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The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins- A review

Updated on September 5, 2011

The Woman in White

This fairly thick book provide a story, delivered in a narrative format at a quick pace

Nearly all the characters take part in the narrative, good or bad, willing or unwilling.

The plot is set in 1849/50 and it centres on the love between a beautiful heiress and her drawing master, marriage to another and the dark hours that follow that marriage.

The secret

The Bridegroom, Sir Percival Glyde has an awful “secret” which is only known by a mad woman , who has escaped from an asylum, and her mother. As I was reading the book I was thinking, “What could the secret be”. I didn’t guess it, I was reading the book with a 21st century mindset whilst it was set in the 19th century. The plot turns very neatly. Initially it completely fooled me into thinking that one of the main characters had died, but this was not the case. What I found most satisfying was a full explanation towards the end, of what actually happened. The date of a train trip becomes one of the focal points of the story and its ability to be proven becomes a quest for the main characters. In some respects it is like reading a more modern book, there are references to train travel and the use of private detectives. In describing Sir Percival’s house it is said “It is an inexpressible relief to find that the nineteenth century has invaded this strange home of mine”; how often has a similar phrase been used but with the insertion of the twenty first century? Some parts of the plot, such as the final assassination are crystal clear, yet others, such as Sir Percival Glyde’s “secret” lay hidden for some pages. Running along with the main plot are other muted story lines. The main male character is clearly in love with both female characters and eventually lives with both of them as Collins was later to do in real life. The count who is one of the main villains of the piece is also in love with two women, his wife and our heroines sister. He strives to protect her from the evil of Sir Percival and interferes when she is ill to ensure that she is looked after by an adequate nurse and a different doctor when the initial one misdiagnoses her illness. At the same time he has no qualms that he could kill our heroine if needs be.

I have kept this review vague as to what happens and the names of the characters. This is done intentionally, this book is a thrilling read, a unique first time experience, a second read or reading when you are aware of the plot will take away much of the suspense from the book and it will not have the same enjoyment.

The impact of the novel

I had not heard of Wilkie Collins, despite this book having been in print continually for the last 150 years! Apparently, “The woman in white” was a best seller when first published. It stimulated a woman in white craze with women wearing white cloaks and bonnets and even dances to newly composed white waltzes and white quadrilles. It was originally published as a 40 part serial in a weekly newspaper called “All year round”. The delay in reading the next episode meant that it gave readers the opportunity to discuss what had happened and to speculate on what would occur in the next instalment. The work was published in the UK and in America in the Harpers weekly. The Novel was first published just after the last instalment in August 1860. The Woman in White was translated into other languages with Russian in 1860, French and Dutch in 1861 and German in 1862. It really was an international best seller!

Who was Wilkie Collins?

The novel was immensely popular with the public but not necessarily with critics and other authors. Wilkie Collins had raised the game; he had brought into the novel suspense and drama, expecting the reader to think about the plot and perhaps have thoughts of the how the plot might develop.

The author himself had a somewhat bohemian lifestyle. At the time of publishing in 1859 he moved in with his girlfriend Caroline Graves and a little later set up a ménage a trois with the addition of a young girl Martha Rudd by whom he had children. The threesome lived together, on and off until their deaths, Martha being the last to die.


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