There are novels you should avoid if you need to accomplish anything major in the near future, or you've been assigned the task of watching small children in a swimming pool. Wilkie Collins' sublime thriller, published in 1860, is one of them. But if you enjoy losing yourself in suspense to a point of absolute compulsion that has you shunning friends and failing to reapply sunscreen — then you're in for a treat.
I discovered The Woman in White a few years ago, when I was working on a gothic novel. I was first drawn in by its doppelgangers, creepy old house and escaped lunatic. But Collins went on to write The Moonstone, the first bona fide detective story, and while The Woman in White was published eight years earlier, its real interest lies in crime-solving. It consists of "testimony" from a series of witnesses who unite to unravel a knot of mystifying events. Most crime novels lose their appeal the instant the mystery is solved, but I sat down earlier this summer and lost another two days of my life luxuriating in Collins' excellently playful prose.
The first witness is Walter Hartright, a young drawing instructor hired to teach two sisters. He falls in love with the younger one, an heiress named Laura Fairlie, who's already engaged to be married. A strange witness surfaces — a woman who wears only white, and who physically is like a twin of Laura Fairlie — warning that Laura's fiance is in fact a ruthless criminal. And so the fun begins.
The plot of The Woman in White pivots on fraud and identity theft — modern problems that turn out not to be so modern after all, especially compared with the mid-19th century, before photography was widespread, when people had to rely on documents to prove who they were. But Collins' ingenious story isn't what finally makes this novel irresistible — it's his characters. The Woman in White contains one of the great literary villains: Count Fosco, a fat, ruthless, sinuously charming Italian who keeps birds and white mice as pets and pampers them as if they were his children. Even minor characters are sharply amusing: "Some of us rush through life; and some of us saunter through life. Mrs. Vesey sat through life ... a harmless old lady, who never by any chance suggested the idea that she had been actually alive since the hour of her birth."
The real heroine of The Woman in White isn't the innocent Laura Fairlie (who frankly is a bit dull) but her older half-sister, a poor and physically unattractive spinster called Marion Halcombe, whose daring and intelligence are the novel's real engines. Marion is the ultimate crime fighter, and the fact that she steals the show without being beautiful or rich is a tribute to Collins' forward thinking. The evil Count Fosco is so beguiled by Marion's cleverness that he falls half in love with her, and writes: "I lament afresh the cruel necessity which sets our interests at variance, and opposes us to each other. Under happier circumstances how worthy I should have been of Miss Halcombe — how worthy Miss Halcombe would have been of ME."
They're all worthy of a brainy, heedless summer read in Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White.
You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.