book review the woman in white by wilkie collins

Why “The Woman in White” by Wilkie Collins Is my New Favorite Victorian Novel

Charles Dickens, the Brontë sisters, Edith Wharton (who sorta-kinda counts)…these are a few of my favorite Victorian authors. But The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins now ranks as #1 on my list of the best Victorian novels.

A bit about the book (no spoilers)

the woman in white by wilkie collins

This is a mystery novel. In the beginning, Walter Hartwright tells us he will be the first of several narrators to recount the story. From there, we follow Hartwright, who acquires a job as a drawing teacher and introduces us to the two most important characters–an all-around lovely young lady named Laura Fairlie and her unattractive but sharp half-sister, Marian Halcombe. Miss Fairlie ends up in…let’s just say, an unhappy predicament. Miss Halcombe, with unfailing love for her sister, schemes against and out-wits her/their foes in order to save her.

As Mr. Hartwright journeys to Limmeridge House the first time, he has a strange encounter with an elusive, unnamed “woman in white.” Though the plot doesn’t directly revolve around her, the enigma of her character and backstory is a recurring theme that eventually becomes vital to the story.

Why it’s my new favorite Victorian novel

Flat-out well-written (in a literal sense)

The writing style, for a book published in 1859, is surprisingly easy to digest. I didn’t get hung up on never-ending sentences (*cough, cough* Jane Austen) or lots of unfamiliar words/phrases; the text flowed smoothly. More than that, the writing was actually comical. I laughed out loud countless times.

For instance, when Mr. Hartwright first meets Miss Halcombe, she stands on the opposite side of the room, gazing out a window. He admires the grace of her form as he approaches her; having been around the romance-in-literature block a few times, I was expecting her to turn around at last and beam with radiant beauty. Instead, he observes with slightly horrified surprise as she turns to him, “The lady is ugly!” The subversion of expectations makes the statement hilarious in context.

[This has more to do with characterization than writing, but I must also point this out–Mr. Fairlie (Laura’s uncle/caretaker) calls himself “nervous,” but that’s really an excuse for him to act tedious, demanding, and even silly. Every time he appeared in the story, I was cracking up at his ridiculousness. {The subtle but stinging wit contained in others’ descriptions of him, more relative to the literal writing in the book, was exquisite and often got chuckles out of me.} A couple quotes from him: “It is the grand misfortune of my life that nobody will let me alone.” & “I am a bundle of nerves dressed up to look like a man!”]

Narrative shifts: a unique literary device that really works in this case

I’ve read a few books that use off-the-wall literary devices. Sometimes they work, but I usually hate them because they are confusing and too avant-garde (anyone ever read The Sound and the Fury?). But the use of different narrators actually gave more facets to this story without throwing me for a loop.

Telling the story this way forced Collins to fully develop the characters so their outside behavior from others’ perspectives correlated with their inward motivations, revealed during their narration. Intimately glimpsing thoughts and feelings from a character during their narration makes it more intriguing to see only their actions when another character narrates. Also, as different characters shed light on the details they recall from various events and exchanges, aspects of the mystery are revealed. [During a character’s narration, they might nonchalantly mention details of an earlier incident that were previously-unknown to us.]

Great overall plot and characters

The story itself was fantastic. I had a hard time putting the book down, and there were plenty of twists and turns along the way to keep the plot fresh. The characters were dynamic and captivating. The heroine is an eyesore, and one of the the antagonists is a a morbidly obese man who equally loves tarts and his pet mice… Doesn’t that by itself just sound intriguing?!

By the end, I felt satisfied with how each loose end was tied up. I also felt sad to leave these characters. The good ones were easy to love, and even the bad ones were fun to disdain.

A downside (just to be fair)

This novel was considered “sensationalist” at publication. Though our standards for “shocking” have greatly lowered since then, it is still worth noting that this book is meant as pure entertainment. As such, I may find it less returnable. (Reminds me of a college professor who attempted a re-read of Hunger Games and discovered the book is 100% disappointing if you already know what’s coming).

Based on that, some would argue it doesn’t deserve the #1 spot as much as something like Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, which would likely still resonate with me on the umpteenth re-read. I suspect I’ll enjoy this novel on a re-read…but I don’t know for sure, so we’ll see if my feelings change in the future. 😉

A few fun facts

Wilkie Collins

The Woman in White is considered one of the first mystery novels, and some deem it a primer to a genre which came later–detective novels.

The use of multiple narrators draws from Collins’ legal training (similar to hearing from multiple witnesses in court).

As with many Victorian novels, the story first appeared in serial format. Funny enough, Charles Dickens’ magazine All the Year Round (UK) was one of the two that featured it. The other was Harper’s Weekly (US).

Wilkie Collins was 34-years-old when he wrote The Woman in White.


So, for now, The Woman in White will be my favorite Victorian novel. I wonder if or when another will supplant it? I did just read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Ann Brontë, and though it doesn’t beat this novel, it was sooo good. (Review impending)

Thanks for reading! Has my review of this book piqued your interest? Do you like to read mysteries? Let me know in the comments.

7 comments

  1. Interesting! I enjoy your enthusiasm for classic literature. I was reminded of a play I went to see at the theatre in London many years ago called Woman in Black… it was absolutely terrifying. Not strictly speaking relevant to the book you wrote about (which I haven’t read) — except for the similar title! It seems you’ve had a better education when it comes to the English classics than I have! Do you think you will ever write a novel?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, Steven! I think my fiancee has that movie, so I’ll look forward to watching that now. I did major in English–and I took several courses that pertained to British literature specifically. 🙂 Though I should never say never, I don’t foresee it at the moment. I myself like to write nonfiction, such as blog posts, newspaper articles, essays, etc. 🙂 Hope you are doing well; I said a prayer for you this morning for mental and spiritual peace.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ahh thank you very much for the prayer! That’s so kind of you 🙂

        That’s good that your fiancee has the movie, I’m not sure whether it would be your kind of thing but who knows 😊

        I’m similar to you in that I’m much more inspired to write non-fiction than fiction. I can’t see myself ever writing a novel, but you’re quite right to say never say never!

        Excited to read your new post now, take care my friend! 🙏🏻

        Like

  2. I LOVE that you make time to read!! This is definitely something I want to fit into my schedule..I feel like I need to create a schedule though actually 😂
    Thanks for doing an awesome job of reviewing, so professional with your words ❤️take care and stay safe!!!

    Liked by 1 person

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