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 ….

Man and Wife by Wilkie Collins (1870)

It is said that Wilkie Collins was at the height of his powers in the 1860s, when he wrote the books generally acknowledged to be his four great novels:

The Woman in White (1860)
No Name (1862)
Armadale (1866)
The Moonstone (1868)

I wouldn’t argue with that. They were the first four of his books that I found and read; and they are the books that I knew that I loved dearly, even when, years after my first readings, many of the details were lost to me.

I’ve re-read two of them, and I was wondering which of the other two to re-visit next, when a copy of another book appeared on the library shelf. ‘Man and Wife’ was the next book after the ‘big four’, it looked intriguing, I really wasn’t sure if I had read it before or not, and so I picked it up; curious both to read it for its own sake, and to see what had changed to make that book not so well regarded as the books that came before.

I found the answer to that question quite quickly, and I have to say that this is a book with many failings; but it is also an intriguing tale, I loved what the author wanted to say, I had to keep turning the pages, and I flew through this big book so quickly.

It begins with a lengthy prologue, set a dozen years or so before the events at the centre of the story.

John Vanborough had parliamentary ambitions, but he knew that the woman he had married stood in the way of his hopes. His clever young lawyer, named Delamayn, knew that the marriage had taken place in Ireland and was able to find a loophole in that country’s marriage laws that allowed John Vanborough to annul his marriage and take another, more suitable, bride.

His abandoned wife, Anne Silvester, and the daughter who shared her name were taken in by her oldest friend, Blanche. Fortunately Blanche had married well and married happily. She and her husband, Sir Thomas Lundie, also had a daughter who had been given the same name as her mother.

As the years passed that 6067069clever young lawyer had risen in society and become Lord Holchester, but he had never forgotten the Vanborough case. He knew that he had done his duty to his client, but he knew that there had been unhappy consequences for the cast-off wife and her child, and he vowed to help them of ever he could.

Anne and Blanche senior had both died, and Sir Patrick had remarried. He too had died, not long after that. His title and estate passed to his  brother, Sir Patrick Lundie, a retired lawyer in his seventies, while his widow, the second  Lady Lundie, took charge of Blanche and Anne.

The story proper begins in 1868 at Windygates, the Perthshire home of Lady Lundie. Blanche was eighteen and Anne, acting as her governess, was a little older.  Among the house party were Sir Patrick; Arnold Brinkworth, who wasengaged to Blanche; and Geoffrey Delamayn, the younger son of Lord Holchester and the school friend who once saved Arnold’s life.

Geoffrey was secretly engaged to Anne; and he regretted the entanglement, while she was eager to move things forward. He agreed to meet her at a remote inn, where they could be married privately. She left the house first, and before he could follow a message arrived from London, saying that Lord Holchester was gravely ill. Geoffrey seized the chance of escape, and persuaded his friend Arnold to go to the inn in his place, and make arrangements foe Anne to stay there until he could return.

Arnold had to present himself as Anne’s husband, to avoid a scandal, and he did everything that he was asked and behaved immaculately.

But Geoffrey didn’t come back. Anne knew that she was ruined, that there was no going back, and that she had to determine her own future.

What nobody knew was that under Scottish Law two people were legally bound by simply presenting themselves as married.

They would all find out.

Anne did everything she could to find out what her situation was, and to protect her friend.

Arnold only learned the implications of his visit to the inn after he had married Blanche.

And Geoffrey did everything he could to manipulate the situation to his own advantage.

There is much to admire in this book.

The elaborate plot twists and turns wonderfully. Sometimes I thought I knew what must happen, but at other times I was taken by surprise.

There was a wonderfully diverse cast of characters: I wanted the best for the heroes and heroines to hoe and pray for; I despised the villain; I was intrigued by woman who clearly had a terrible secret; I appreciated so many different things that the supporting players brought to the story.

The set pieces were wonderful. Sir Patrick brought all of the concerned parties together to determine what must be done; that was wonderfully dramatic and suspenseful.

The very best things were the points that were made about the absurdities of  marriage laws and the inequity of men and women in marriage. They were powerfully made and they were utterly right.

That is both this books greatest strength and its greatest weakness.

The author seems over-bearing when he addresses the reader directly; and his wish to make his point sometimes bends his characters and their stories out of shape.

The sub-plot of Geoffrey’s career as an athlete felt odd and unnecessary.

There are some ridiculous contrivances and coincidences. The terrible secret was revealed in time. It was a wonderful story, but it didn’t sit well in the book and I couldn’t believe in the scenario that allowed it to be told. The whole final act of this book didn’t work.

But, for all of that, the story, the wonderful human drama, held me from start to finish.