When I first chose to read The Woman in White, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I thought, perhaps, that it would be a supernatural thriller of some sort — one of the descriptions I read lead me to believe so. It isn’t, and how happy I am to have been wrong. The Woman in White is a superb and clever mystery story, and has no need of the occult.
Wilkie Collins’ telling of the story of Walter Hartright and Laura Fairlie has a pacing that is very pleasant. Collins takes his time to describe locations and characters in a way that seems lost to modern writers. I, for one, enjoy the longer exposition that he provides, not only for the surroundings, but also for the thoughts of the narrators. Their minds are open for exploration while also maintaining small secrets for later.
Notice I did say narrators. Collins has not only Walter Hartright tell us this story from his point-of-view, but we also follow, among others, the Fairlie family lawyer, Laura’s cousin Marian, and the clever and devious Count Fosco. He also uses multiple sources — for example, Marian’s account of part of the story is told through her journal entries, while Count Fosco’s is told through a writing of his about past deeds. I thought this a wise choice, since the story involves all these people. Hartwright’s experience of the events that unfold after he meets with the Fairlie family could never have provided the information and insight needed to properly built a true mystery.
The actual mystery of The Woman in White is well-done. It’s not my first choice of genres, but I think, for the time it was published, that it was rather smart. We’re given an obsessed, mentally-unstable woman, Anne Catherick, who floats in and out of the story, stirring up suspicions. We have a smart and brave hero in Hartright, who collects the accounts of others and puts everything together in order to rescue the woman he loves. There’s Laura Fairlie, who is a sweet and delicate woman not entirely up to the challenges placed in front of her, and her cousin, Marian, who is a strong and fiercely intelligent woman whose strong love for Laura and Walter allows her to perform amazingly on their behalf. Lord Glyde, Laura’s husband, is a brute, but it is his companion, Count Fosco, who is the deadly mastermind behind the entire story.
The story is compelling. Collins makes inheritance money the ultimate center of the story, and, while death is in this book, there is only one slaying, and it was not performed for the gain of money or in retribution for anything done against the Fairlie women or Hartwright. I thought this a refreshing approach to handling a story that easily could have gone down the murderous route.
It may be that I’m a tyro when it comes to mysteries, but I think Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White has a timeless appeal that will make it a quiet favorite for generations to come.