My first Wilkie Collins novel was The Moonstone, which I read in 2006 and in 2007 I read The Woman in White. I enjoyed both books immensely, but I have to say that the first time I read The Woman in White (and The Moonstone as well) I was primarily concerned with plot. I avoided spoilers so I was very much carried away by the sensational aspects of this novel. “Who is the woman in white?! Is Percival Glyde good or evil?! Count Fosco seems jolly and kind and…. OMG… oh no he didn’t?!”
I’ve reread The Moonstone several times and I’ve also read other works by Wilkie Collins such as Armadale, The Dead Secret, The Law and the Lady and several short stories. Now, of course, I’m rereading The Woman in White. My appreciation for Wilkie Collins’ ability to weave a smashing tale in a beautiful and rich manner has deepened each time I reread his work. People, this is what makes a classic a classic. I can read this book dozens of times and be entertained, moved, and enriched all at the same time. The Woman in White the second time around is DIVINE. While I don’t remember all the plot, I still know enough of the plot to savor all the subtle details and descriptions. The woman in white in the moonlight. Glyde’s nervous cough. Uncle Fairlie’s obnoxious self-absorbent hypochondria. Marian’s strength. Walter Hartright’s good nature. I notice humor, character depth, and foreshadowing I didn’t see beforehand. This is the epitome of a rich reading experience.
I realize I’m praising the book as a whole, and not necessarily discussing the first Epoch. I will rein myself in and try my very best to just talk about this first third or so of the novel. Obviously, there are spoilers galore in the rest of this post.
In Epoch one the reader is treated to three different narratives —
- Walter the drawing master begins the tale with his mysterious encounter with the woman in white, his time at Limmeridge House, falling in love with Laura, and his departure from Limmeridge.
- Solicitor Vincent Gilmore comprises the middle of the Epoch and explains to the reader the details of Laura’s marriage contract.
- Marian, Laura’s half-sister and closest companion, concludes the section with her energetic diary entries detailing her suspicion, rage, and helplessness in preventing Laura’s marriage to Sir Percival Glyde.
This epoch may seem to drag a bit. There is a great deal of Walter waxing poetic over Laura’s beauty, Laura keeps brushing away timid tears, we are beaten over the head with descriptions of Marian’s “manliness”, various characters and locations are being set up and the woman in white is seen and confronted, but really kept in the background for most of this section. Brace yourselves, because epoch 2 gets crazy. CRAZY. You have no idea how literal that statement is and if Wilkie Collins had not taken the time to set up the characters and dangle a mysterious woman in white carrot and hint at an elusive Count Fosco in section one, then you’d all be lost in epoch 2.
As this is a reread, I don’t find myself as frenzied in trying to get to the next section to see what will happen. I find myself musing more about class (is Marian not a viable love interest because she hasn’t as much rank or because she is ugly?), feminism (Marian is manly = smart and Laura is pretty and delicate = naive), and I play silly mind games like imaging what Marian and Laura would be like if The Woman in White had been written by George Eliot
I really think that Collins knew how he needed to portray Marian and Laura to best convey the story without “shocking” the masses (things get kinda shocking for the time in the course of the novel). Laura is to be saved. She is of good rank, beautiful, sweet, and BLAMELESS. If there is one thing a reader of Victorian literature knows, it is that heroines must be pure if they want to survive the course of the novel (see Lady Dedlock of Bleak House, Cathy of Wuthering Heights, Maggie Tulliver of The Mill on the Floss and pretty much any Thomas Hardy heroine). Let me tell you, if Jane Eyre had married Mr Rochester in full knowledge of who was living upstairs and just said, “YOLO” she would have croaked before the end of the novel. Laura has Walter to save her, but Walter cannot — in all propriety — constantly be around her so we have Marian. Marian is good, but not always lady like. She may have to speak out, talk back, sneak around, and otherwise act in ways that may impinge on her character. She isn’t bad, she just isn’t 100% proper. Hence the lower rank, ugliness, and “manly” appearance. Wilkie Collins basically tells the reader that Marian is the best of men with a strength of character, warmth, intelligence, and a true hero’s disposition. She can be close to Laura and write juicy diary entries because she is female, but her lack of delicateness gives her permission to act in a manly way and pretty much save everyone. Mr Collins, you are brilliant and I take back my being annoyed. You’re not being a sexist, you’re working around that pesky Victorian double-standard (slow clap).
I cannot wait to revisit the insanity and secrets of the second epoch. Wilkie, take me away.