CLASSICS CORNER: The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

Article published on May 18, 2018.

(A friendly warning to readers: there be spoilers below.)

Regarded as the first Sensation Novel, this classic by Wilkie Collins has recently been adapted for TV by Fiona Seres. With a cast including Jessie Buckley and Dougray Scott, it follows many other adaptations of the classic story, including a 1997 TV film starring Tara Fitzgerald and Andrew Lincoln and a musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Published in 1860, it is one of the two main novels (alongside The Moonstone) for which Collins is known. As with much Victorian literature, it was serialised in weekly instalments in a magazine, All Year Round, over many weeks, building the tension with as much drama as modern soap operas. The idea of the ghostly, Gothic pale woman in white who makes an early appearance proved a real hit with readers. Soon ‘everyone was raving about it’! There were ‘Women in White’ cloaks, bonnets, perfume and even specialised dances. Prince Albert read and liked the book, as did the stern arts critic Mrs Oliphant, William Thackeray and Gladstone.

The TV drama emphasised the strong female characters of Marian Holcombe and Laura Fairlie (who doubles as the tragically insane Anne Catherick). P.D. James spoke of it as the ‘perfect first detective story’ and we soon become engrossed as the young artist Walter Hartright, the drawing master employed at Limmeridge House, uncovers sinister intentions on the part of evil Sir Percival Glyde, and he and Marion try to get to the truth that will save Laura’s future.

Having escaped from the asylum, Anne has a chance to warn Laura about her planned marriage to Glyde. As Walter and Laura have now fallen in love, the plot thickens when we discover how cruel Glyde has been in the past and now threatens again to secure Laura’s inheritance, although she wants nothing more than to escape his clutches.

One of my favourite characters is Count Fosco, a friend of Glyde’s, who has married Laura’s aunt Eleanor Fairlie and appears to befriend Marion. His exotic Italian manner, clever dialogue and ease of cultural position within genteel English society camouflage some deep political intrigue and violence, which Walter’s friend, the Italian political refugee Professor Pesca, is keen to reveal.

The TV drama also emphasised the Gothic feel of the novel. The locations in expensive estate mansions such as Limmeridge and Blackwater Park are dark forbidding places. Characters are plotting and scheming along corridors and, of course, in locked bedrooms. The Foscos become as sinister in their plans to kill people off as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. When the plot moves to London and describes the asylum into which Laura is eventually imprisoned after the death of Anne Catherick, the dark and dingy back street refuge Marion, Laura and Walter hide in before the resolution of the intrigue is as depressing as our fear that Laura and Marion will not survive those hunting them.

In a typical Victorian method used to heighten drama, chases across the countryside occur and a fire kills Sir Percival as he is attempting to cover up his own compromised background. The servants, who saw everything in such houses at that time, prove invaluable in giving evidence to legally charge Sir Percival (a cameo by Art Malik as a legal mind in the TV drama moved the plot along nicely).

There is a happy ending and TV, of course, cuts out some of the detailed plotting of Collin’s novel. In the 1860s various foreign translations of the book were successful and it was loved across the Atlantic by many American readers. It is still worth a read to experience the depth of Collin’s brilliant prose and savour the tense build up to some of the violent tragedies that unfold.

Although the story is complex, some critics point to inaccuracies in timings in the original manuscript by the author (‘Shakespeare has made worse mistakes’ stated Collins about The Times!), but readers lapped up his work and the idea of a ghostly woman in white remains a huge theme in literature, poetry and art.

As a personal read it is a joy to lose yourself in the pages and I think book groups looking for a classic, especially those keen on crime/thrillers, would greatly enjoy it.

Philipa Coughlan 5/5

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