According to the blurb, The Woman in White is “the greatest mystery thriller in the English language” which is one hell of a claim to have to live up to. I’m not sure whether I’d agree completely with this assessment but it certainly was a great read.
The drama starts with the chance meeting between Walter Hartright, a young drawing teacher about to leave London for a post in Cumberland, and Anne Catherick, a mysterious woman clad all in white and looking for the road to London in the middle of the night. Anne immediately intrigues Walter as she appears to be familiar with the people who are shortly to become his employers and even more so when it transpires she has just escaped from a mental asylum.
This is only the beginning of a tale which unfolds slowly at first and then comes tumbling out at great speed towards the end of the book. Most of the main characters take their turn to tell the story, the duty falls to whoever was closest to the centre of the action at each moment, giving them all a unique voice and giving us the chance to get to know each one a little better.
Collins writes with beautiful style, his turn of phrase is incredibly eloquent and his powers of description are second to none. Ranging from the moment that Walter is
led into a large and lofty room where my supper was awaiting me, in a forlorn manner, at one extremity of a lonesome mahogany wilderness of dining table
to the interview between Frederick Fairlie and a Young Person which led said Young Person and Mr Fairlie’s valet into a bottomless pit of confusion to the great amusement of the otherwise unamused Frederick.
The story itself kept me guessing the whole time, although The Secret at its heart was fairly predictable the methods used to pull off the various deceptions throughout the novel and the true nature of Count Fosco had me a little more confused.
A whole host of characters cross the pages, from the saintly Walter and mysterious Anne to Marian Halcombe who has to be one of the strongest and forthright women ever to feature in a Victorian novel. Even the bit parts such as Mrs Rubelle and Margaret Porcher the ‘lumpish’ maid at Blackwater Park have their part in the intrigue and are as well crafted as some of the main characters. The only person who fails to live up to Collins’ standard of characterisation is the person around whom most of the plot revolves: Laura Fairlie/Glyde. I found Laura to be quite a wishy-washy character who faded into the background behind the stronger characters of her sister, husband and most of the rest of the cast. She didn’t however make me want to slap her as is so often the case with the heroines of Victorian literature because she was aware of the peril she was in and played her part in trying to escape from it. Until the closing chapters of the book that is but she can be more-or-less forgiven for that.
Overall The Woman in White made me laugh, kept me in suspense and has left me hungry for more of Wilkie Collins’ work.