Bothari’s #CBR4 Review #46: The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
I chose poorly for this last book, my fellow Cannonballers. I had been frecking along at a pretty good pace, but then I picked up a 600-page Wilkie Collins classic, and it stopped me in my tracks. It was good, and I enjoyed it, but it was not a quick or easy read. It messed up my Cannonball flow!
This was a pretty dense story, and I’m not sure how much I can say without giving too much away and still giving it justice. Nutshell: Walter Hartright is a drawing teacher who is hired to teach watercolors to two young ladies of quality for a summer. The three become close, and Hartright naturally falls in love with the beautiful one (Laura). Her half-sister Marian breaks the news to him that Laura has been betrothed to a much older lord, and that she will soon be old enough to marry him. Hartright is heart-broken and leaves the house, hoping to sever the bond before Laura is in love with him too. Too late, of course, and the rest of the story follows our thwarted lovers and their quest for happiness.
There are many, many obstacles before them. A mysterious woman in white warns Laura that her fiancé Sir Percival is a monster. A mysterious Italian uncle is charming but nefarious, manipulating everyone in sight but making Marian’s skin crawl. Hartright might be being followed. The woman in white shows back up to talk about the monster fiance’s “Secret.” There are financial shenanigans, investigations, escapes from asylums…it’s all very convoluted and exciting.
The story is told in chunks: Hartright gets the first few chapters, then it switches to Marian’s diary, the family lawyer gets in on the action, the Italian uncle Count Fosco gets to testify…it’s a neat glimpse into all sides of the story, and a good look at the different personalities. Marian talks a lot of smack about the innate weakness of her fellow females, but there’s an undercurrent of snark that I enjoyed. When angry, she talks about wanting to jump on a horse and ride through a raging storm to get to the villain, but then writes: “Being, however, nothing but a woman, condemned to patience, propriety, and petticoats for life, I must…try to compose myself in some feeble and feminine way.”
Count Fosco is wildly dramatic and overimpressed with himself. A sampling of his self-adbsorbed yammering: “Youths! I invoke your sympathy. Maidens! I claim your tears. Where, in the history of the world, has a man of my order ever been found without a woman in the background self-immolated on the altar of his life? I stand here on a supreme moral elevation, and I loftily assert her accurate performance of her conjugal duties.”
I liked this book more than I expected to. I had read Wilkie Collins in lit class, but not this one. I liked the dual heroes (Hartright and Marian) and the dual villains (Sir Percival and Count Fosco). I wish Laura had been a little worthier of the devotion and love of the heroes, rather than pale and sickly and swooning, but oh well. I guess a little of that comes with the classics territory.