I’m not sure how I got through four years of university majoring in English lit and missed reading this Wilkie Collins classic. My excuse is that I majored in 20th century American lit, which is not really an excuse. However, better late than never. I started it as the first in my reading bucket list, which is to make my way through every one of the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die beginning with the ones I haven’t read.
The Woman in White, set in 1850 and published 10 years later, is often considered the first modern detective novel. It was a sensation when it first came out as a weekly serial and more than a century and a half later it holds its own. As detective fiction, it lives up to the billing, in that it’s constructed around a crime that feels important both to the main protagonist, Walter Hartright, and the reader. I really wanted to know Sir Percival Glyde’s secret, I really wanted to know the story behind the woman in white, Anne Catherick. Why had Glyde imprisoned her in an insane asylum? And what about the other evil-doer in the book, Count Fosco? Did he have an Achilles’ heel? Why was he so determined to help Sir Percival, even though it’s obvious they didn’t like each other? The author kept me in suspense right up to the end – all 500 pages.
There are some aspects that do feel dated, in particular the female characters. The women are all (with a couple of exceptions) beautiful but passive and victimized, or nasty, unfeeling shrews. Laura Fairlie, the rich heiress who’s the love interest of the hero, has been described as vapid; the adjective fits. She’s a typical Dickensian heroine, incapable of doing more than fluttering her eyes and fainting in an emergency. The one woman who has the ability to act with agency is Marian Halcombe, Laura’s half-sister. She is described several times – and describes herself – as being more like a man in everything except her outward appearance. A feminist novel this isn’t.
Having said this, Collins is remarkably sympathetic to the plight of women, especially in their relations with men. Laura’s wealth cannot protect her from the designs of an unscrupulous husband, and Anne Catherick is incarcerated against her will in a madhouse simply on the word of a man. Events like these were not uncommon in the 19th century: women were locked up because they were epileptic, anxious, or suffering from post natal depression. They could be put away because of “moral insanity”, a term for infidelity, or simply because they were “non-compliant”. In some cases, imprisoning a woman in an asylum was an alternative to divorce.
Taking into account the times in which it was written (early Victorian), The Woman in White remains a classic suspense novel and a very good read.
Frederick Waddy’s caricature shows Wilkie Collins furtively pasting up a poster for the 1872 stage adaptation of The Woman in White.