I am not a Charles Dickens fan. I could scarcely drag myself through his books back in high school and the fact that I was no longer required to do so was one of my primary joys upon graduating. It was much to my surprise, then, that I loved The Woman In White, written by Wilkie Collins, a good friend and contemporary of Dickens. TWIW, although long and overwritten in parts, is in sum a remarkably paced, labyrinthinely plotted melodrama, packed to the gills with complex and fascinating characters.
In the broadest strokes, this Victorian thriller tells the story of a young and beautiful heiress whom her husband locks up so that he can steal her fortune. The heroine (said heiress) and her hero (the young drawing teacher who loves her) are actually the blandest of the novel’s characters, and are much less compelling than the friends and foes by whom they find themselves surrounded.
The story flies along using a fairly modern device, first-hand reports by a succession of different narrators: the hero of the piece, the family attorney, the heroine’s homely but charismatic and intelligent spinster half-sister, the eccentric invalid uncle (who is peevishly hilarious!), the housekeeper, the melodramatic Italian villain, and so on. Each narrator moves the plot forward, uncovering some twist that the prior narrator was not privy to.
I’ll admit that at 613 pages this novel is a little long. Collins clearly loved to hear himself speak (figuratively). But when The Woman In White was first published in serial form in 1859, people lined up to buy the next installment and, as Julian Symons points out in my copy’s Introduction, William “Gladstone canceled a theater engagement to go on reading it.”
I can certainly understand that Victorian readers would have gobbled up this tale of madness, greed and lost love, having finished it at a bit of a gobble myself. In fact, I’m planning to pick up Wilkie Collins’s most famous and even better received book, Moonstone, which is said to be the first modern detective novel. Who knows – if all continues to go well for me in Victorian England, I may have to have another go at Dickens.Powered by Sidelines