Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Review: The Woman In White by Wilkie Collins

This is the story of what a Woman’s patience can endure, and what a Man’s resolution can achieve. [First Sentence]

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
Barnes and Noble Classics, 2005
(Originally published in 1859-1860 as a serial, 1860 as a novel)
Crime Fiction; 635 pgs

"Oh! It's starting to get good," I exclaimed to my husband on more than one occasion as I read The Woman in White before bedtime. "Never mind," I would later add, having read the next paragraph. He was utterly surprised then when I commented how much I liked the book upon finishing it. He wanted to know if the ending made up for the slow start. I found myself trying to explain to him that I didn't really mind the slow start, but I think it was lost on him. Just as I am sure you might think I am crazy too. For all the whining and complaining I did about how long it took me to read The Woman in White, you'd think I was miserable reading it. Bored even.

I actually really liked the book when I was reading it. I loved it, in fact. My references to it finally getting good wasn’t so much a pronouncement that it was not good, just my expectation that a big revelation was coming. Wilkie Collins sure knew how to create suspense, but in a more quiet and subtle way than today’s thrillers often do. I loved the author's long windedness and his drawing out of events. I loved his use of language and his ability to pull me into the story. I felt like I got to know each of the characters and was standing right there beside them in every scene. I could predict how certain characters would react to certain events because I had come to know them so well. I could visualize perfectly the various places in which the story took place. I liked the format the author used to tell the story and appreciated the buildup of anticipation.

My impatience and desire for the book to go faster was purely based on selfish reasons, and not a reflection on the book. The Woman in White is one of those novels that requires the reader to slow down and appreciate the finer points. My timing in reading the book was off. I wasn't in the right mind set for reading a book that required my full attention and time. Once I was able to devote more time to the novel, I found the right reading rhythm, and the book seemed to move along at a more acceptable (to me) pace.

Published initially as a serial from 1959 to 1960, Wilkie Collins' novel was a great hit. So much so that it became a stage production (although unauthorized) within three months of the book's publication. My copy of The Woman in White included excerpts of letters and reviews written around the time of the book's release, which I found quite interesting. While the book garnered much praise, others were less impressed:
Had the story been wrought out in the old-fashioned way it could have been told far more effectively and in less space . . . A novelist who aims at being natural, and writes seriously, should refrain from reminding us of so broad a farce as Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors. [Excerpt from the Dublin University Magazine, February 1861]
Wilkie Collins' The Woman In White is told in multiple narratives, a collection of letters and journal entries used to document the events surrounding the mystery of the woman in white and that of Laura Fairlie, a lady of society whose own life and fate are intertwined with that of the title character.

From the Barnes and Noble website:
The story begins with an eerie midnight encounter between artist Walter Hartright and a ghostly woman dressed all in white who seems desperate to share a dark secret. The next day Hartright, engaged as a drawing master to the beautiful Laura Fairlie and her half sister, tells his pupils about the strange events of the previous evening. Determined to learn all they can about the mysterious woman in white, the three soon find themselves drawn into a chilling vortex of crime, poison, kidnapping, and international intrigue.
The novel is filled with an intriguing cast of characters. While the novel is plot driven from the start, the characters are well developed, from the least significant character who appears only for a page or two to the most important. My favorite of the characters will come as no surprise to those who have read the novel. Marion Halcombe is a strong and intelligent protagonist. Marion reminded me a bit of Mina Harker from Bram Stoker's Dracula. Both could rival any of the strong female leading ladies of today. There are several characters from the novel I would love to explore further: Count Fosco and Pesca in particular. They both have pasts that would make for interesting reading.

The Woman in White may be a quiet thriller at its start, but by the end events unravel so quickly that the reader's knuckles may turn white trying to keep up. It is obvious that Wilkie Collins planned out his novel with great care, each thread carefully sown into the greater story. It is a true gothic novel at its core: dark, gloomy, romantic and thrilling. I could say so much more about this novel than I have, but I will let you experience it for yourself if you haven’t already.

Rating: * (Very Good +)

Challenge Commitment Fulfilled: Chunkster Challenge 2009 & New Authors Challenge


  1. Reading Wilke Collins is definitely a new and different experience than most, isn't it? I read The Moonstone a couple of years ago, and while that also took me a long time to get through, I loved it. Your review is fabulous. You definitely did the book justice!

  2. I know exactly what you mean! Not only with this book, but I'll be posting about a different book this week that struck me the same way. I had to ignore my desire for a faster pace and let the book take its own time. I'm so glad you ended up enjoying it so much!


  3. I've been anxious to see your review of this. I read it five years ago or so in London on the Tube. I had little else to do on the longer commutes I was making, so the book went faster than usual, but I've often wondered if I would have finished it otherwise. Glad I did! Glad you did! Not sure if you saw the musical or not, but it was awful! They completely change the story line to suit today's moral standards and therefore warp the Victorian ideals and double standards.

  4. Sounds like a book to savor. I haven't read this one yet!

  5. this sounds like a great novel, and the serial form is intriguing. Hence my fascination with Dickens. I think Simmons may have gotten Collins' voice down pat in his recent novel Drood, just based upon your description of his writing style.

    Great review!

  6. Great review! I want to read some of Wilkie Collins' work after reading Drood.

  7. Having recently read The Moonstone, I can understand what you mean about wanting to have the book hurry along and reveal something. I am looking forward to TWIW!

  8. I can totally relate to what you said about this book! I read it last year and it felt like it took me forever to finish it (I'm used to reading books fairly fast). But wow, what a great read! I'm looking forward to reading The Moonstone next and really want to read Drood as well.

  9. I have always wanted to read this. I'm glad you posted a review!


  10. I re-read this for the RIP challenge a couple of years ago and enjoyed it as much as I did the first time.

    Count Fosco is, indeed, an interesting villain. I noticed the symbolism in some of the names (Harkright, Fairly, Glyde) when I re-read it and wondered about Fosco. I looked it up--synonyms include dismal, wild, gloomy, dark.

    The Woman in White is an excellent example of the Gothic novel.

  11. I was waiting to read about this one from your viewpoint. Of course, now that I did, I added it to my TBR pile...Thanks a lot LOL Seriously, great review.

  12. This has been on my shelves for so long, and every time I see it I get excited about reading it. I've never been quite sure why I never actually pick it up and start -- until now. I think I'm a little afraid of the commitment that this type of book takes -- both in length and attention span. I keep waiting for the right time -- when I'm not busy and free from stress and able to read for long periods of time. Who am I kidding? That will never happen. I guess I better pick it up and just start. Thanks for the great review.

  13. Great review!

    I gave you an award, stop by and check it out :)

  14. I've had that experience before too lol. Never have read this though I have heard similar things about it.

  15. I've been waiting for your review as I have this one waiting for me on my shelf. Great review and I need to pick this one up soon :)

  16. I've heard a lot of great things about this book! I do have this book in my pile but just didn't get around to reading it... I'm intimidated by the thickness, I guess, LOL. But reading your review has definitely helps to move the book on my priority list! ;)

  17. I have to read this again, it has been quite a while. I'm sending you some love for all your kind words and great comments!


  18. Now I'm even more eager to read this! I'll hold off a little longer, though; I want to make sure I can really devote myself to the book. It sounds like it demands a lot from the reader.

  19. As I was following along with you on this reading journey I finally decided to look up this book at B&N, because I thought I just might read it and then I saw how large it was!! To be honest it intimidated me...Big Time!!!!! I'm glad that you made it through it and you enjoyed it. And in the end that is what matters,right?

  20. Great review. Brought back some fond memories. Much as I liked this book, I liked "Moonstone" even better. Probably because it was the first Collins book that I read.

  21. Wow..I was waiting for this review for long :)
    I loved your indepth review. It's the kind of review that shows that you genuinely liked the review. I'll have to look into this one and I'll make sure i am in the right frame fo mind :)

  22. This one is an interesting read. I'm going to put this into my wish list now. Thanks for the great review, Wendy!

  23. Oh - I really do want to read this, but the length! UGH! How it got on my TBR shelf, I'm not so sure. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  24. I too found it slow going and groaned through the reading of the book, but, like you, I DID love it. I even gave it a 5 star rating and I don't give too many of those. Great review! I linked to your review here.

  25. When I read this, I wasn't sure it was going to be something I would finish - but I'm so glad I kept going! It was worth every bit of effort to slow down and enjoy it.

  26. Lovely review, Wendy! I'll make sure I pick the right time to read this book - it sounds like I'll need availability and patience for a slow start - but I have a feeling I'll love it too.

  27. That's so funny that you kept thinking it was going to get good!! ;) I'm glad you ended up liking it!

  28. I've had this in my stacks for a few years now. I had intended to read it for one of the RIP challenges, but never managed to move it to the top of the stack. I'm not sure when the timing would be right for me to delve into this thriller - perhaps mid-summer when I have lots of time to read while floating in the pool?

    Great review!

  29. Kudos for sticking with it! I find that pre-TV books just have an entirely different sense of pacing. Glad this one was worth your patience and persistence!

  30. It's definitely slower than modern suspense stories, but so worth it! I'm glad you stuck with it and ended up really enjoying it. Such great characters! Hmmm, you're making me want to read something else by Wilkie Collins now.

  31. Oh Wendy! I just finished this book a month ago, but you've made me want to re-read my copy immediately. You touched on so many things that I loved about this book--the suspense that sneaks up on you, the strong and vivid characters (that Fosco!!), the language that just sucks you in. I find myself impatient with books like these as well, but isn't the payoff so worth it?

  32. Agree, I really liked this book. I can def. see it as a serial, and you're right, Marion was very Mina Harker esque. And her sister was kind of Lucy-ish. You know, helpless and all that.

  33. Sandy - Thank you! There was so much more I wanted to say, but figured I should stop while I was ahead. I don't want to spoil the book for anyone.

    Lezlie - I am behind on my blog reading, but book forward to reading your post about the book that struck you in a similar manner as this one did me. Sometimes we do have to force ourselves to slow down, don't we?

    Trevor - Although I am so glad I read it when I did, perhaps a better time would have been when I could have devoted much bigger blocks of time to it like you were able to do. I am glad I persevered. It was well worth the time and energy I put into it.

    I haven't seen the musical. I hadn't even known it was one until a friend mentioned it a couple of months ago. She said the musical was what made her decide to read the book. I can see how a more modern telling of the story might not be as effective as the original. That's too bad that the musical didn't turn out well. I don't know that I will be seeing the musical any time soon, but I am interested in maybe watching one or two of the movie versions that are out there.

    Beth - Yes, it's definitely one to take your time with.

    Serena - I believe it was done in three parts when published originally, but don't take my word on that. I am really looking forward to reading Drood someday. I've heard such great things about that book. And now that I've read The Woman In White, I'm even more curious about it.

    Kathy - Thank you! I hope you get a chance to give Wilkie Collins a try.

    Amy (Sleepy Reader) - Moonstone is similar in that regard, I take it? I can see that being a signature writing characteristic of Collins'.

    Avis - I can be so impatient sometimes! I look forward to your take on both Moonstone and Drood. Both are books I really want to read as well.

    Amy - I hope you get the chance to read it!

    Jenclair - I am looking forward to reading this one. It's always interesting to pick up on the little important things that I might have missed the first go around. That's interesting about the names. I hadn't known that!

  34. Diane - Haha! Payback for all those books I added to my wish list because of you!

    Lisa - I am glad I finally dived into it. The size is a little intimidating. I kept telling myself I have even longer books on my shelf and this one is tiny in comparison. It only worked after I got half way through. :-)

    Yvonne - Ah, thanks so much!

    Jen - I take comfort in knowing I'm not alone. :-)

    Samantha - And here you've had to wait so long too! I look forward to reading your thoughts on this one.

    Melody - It is definitely worth the time, Melody. I hope you enjoy it when you get to it.

    Gavin - Thank you so much! I appreciate you thinking of me. :-) I can see myself re-reading The Woman in White. I'm sure I could get even more out of it the second go around.

    Memory - I feel that it does, but I also know a couple of people who sailed through the book as if it was only 200 pages. When you do read it, I hope you will enjoy it as much as I did.

    Staci - Don't get the hardback copy like I did. The paperback is probably looks more manageable. :-)

    Framed - I am looking forward to reading Moonstone, especially since you say it's even better.

    Eliza - And I was waiting to finish the book for so long! Haha! Thank you so much. I am glad my appreciation of the book comes through. I really did enjoy it.

  35. Alice - I hope you do read it, Alice. I'd love to know what you think of it.

    Joy - It really isn't that long. Not compared to some chunksters, at least. :-) It does read slow though--at least I thought so.

    Terri - Thank you! And thanks for the link. :-) You understand exactly then what I was feeling when I read this one! I nearly gave it a five star review, but decided at the last minute to mark it down half a point. It's definitely going to be among my favorites this year.

    Bridget - It was worth it, wasn't it? I am glad you enjoyed it too!

    Nymeth - Thank you! It's definitely one to savor. I think you will like this one too!

    Amy (My Friend Amy) - LOL Isn't it though? I'm so impatient!

    Les - That sounds like the perfect time, Les. A part of me wishes I had waited for a moment when I had more time to devote to the book than I did.

    Clea - I hadn't thought of it that way before, but you are right. Pre-TV books do tend to take their time unfolding. I just need to remember that it is okay to slow down too and savor those moments when reading books like that.

    Nat - Oh, it definitely is! I am glad I stuck with it. I look forward to reading more by Wilkie Collins.

    Trish - One of the reviews written at right after the book was published indicated that the characters were not fully developed, a point I disagree with completely. I thought they were very well rounded. I do hope to go back and re-read this one someday. The payoff of having read it definitely is worth it.

    Sadako - I hadn't thought of Laura being like Lucy, but you are definitely right. The two friends/sisters are very similar.

  36. Just loved this book - but actually, I think the multiple narrators device was used to better effect in The Moonstone. I'll be interested to see what you think of that one, if you read it.

  37. Jenny - I do plan to read The Moonstone eventually. I picked up a copy just the other day while out and about. :-)

  38. Wendy, this was a fabulous review of one of my all-time favorite "stalker" books! Thanks for writing it and for sharing it. I too plan to read Moonstone one of these days...


  39. Wendy, I loved your review. I thought it was fascinating explore the 1860 way of telling a story, and compare it with how a modern story teller would have changed things. I don't think it would have been better, most likely the opposite, but for us modern readers it's a bit of a cultural shock and takes some getting used to.

    I was intrigued by the characters as you, and thought about them alot.

    I do want to read Moonstone one day, but right now I'm ready for "fluff" like you! LOL

    BTW, if you get my comments twice I'm sorry, I messed up on logging in to my google account.

  40. I was reading this around the same time you were and I also thoroughly enjoyed it! Marian was my favorite character as well, but so many of the characters are very memorable! I saw on another post that you bought Moonstone. I would like to read that one as well.

  41. Denise - Thank you, Denise! I am glad you convinced our group to read it. :-)

    Helena - Thanks for much! You are so right. It was an interesting look back at mid-19th century story telling.

    I have heard good things about Moonstone. I probably won't start on it right away. But hopefully sooner than later.

    Laura - Yes, there were quite a few memorable characters, weren't there? I still think about them often.


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