Discussion Post: The Woman in White

February 11, 2010 at 12:10 am 5 comments

Apologies again for the lateness of this post, but taking my time to finish this novel was so worth it. Where has Wilkie Collins been all of my literary life?!

Anyway, those interested in entering the drawing for the beautiful Penguin Clothbound Classic must participate in at least one discussion before February 25. Next week, our classic will be A Tale of Two Cities instead of The Picture of Dorian Gray, due to some issues with the post office. Ugh. But for now, onto our man Wilkie!

This is a book of so many doppelgangers and foils! Pesca and Hartwright, Laura and Anne, Laura and Marian…how are these relationships important? What is Collins trying to tell his reader?

Wow, the doppelgangers just kept on coming in this novel! In addition to the doubles, though, so many elements of The Woman in White center on the theme of duality. The house at Blackwater Park has two wings, one dark and decaying and one light and modern; Count Fosco is amoral, certainly, but his tenderness for Marian keeps him from being irredeemable; even Sir Percival’s name conjures up innocence, virtue, and the nobility inherent in a Grail knight, while his character proves to be definitively unsympathetic.

So, at the risk of sounding cliched, Collins is commenting on the duality of human nature, while making the statement that no person is entirely good or entirely bad. Note also how quickly a person’s nature can be changed, as in the case of Laura and Anne! A few months are sufficient to turn the beautiful, serene Laura into a prematurely-aging bundle of quivering nerves not unlike her insane half-sister. In this way, Collins is much more realistic in his characterization than his friend Dickens was — but that’s another post.

Mr. Hartright says early in the book that there is a “want of inborn sympathy between the creature and the creation around it,” and argues that Nature rarely reflects or comforts the human soul. Is that Mr. Hartright’s opinion, or the author’s? What evidence can you provide for your opinion?

This is most definitely Mr. Hartwright’s opinion. The lake at Blackwater represents his theme of duality quite well, and fittingly is the setting for meetings between Laura and Anne as well as a hideout for Count Fosco. Collins also mentions dead leaves blowing around a despondent Laura as a heartbroken Walter watches her, which seems to suggest a very strong sympathy between man and nature. It’s odd that Mr. Hartright, an artist, would be so blind to this, but a study of these contrasting views would take more time and space than I have here.

Lastly, this novel is notable in many ways. The Woman in White has been called the best example of the sensationalist novel, one of the first mystery stories, and certainly one of the most popular novels of the Victorian era. Do you think it deserves this sterling reputation? Why do you think Collins is less popular today than Dickens is?

Does this novel ever deserve its sterling reputation! There are so many twists and turns and double-crosses that it is beyond me how Collins kept his own story straight. It’s intensely interesting in every way — the characters, the plot, the clashing motivations and the beautifully-painted scenes. It also captures the mood of an era, I think, and it should be considered one of the quintessential 19th century novels.

A glance at the plot of Fingersmith is surely enough to convince any reader that Collins’ influence is still present in today’s literature. Sadly, I haven’t ever seen him on a reading list either in college or in high school, while Dickens is nearly ubiquitous.

Perhaps this is due to Collins’ relative lack of political concerns. Dickens was concerned with the plight of the poor, the effects of the industrial revolution, the state of the law industry, and the problems of social mobility, while Collins is more content with maintaining the status quo. Note how while Laura’s money is lost, there is a preoccupation with bringing down false nobility and restoring property — the mark of the gentry — to its rightful heirs. This makes for an excellent story, but one that’s not really a vehicle for social change as Dickens’ stories have come to be viewed.

See you next week for Dickens and A Tale of Two Cities!


Entry filed under: Classics, LT Classics Challenge. Tags: , , , .

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Corey  |  February 12, 2010 at 6:23 am

    I for one am deeply sad that no one seems to have heard of the wonderful Mr. Collins! Everyone I told about this challenge got confused when I mentioned the book but, once I explained how excellent and interesting it is, got really pumped. I think you are right to question why this is the case when everyone knows Dickens. You would think since mysteries are such a popular type of reading in the present that readers would be more interested in the beginnings of the genre than they apparently are. (Although I suppose typical readers are less concerned with the history of genre than perhaps you, a literarian, and I, a historian, are!)

    Anyway, an excellent choice of a book! You should read Collins’ The Moonstone. I read it a few years ago and adored it. I think I liked it more even than The Woman in White, which should give you an idea of its awesomeness. :D

    • 2. KT  |  February 14, 2010 at 2:34 pm

      Whoo, I will have to find The Moonstone!

      Collins is one of those authors that English (i.e. British) students read more than American students, maybe? And maybe sensation novels are still regarded as kind of trashy, who knows — Lady Audley’s Secret and Trilby aren’t that widely read, either, but they were definitely popular in their day and should be regarded as classics!

      • 3. Corey  |  February 14, 2010 at 3:09 pm

        Hmm…I’ll have to try those two (Lady Audley and Trilby, that is)! At the moment, I’m on to Drood with Wilkie as the protagonist. Sweet!

  • 4. Britney  |  February 25, 2010 at 5:06 am

    I just looked at this post to read the comments, and I’ve been aware of Collins for a few years. My roommate saw The Woman in White on Broadway a few years ago, raved about it, and said she planned to read the book (but I don’t think she has yet). I decided not to read this book for your classics challenge because her copy is about 600 pages (I love to read but I’m scared of big books) but it’s on my eventually list.

    • 5. KT  |  February 25, 2010 at 10:39 am

      It is a big one! I was sorry I had put it on the list when my copy arrived and I saw how massive it was. Maybe not a book to rush through in a week, but I hope you will give it a try in the future — it’s well worth a read!


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