Victorian novel whose audiences liked drawn-out scenes and situations. Also true, in a couple of places Collins over-uses indirect speech, in which one character merely reports to another character what was said in a conversation with a third character. Overall, however, the narrative technique holds interest. The story unfolds from different points of view, thus forming a chain of evidence that is at once plausible and engrossing. A contemporary critic said Collins’ special merit is “that he treats a labyrinthine story in an apparently simple manner, and that the language in which he writes is plain English.”

And what characters! Sir Percival Glyde is an exasperated and desperate villain. His henchman Count Fosco is oily, cold, cautious, and ruthless. Hollywood well cast Sydney Greenstreet – the heavy in The Maltese Falcon – in the worthless 1948 movie version of the novel. The drawing master writes of the startling and ingenious Fosco, “Sincerely as I loathed the man, the prodigious strength of his character, even in most trivial aspects, impressed me in spite of myself”  Lady Fosco remains a malign presence.  Laura, the love interest of the artist, is ineffectual, inept, weepy, and subject to the vapors. But her weaknesses are balanced by the brave and reliable Marian Halcombe. As it was published as a serial, Collins reports that single male readers wrote to him, asking who was the living model on which Marian’s character was based, so that the writers could propose to ask her for her hand.

For its riveting plot, memorable characters, enthralling narrative technique, and ominous and weird atmosphere, this novel has never been out of print since its first publication 150 years ago. Collins wrote about 30 novels, but he considered this novel to be his best. So much so that he had inscribed on his tombstone the epitaph “Wilkie Collins, author of The Woman in White and other works of fiction.”





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One Response to “Mystery Monday – The Woman In White”

  1. VOSTROMO says:

    One of my all-time favorite novels

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