Friday, July 23, 2010

Wilkie Collins’s Victorian thriller still makes engaging reading.

I was at Heathrow Airport and Penguin Classics were two for one at W.H. Smith. I got my partner Oliver Twist, which he had been trying to read on his i-phone, and I got Wilkie Collins classic. I needed something to amuse me all the way back to California, and I certainly made the right choice.

The Woman in White

Wilkie Collins classic of Victorian “sensation” fiction first appeared in 1860; but The Woman in White (672 pages, Penguin, $9) is such a classic that I do not think it has been out of print since it first appeared in weekly installments in Charles Dickens’s periodical All the Year Round. It is an absolutely riveting tale, and Collins uses an inventive narrative technique to bring his readers closer to the story. Different narrators are used, across the spectrum, from such types as a family lawyer and the eccentric lord of the manor, to illiterate maidservants and others who know very little. But each narrator tells a crucial bit of the story; and in the end the composite is thrilling.

The story tells of a vicious plot to deprive a young heiress of her rightful inheritance. We first hear about the girl, Laura Fairlie, from the perspective of the handsome young art instructor Walter Hartright. Walter has gone to the home of Laura and her half-sister Marian Halcombe as their art instructor. Though invited by their eccentric uncle, who is also their guardian, Walter finds him an impossible hypochondriac who is quite happy to leave him alone with the girls.

Walter finds himself deeply engaged on two levels. Laura is a beautiful willowy blond, and he finds that her drawing talents are considerable. They find themselves spending more and more time together, and before long it seems that they have fallen in love. Marian, Laura’s sister, does not share her beauty, but she is deeply intelligent and even masculine in her direct approach to things. When she sees that her two companions have fallen in love, she takes steps to separate them. She does this to protect them both. Laura, it seems, was engaged to a local aristocrat before her father’s death. Even more to the point, however, is Marian’s observation that Walter is not of a station to be able to make a claim on Laura, who is herself the heiress of Limmeridge House and her father’s great wealth.

Walter takes Marian seriously and leaves Limmeridge. To salve his wounds he decides to travel in Central America. While he pursues his travels and risks his life because of disappointed hopes, Marian’s journal provides the narration of what happens after Walter's departure. Sir Percival Glyde makes his appearance and claims Laura as his own. A dashing middle-aged baronet, he is as suave as they come; but Marian suspects that he might have a mean streak. Laura and Marian are confused about how to approach him, and Laura feels that it would be wrong to marry him while she loves Walter. Still, she cannot bring herself to break the engagement, but she imagines that he will do so when she tells him the truth. Of course, since we already suspect that he is marrying her for her fortune, his insistence that they marry anyway comes as no surprise.

After the marriage, when the couple moves to Sir Percival’s house at Blackwater, Marian goes to live with them. No sooner does she arrive than the other house guests make their appearance: the Italian Count Fasco and his wife, who happens to be Laura’s aunt. The Count is a vivid character, and also a forbidding one, and before long it is clear that Sir Percival and the Count are conniving together to deprive Laura of her inheritance.

Into this maelstrom of bad feeling, Collins introduces the quasi-supernatural in the form of a woman in white, who seems to have escaped from an insane asylum, but who comments tellingly on the central movements of the plot. She is desperate to keep Laura from marrying Sir Percival, and after they are married she tries to give Laura the means of escaping him.

As the plot develops, and Laura seems to be easily victimized, Walter returns from his travels, and he and Marian plot to challenge the two villains and gain for Laura what was rightfully hers. The later sections of the novel are harrowing in their depiction of espionage and deception on the dark streets of London. Characters who are hidden are always found, and the darkest secrets are always revealed. I won’t tell the ending, but I will say that it is not disappointing. Instead, this thriller stays thrilling until its final page.

Wilkie Collins

Pick up a copy at Vroman's, Powell's or Amazon.

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