Reading Challenges

June 27, 2011

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

It was only a few months ago that I first heard mention of the 19th century author Wilkie Collins, and in retrospect, I wonder how wonderful works like his The Woman in White have managed to escape my radar for so long. Charlaine Harris, author of my favorite fluff series, mentioned somewhere that Collins is one of her favorite authors and my curiosity was peeked. Since that discovery, it seems like everywhere I turn fellow bookworms are mentioning The Woman in White. I must have stumbled onto a new literary trend...or perhaps a Rennaissance of reading Wilkie Collins? Truth be told, The Woman in White has never been out of print since its publication in 1860 as a novel (it was previously released in serial format), so Wilkie Collins' rebirth in the 21st Century may not be the right way to put it.
Nevertheless, the author is new to me, but not for long (and I can't wait to get my hands on a copy of The Moonstone!).

The Woman in White is an epistolary novel, meaning it's written as a collection of documents (journal entries, correspondence, legal forms, etc.), but don't let the dry nature of the term deter you, gentle readers, because The Woman in White is a page-turner from start to finish. The story opens from the perspective of a drawing instructor named Walter Hartright. The young Londonian's mysterious encounter with a (you-guessed-it) woman in white perplexes him while en route to take up a new position in the English countryside. Arriving at Limeridge House, he meets the two young women who are to be his pupils, devoted half-sisters Marian Holcombe and Laura Fairlie. Over the summer, Hartright and Miss Fairlie fall in love, but when the art instructor learns of his student's predetermined engagement, he agrees to leave his post so that the marriage may take place unperturbed. A new appearance by the woman in white occurs before he can leave, however, warning of the dangers that the forthcoming  union will bring. Enter Marian, the bright and quick-witted sister, who only has Laura's best interests at heart. Miss Holcombe thus begins to investigate her sister's esteemed suitor, the baronet, Sir Percival Glyde. Is he to be trusted? What is the woman in white's connection to him? Marian's findings appear to cast no shadow on Sir Percival, but as her sister steps into the role of Lady Glyde, she can't help but feel as if something is amiss. Indeed, after the marriage takes place, things go from bad to worse. Sir Percival appears less and less charming by the page, but with his slippery friend Count Fosco on hand, the two sisters' efforts to know the truth are blocked at every turn. What does the woman in white know about Sir Percival Glyde? 

No spoilers, I promise, but the suspense found in The Woman in White is a constant throughout the novel's 646 pages, making the book well worth the read, if not for any other purpose than one of enjoyment. Fortunately, though, like most good books, The Woman in White offers a little more. Its feminist slant, for example, was a pleasant surprise. We witness how women's lack of independence in 19th century marriage leads to corruption and abuse, offering little mobility and stripping away personal rights and freedoms. The power of the husband over all other means of authority is demonstrated through the ease with which the antagonist falsely commits women he finds troubling to asylums. As opposed to Laura Fairlie (Lady Glyde), Marian remains a spinster, and readers observe how the lack of a husband offers her slightly more leverage (although she remains the weaker sex in 19th century England, of course). 

In terms of symbolism (partial spoilers ahead), the novel certainly leaves one ruminating on the color white, which makes a frequent appearance in the book, aside from its essential reference of course to the woman in white: Count Fosco's pet white mice, white paper, pale "white as a sheet" unaltered skin--as opposed to Fosco's branded skin. There are multiple interpretations of the color white possible in the story, aside from its  traditional association with  purity, which is present as well. For example, white is an excellent choice for the woman in white (Anne Catherick), not only because she's innocent (pure) or ill (white being associated with an unhealthy pallor and hospitals), but also because it suggests emptiness or absence and she's certainly void of her senses, having had her own life taken away from her. There's so much about white in the book, that it makes me think of a blank page, which is certainly how Fosco and Sir Percival dreamt up their conspiracy and made it happen, as the attempted authors of another's fate. There's also a lot of emphasis in the book on written correspondence, more blank other words whiteness that suggests open ended possibilities and invites embellishment-either through writing that shapes the course of events, and also to a lesser extent through the artwork created via Hartwright's drawings.


The writing style found in The Woman in White is also interesting in that Collins' knowledge of law gave the book a "true crime" feel, one of the earliest examples of it I've ever read, which also led to an innovative narrative approach. The story is told not only from multiple perspectives, but in a variety of writing styles as well: first-hand statements, journal entries, documents, etc. Through these shifts, readers get a strong feel for each character's unique personality and motives as the type of documents through which their voices are heard were clearly not chosen arbitrarily by the author. 

Before leaving off, I'll include an interesting link to photos of early editions of The Woman in White, as well as a few fun trivia facts. For example, The Woman in White was so popular in its early days of publication that it sparked a range of woman in white products from bonnets to toiletries.  This and more is available on the official Wilkie Collins website HERE. Did I mention Andrew Lloyd Weber made a musical of The Woman in White?

And one more note: I'll be updating the blog as I watch various film versions of The Woman in White (some of which date back to as early as 1912). For the moment, I've only seen the BBC televised film that aired in 1997. While I have no quarrel with the acting, the set or the costumes, the film's story line was so drastically altered from that of the book that I wouldn't even venture to call this an adaptation of, but rather "inspired by" The Woman in White. Let's hope that earlier film versions prove more faithful to the book! 


  1. It really was! Thanks for the visit, Yvonne!

  2. This is one that was brought to my attention by other bloggers, too. I really want to read it! I hadn't realized it was epistolary, a format I love when it's well done. I need to get to The Woman in White soon!

  3. Sometimes word of mouth can be a really great thing! Thanks for the visit, Erin!

  4. Brilliant book and author. I also love The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins.

  5. Thanks for the visit, bundleofbooks. I'm really looking forward to The Moonstone!!

  6. I loved this book. You can really tell that it was originally in serial format from the cliffhanger chapter endings. I'm so glad that when I read it I didn't have to wait a week to see what happened next!
    I look forward to hearing what you think of The Moonstone.

  7. Hi Elspeth, thanks for the visit! I agree, this was quite a page turner! I'm so glad I didn't have to wait for it in serial format too! Have you read The Moonstone? If so, did you love it? I've heard great things about it. Happy reading!

  8. The story has a great mix of suspense, humor and the resilience we all have in us. The author moves back and forth between the various characters' situations so well, it's hard to put the 'book' down.


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