Thanks to the 2015 TBR Pile Challenge, hosted by Roof Beam Reader, I was able to cross off a book that was on the first page of my list! A book on the first page of my list (it’s in one of those Moleskine agendas) has probably been on my list for several YEARS.
This time, the book that had been waiting for a read was Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White.
For someone who professes to love crime fiction as much as I do, it astounds me that I only just now read one of the early examples of the genre!
The plot is more or less thus: Walter Hartright, a drawing teacher, is about to take a position in Cumberland when he meets with a young woman dressed entirely in white one night. She is very agitated and asks for his help to make her way to London. He helps her and it’s only after he sees her safely into a cab that he finds out she has escaped from an asylum. He is completely unsettled by it and when he’s been in Cumberland for a day he makes a connection with the house he’s staying in and the woman in white. And that’s how Walter, his love Laura Fairlie and her half-sister Marian Halcombe come to be ensnared in the net that Sir Percival Glyde and Count Fosco have set.
This book was published in 1859 and in many ways it is very much a product of its time, especially when it comes to its portrayal of women. Women are constantly described as weak and hysterical, their memories can’t be counted on, they need to be protected from really horrible news because they can’t handle it and it’s best if they just stay home and endeavor to be calm. Count Fosco does have a soft spot for calm, collected, brilliant, lovely Marian Halcombe but stops short of full admiration because, after all, she is just a woman and not actually a worthy adversary.
I think that Count Fosco must have been the early inspiration for villains in pop culture. He’s described as an obscenely fat, old man, who moves as silently from room to room as any woman. He is always impeccably dressed and he has a menagerie of pets that he trains every morning and treats as his little children. And he’s completely diabolical. Obviously. While I was reading, I couldn’t help but think of him kind of like this:
It took me a while to get through this book, certainly longer than any of its modern equivalents. Collins really spins his tale and is constantly teasing the reader about what’s to come. This probably has a lot to do with the fact that, like Dickens, Collins wrote this novel as a serial publication. But I really enjoyed it. Compared to modern crime fiction, the crime that’s been committed in The Woman in White is really very tame. There was a moment of “that’s it?” for me, but I quickly admonished myself. The ideas of criminality, of what could shock audiences in 1859 and what we need to shock us now are very different. Which reminds me, I really do need to read The Invention of Murder…
So there. I read The Woman in White! And I have The Moonstone kicking around now too.