Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Woman in White ~ Wilkie Collins

When I was 11, I wrote my first novel.  It was about a boarding school for orphaned girls who were all named after my friends, with the first and last names mixed up to protect their privacy.  It included a Ouija board, which nightly predicted the disappearances of one orphan after another.  It ended with the satifyingly creepy conclusion that one of the school's guards had somehow been locked in a mental ward while her crazed and identical sister had taken her place and started taking the girls.  I don't remember what she did with them but I do know that they all lived.  My English teacher read it and now, 15 years later and having read The Woman in White, I am drawn to the inevitable conclusion that she must have thought me to be an extraordinarily well-read sixth grader.  That, or a totally unoriginal one*.

So, a drawing master goes to teach watercolors to some ladies (a rich boring one and her poor but awesome half-sister) and falls in love with the one you'd expect, but she's engaged because duh, she's rich.  So he goes away, but not before seeing some crazy lady dressed in white who he ran into on his way to this job while she was running away from the Asylum.  Said crazy lady knows Bad Things about the envied fiance and looks curiously like Lady Love.  Then a whole lot of Victorian drama happens, and also some curiously 20th century drama (seriously, someone burns to death), and somehow one lady ends up in the Asylum and one ends up dead and WHO IS WHO, I ask you.  Oh, and also there's a political group called "The Brotherhood," and if you betray them, you get drowned in France.  Fun times for all.

So this was a delightful little mystery that was extremely British.  A lot of the narrative force comes from rules about inheritance and people whose nerves are far too fragile for legitimate bargaining.  For a while, I thought that Collins was going to go super-modern on us and show how rich people aren't always the nicest, but he doesn't go quite that far.

(SPOILERS AHEAD) To be honest, I actually felt kind of bad for Sir Percival who, aside from being a giant douche with a terrible temper, really gets the short end of the stick for failing to be born into a legitimate marriage.  It was a little hard to identify with the "good guys" on that point, because that's just bullshit.  Being a bastard should not automatically mean that he must be poor and on the street (especially if you take this book out of its cultural context) so I get why he did what he did.  (SPOILERS OVER)

I really enjoyed Collins's technique of the multiple narrators, which he also utilized in The Moonstone to put all of the events together.  I like this technique in general, but in Collins's work it makes for a curiously self-conscious story.  It is intended to prove the "truth" of the events through several objective narratives curated by one of the narrators, but of course there's always the possibility that it only tells the truth as the compiler (the drawing master in this case) wants it to be known.  If, say, Sir Percival or Count Fosco had compiled this narrative, it would look very different.

Also, can we discuss how freaking HILARIOUS Frederick Fairlie's chapter is?  I legitimately laughed out loud through the entire thing.  I can only imagine that Collins's experience of writing it was akin to J.K. Rowling's experience of writing Luna's commentary on a Quidditch match - done purely for shits and giggles.  For example:
I am about to make a remark.  It is, of course, applicable to the very serious matter now under notice, or I should not allow it to appear in this place. 
Nothing, in my opinion, sets the odious selfishness of mankind in such a repulsively vivid light as the treatment, in all classes of society, which the Single people receive at the hands of the Married people.  When you have once shown yourself too considerate and self-denying to adda a family of your own to an already overcrowded population, you are vindictively marked out by your married friends, who have no similar consideration and no similar self-denial, as the recipient of half their conjugal troubles, and the born friend of all their children.  Husbands and wives talk of the cares of matrimony, and bachelors and spinsters bear them. (p. 346)
I'm going to stop myself here, but I could quote on and on.  Do yourself a favor and read this chapter, even if you have no interest in the book itself.

I don't have much else to say about this book except that it's fun, exceedingly British, and well worth your time.  If you dislike sickly sweet happy endings, avoid the last few pages and you'll be good to go.

*So you're obviously wondering whatever happened to my masterwork and where you can get a copy. After finishing my novel, I looked at the publication page of a book I liked and mailed a copy to the address I found there.  The publisher was Random House.  Several months later, I received what I realized even then was an extremely kind rejection letter, which included advice on finding an agent for my novel and imprints that might be more appropriate for it.  I then gave up all hopes of publishing it.  Or I had just lost interest after all that time, which is far more likely.


I read this for my Classics Club list - 9 down, 41 to go!  Woot!








10 comments:

  1. I love both this and The Moonstone, and reading your review bought back to me all the reasons why I love this book :)

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    1. I'm glad my kind of weird points resonated with someone! But yeah, I really liked it. I see rereads in the future, even though I very rarely reread anything anymore.

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  2. WILKIE!!! And even more than him MARIAN!!! who is one of my favorite literary characters. She is so smart and kicks so much ass. And Fairlie and Fosco, and man, this book rules.

    PS I love love love that you sent your story to Random House. That is adorable

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    1. Lol. I had no idea! I guess I just figured that if I liked that other book, mine must somehow be similar. Worth a shot!

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  3. I love this book, but not nearly as much as I love what you just told us about your first novel. Seriously important question: Did you retain the rejection letter that Random House sent you? Because that sounds like gold.

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    1. Oh man, I wish I had it. There's a good chance it's in a box somewhere, but I'm not even sure in which state. I'm sure that one day I'll come across it.

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  4. As someone who's read The Woman in White, I can unequivocally say that your book sounds far more interesting.

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  5. Nice review. This is one of the books I've been wanting to read, like in forever. I hope I enjoy it!

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  6. Wait, so you didn't do Alice's Wilkie read along from a couple of years ago?

    I loved the story you shared about the ouija board novel that you wrote. I think you should post it, chapter by chapter, on your blog like a Victorian serial novel. PLEASE?

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    1. I did not. I don't think I'd encountered her blog at that time so I didn't end up hearing about the readalong until it was halfway through, and I'd been meaning to read Woman in White ever since.

      If I could, I totally would. Maybe if I dig it up one day... :]

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