I had never heard of Wilkie Collins until a few years ago. When I first started listening to audiobooks, I’d scroll through the listing of classics, and his The Woman In White would come up often. I thought, “How can this be a classic if I have never heard of it?” 😳 I read the description, but it didn’t sound all that interesting. Then last year his book No Name was chosen as one of the books for Carrie’s Reading to Know Book Club. I looked at the description for it and wasn’t interested in it enough to commit the needed time to it, so I skipped that one as well. But then everyone who read it thought it was really good. So when I decided to participate in the Back to the Classics Challenge, one of the categories was “an author you’ve never read before,” and I thought this would be an opportune time to try out Mr. Collins and chose The Woman in White.
I am so glad I did. It was a totally enthralling story. I can understand now why there is not much description of his books on sites that sell them: you can’t tell much about the story without revealing surprises and clues it would be better for the reader to discover in context.
The story is laid out in a series of testimonies. Within them, at least that of the major characters, the narrative is in more of a story form, although one takes the form of a journal.
The story begins with Walter Hartwright, a drawing teacher who finds himself “out of health, out of spirits, and out of money.” A friend fortuitously comes across an opportunity for Walter to teach two young women from a prestigious family in the country, and though Walter has misgivings, he has no good reason to refuse and every reason to accept, so he does. On the eve of his departure, as he walks home from his mother’s house late one night, he is startled by a young woman totally dressed in white who asks him the way to London. There are several things strange about her manner and the whole situation, and most surprising of all is that as they discuss where Walter is headed, this woman knows the very family he is going to. Walter is at first unsure of what to do, but he not only points her in the right direction; he also escorts her to a cab and sees her off. Within minutes a carriage comes by containing two men who are looking for a woman in white.
Where they are from and why they are looking for her is a major factor in the story, so I won’t share it here and ruin the surprise, but as this woman is the title character, obviously her presence and influence will come up again.
The beginning of the book says it is a story of “what a Woman’s patience can endure, and what a Man’s resolution can achieve.” It’s noted as one of the first detective stories written as Walter, though not a professional detective, uses many such techniques to get at the truth of the conspiracy, deceit, and betrayal that arise later in the story.
Collins was a good friend of Charles Dickens, and this book was first printed in installments in one of Dickens’ magazines, but his style is quite different from Dickens’.
Though the story is perhaps a little more drawn out than a modern novel would be, I never felt the story got bogged down. I listened to it via audiobook with several narrators taking the different testimonies of the story, and by the last few chapters I was carrying my phone around with me everywhere to listen and find out how it was all going to end. I had an idea of a couple of things that were going to happen (the foreshadowing of a terrible event pointed to either one of a couple of people because those people hadn’t given any testimony yet), but I didn’t guess exactly how things would work out. I did get a library copy of the book as well to go back and look through some passages a little more closely, but there is a free (at this time) Kindle version of it. And, of course, if you’d like to know more of the plot, including a lot spoilers, there is always Wikipedia.
I’m definitely planning on exploring more of Collins’ books in the future.
Have you read The Woman in White? What did you think?
(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)
This also completes one of my requirements for the Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Karen at Books and Chocolate.