Friday, November 15, 2013

The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins

Wilkie Collins is amazing. An expert craftsman, he weaves an  intriguing mystery story and it comes as no surprise that The Woman in White has not been out of print for the last 140 years, regarded as one of the first mystery novels and one of the finest of the "sensation" genre.

While the narrative is at times somber and melancholy, Collins weaves between the lines a sense of the humorous and improbable.  One of my favorite descriptions is of Laura's governess:

"Starting from this point of view, it will always remain my private persuasion that Nature was absorbed in making cabbages when Mrs. Vesey was born, and that the good lady suffered the consequences of a vegetable preoccupation in the mind of the Mother of us all."

The narrative begins with Walter Hartright. Walter is hired by the Fairlie's to be the drawing master for the two Fairlie sisters. While Laura Fairlie is light haired, delicate and the description of beauty itself; her half sister, Marian, takes the counter-point, being dark and George-Eliot-like in appearances. While Laura is the heiress of a vast fortune, Marian is impoverished, but what she lacks in pecuniary standing she more than makes up for in her undaunting intellect.

Upon his arrival, Walter is immediately impressed with Marian's manner. At ease with herself, she puts everyone else at ease. But when Walter meets Laura he is unprepared for her beauty and gentle spirit. Slowly over the course of a few months, despite his best attempts to remain professional, and because Laura is of an entirely different social class, Walter attempts to check his emotions. But when his attempts prove to be in vain Marian intervenes. Laura has been engaged all this time to the dark sinister shadow of a man named Sir Percival Glyde, and while she has never been in love with him and he is twice her age, she has promised her father on his death bed that she would marry this man. So Walter hastily makes his departure, and the narrative baton is passed to Marian.

Marian, although somewhat suspicious of Percival, is not ready to throw practicality to the wind. If this is what Laura's father requested on his death bed there must be more to Sir Percival than meets the eye. But as we soon learn, Percival's charm has only been turned on for the purpose of efficient romancing, and his other more sinister nature reveals itself as he demands a marriage contract that hands over Laura's vast estate directly to him in the event of her death; a contract the solicitor very reluctantly draws up, knowing its ominous potential.

Slowly over the course of the story we learn that Sir Percival Glyde is not what he seems, and with the help of a suspect entourage made of an immensely rotund Count Fosco and his dutiful but vapid wife, the three villains begin to spin a web of deceit that is fated to trap both Marian and Laura irrevocably.

Collins' writing keeps you guessing until the end, with false deaths and insane ringers; everything a truly memorable suspense novel should have.

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