The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (1860)

Just as I thought I was finding my feet again in this changed, strange and uncertain world, that I was learning to live with the uncertainty, the restrictions and the changes, that I was finding my way back into the world of people who read and write and interact, something went horribly wrong.

I was sitting at the dining table, at work on my company laptop, when I began to realise that things weren’t quite right. Then an email arrived from IT saying that they were closing down everything because we might have a very serious problem. We did. It transpired that our IT company had been subjected to a cyber attack and that both our servers and our off-site back up had been compromised.

When the dust settled we recovered a great deal, but my accounts system had been destroyed.

The trauma of the whole thing on top of everything else that has happened this year, and the volume of work needed to both keep on top of things now and rebuild our history knocked me sideways.

I completely lost all sense of myself as a reader for a while, but now I am on the road forward I have begun to look for my inner reader again.

I began with a audiobook of a favourite novel by an author I have loved for all of my adult reading life

A few years ago I was terribly torn over the question of whether of not to re-read Wilkie Collins. Because I fell completely in love with his major works when I was still at school, and I was scared that I might tarnish the memories, that his books might not be quite as good as great as I remembered.

I was thrilled to be able to say that my fears were unfounded. The book that I picked up to read was even was better than I remembered. A brilliantly constructed and executed tale of mystery and suspense, written with real insight and understanding. (greater appreciation with experience)

Now I have made another journey though the story of ‘The Woman in White’ and it proved to be the exactly the right book at the right time.

The thought that follow aren’t entirely new, because I have taken what I wrote after my last reading and changed things a little to try to catch my feelings now and to get back into the habit of writing about books.

The story begins with Walter Hartwright, a young drawing master, unable to settle the night before he is to leave London to take up a new post in the north of England. The hour is late, but he decides to take a walk. The streets are quiet, the city asleep, and yet a woman appears before him. She is dressed entirely in white and she is distressed, afraid of someone or something. He offers her assistance, and helps her on her way to what she believes will be a place of safety.

Walter takes up his new post, tutoring two half-sisters at Limmeridge House in Cumbria. Laura Fairlie is beautiful, and she is an heiress. Marion Halcombe is neither of those things, but she is bright and resourceful. She needs to be. Walter recognises names and places spoken of by the woman in white. Her plight is linked to the family at Limmeridge House and the secret she holds will have dire consequences, for Laura, for Marion, and for Walter.

That is just the beginning, but it’s all I’m going to say about the plot. Wilkie Collins asked reviewers not to tell too much, and I think he was right to do so. If you’ve read the book you will understand why, and if you haven’t you really, should!

I was held from the first word to the last and, because there were so many twists, so many questions, and because the storytelling felt so real and natural.

The structure was intriguing. This is an account put together after the events, with testimonies from a number of narrators who were witnesses to different events. It worked beautifully, and with none of the fuss or distraction that sometimes seems inevitable with this device. All of the voices were engaging and distinctive. And their appearances varied in length, so I was always curious to know who would be coming next, when they would appear, and what forms their testimonies would take.

The characters really made the story sing. Each one is beautifully drawn, and there are enough of them  to keep the story moving but not so many that it becomes difficult to keep track.

There are two standouts. Marion Halcombe is the finest heroine you could wish for, accepting of her position, doing whatever she can to help the situation, and wise enough to know when it is time to step back and allow others to take the lead. And she is capable, but not invulnerable. And, on the other hand there is the most charming villain you could wish to meet. Count Fosco knows that, used together, charm and intelligence can take you a long way in life, that little foibles add to the charm, and can be a wonderful distraction.

And then, in the background, there is Frederick Fairlie, Laura’s uncle and master of Limmeridge House. An invalid, whose obsessive, selfish concern for his own well-being provides welcome light relief, but also has terrible consequences. And Mrs Vesey, Laura’s former nurse, who seems to be a dependent, but could maybe, maybe be a rock when she is needed.

There are others, each with something important to offer, bringing light and shade to the story. But I am saying too much.

One thing that I haven’t noticed before bit very much appreciated this time is the way that the character of Walter Hartwright grows and is shaped by his experiences.

Another thing that I have always loved is the  wonderful relationship between Laura and Marion, one of the best portrayals of sisterly love that I have read.

Their stories, and the story of the woman in white, say so much about social inequality, the treatment of those who could be labelled as mentally unstable, and the subservient role that wives were expected to play in 19th century Britain. All of which is done, to great effect, without ever compromising the storytelling.

I am tempted to read – or listen to – another Wilkie Collins book, but other books are calling to me.

That feels like a very good thing right now ….

12 thoughts on “The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (1860)

  1. I can never remember if I’ve read this one but I know my friend Claire is right now so I will point her here! I’m glad this still came good for you and I’m also glad to see you back; I was wondering where you were and sad not to see you around.

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  2. That’s awful, Jane – the last thing you need at a time like this. I’m glad you managed to find the right book to help you get back into reading again. Wilkie Collins has always been one of my favourite authors too and it’s been a while since I read any of his books, so maybe it’s time for a re-read.

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  3. Ouch! That is a tricky situation. The internet failed the other afternoon, and I was looking suspiciously at the men chopping trees in the garden. It was only a temporary blip, but I felt quite shaken! I’m glad that The Woman in White came to the rescue- I have read this twice and was still eager to be reminded of it. I have a friend who loves The Moonstone. Currently I am very fond of picking up books that attract me on any given day, which means some rather strange choices!

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  4. Gosh, that sounds awful Jane, so stressful and upsetting and as you say on top of everything else this year.
    I love Wilkie Collins, and The Woman in White is just brilliant. I re-read it a few years ago and I think I loved it even more the second time.

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  5. I feel your pain too… I recently lost almost everything I had on file…what should have been a minor technical blip turned into a disaster because my external hard drive had failed and so apart from some stuff I had on my laptop, everything is gone. I’ve spent a couple of hours everyday reconstructing files from paper records, but the most important one, the Excel file of what’s on my TBR involved taking 1000+ books off the shelf (that’s just the fiction) and entering their details, and then putting them back again.
    And everyday I discover something else that’s gone forever, it’s like a house fire when you have to tell the insurers what you had, and you keep remembering extra things, day after day, and a lot of them are irreplaceable.

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  6. Sounds like very stressful times. I’m glad The Woman in White helped in some way. I read this years ago and really link I’m overdue a re-read. I also need to re-read The Law and the Lady which I can remember loving.

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  7. That sounds terrible and with everything that is going on this year; this whole thing must have been so stressful! But I am glad you are finding your feet again. I love Woman in White exactly for the reasons you called out and I LOVE the character of Marion Halcombe. One of the best heroines ever!

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  8. First off, I’m so sorry to hear about the IT disaster. I’m working from home too, and having access to work systems through a VPN – that’s stressful enough, so if the whole system collapsed I think I would too…

    As for The Woman in White, I haven’t read it for decades but remember loving it. It’s always so risky when you re-read a previously loved book, and I’m glad this turned out so well for you!

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  9. I’m sorry to hear that you had to go through that awful situation. Hope things are better now.
    I recently read a collection of short stories entitled “ The Queen of Hearts” by Wilkie Collins. Not as gripping as his novels but still a very interesting mix of detective stories, ghost stories and character sketches tied together by a delightful frame story.

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  10. So sorry to hear your IT news, Jane, what a horror, and I hope you are now feeling a bit more settled, especially with the help of Collins. It has been lovely to be reminded of this novel – my husband bought me a now-treasured copy when we were first going out, but it is many years since I actually read it. You have inspired me to go back to those well-trodden, but most well-loved pages, thank you.

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