Part The Last: Critique of The Woman in White

How many times can I say it? Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White took a lot longer than I wanted. I get busy, I get ignorant. My page quota drops every day as prescribed by summer plans and drooping eyelids. It’s boring to talk about, but it’s there for me to deal with.

Recalling details becomes a lot harder too, and draws out the reviewing process too. I do thankfully have fond memories of my first encounter with Wilkie Collins. It was of the metaphysical variety (don’t let me say ‘meta,’ hippies), reading Dan Simmons’s fictional Drood, a supernatural mystery narrated by Collins that plays up his feelings of inferiority in relation to his good friend Charles Dickens. From what I understand the two real-life figures held each other in mutual esteem – if I can be so bold as to draw some shallow conclusions – Collins (and everyone) admiring of Dickens’s wit and prose, Dickens (and pulp fans) admiring of Collins’s twisty, crafty plots. Paired together you would imagine them bringing the best of both skill sets to create something truly magnificent, a creation unfortunately nonexistent. for they surely shared comparable egos. Alas, artists.

Collins addresses the structure of the novel right away, and accounts for its diligence by comparing it to a court record, driven entirely by plot, and following whomever it must to give the best account of the truth, each character elevated in equal proportion to their proximity to the central mystery. This being the case, about a half a dozen witnesses, some only given several paragraphs to share their portion of the story, are surveyed, and every one of them makes a point to say that they are writing out their account for the record. Interesting for it to be set up this way, implying the argument of one party against another for final judgment. Is the reader meant to believe everything Walter Hartright and Marian Halcombe tell us? Are the depredations committed upon them as extensive and malicious as they’re told? Collins may not be going for ambiguity, but it makes it more interesting to second guess the narrators.

There’s a paranoid energy to the exposition heavy narration, as if each character is afraid of being interrupted or mistaken. Hartright in particular will not allow the reader to make any implied connections without first suffering his overtures. When he marks a person’s body language, Hartright immediately tells the reader exactly why he believes the person reacted that way, rather than letting the action speak for itself. By giving Hartright the mic, Collins has threatened his novel by giving voice to a debater, not a storyteller. Hartright is a pedant; it shows in his initial stuffiness – and in the latter part of the book, when he becomes the avenging angel, he still goes about his business with the mildness and braininess of a drowsy old bookworm. Unless this is all a product of Collins’s period, showing and telling 150% more than people expect today, Hartright is an insufferable creature, so unbending, so likely to yell “Told ya so!” that it’s difficult to root for him at all, even when he’s working on behalf of the commodified half-sisters Laura Fairlie and Marian.

A subtheme that I can’t imagine was lost on Collins is the oppression of females that pervades his work. Anne Catherick’s committal to the asylum is mirrored by Lady Glyde’s subjugation in marriage to Sir Percival Glyde. Though Collins never bears any ill toward the idea of marriage or asylums, both institutions are used against women by men who have gamed the system, stripping them of their identities and quite literally hiding them away from prying eyes and helping hands. The malfeasance spreads into broader society as well. The reader is introduced to Anne Catherick’s mother, who bore her daughter out wedlock and has thus spent her entire adult life ingratiating herself into her tiny neighborhood community. The wider world is too much for her. Starting anew would be impossible, as she makes it very plain that progress is made one person at a time. Her minister is already bowing to her from the road. Next on her list, his wife. Collins may be highlighting social maladies rampantly, but it’s all in service to the plot, just like he stated at the beginning, and thankfully for the reader he is operating in a time and place where ingrained social injustices and chivalry clash with harmful, hackneyed ideas on mental health.

The titular woman in white is cloaked quite literally in blatant symbolism, being the light of truth personified. At the same time she is imminently fallen, if not already dead then close to it, perhaps even past it, as evidenced by her at turns funereal and ethereal bearing. Sadly Anne Catherick is as much a MacGuffin as the Maltese Falcon or the Temple of Doom. Whatever outcome we hope for or dread to see in this novel, she will take no direct part in it. But her fate instills the reader’s fear for Laura, married to Sir Percival Glyde, showing just how far these diabolical men will go to dehumanize her. Collins’s transformation of the naïve woman into a voiceless plot device further infuriates the reader over villains who operate so smoothly that it can hardly be ascertained as to just how bad they are.

The epistolary structure grows stale after some time. As I said, Hartright comes off like a miser counting his receipts from a business trip abroad, not missing a nickel, determined to earn back every piece of his investment. It borders on tattling. Though his arch nemesis’s plot is dastardly enough, Hartright witnesses it from such a distance and in such a fume of self-righteousness that without the specter of Anne Catherick haunting the reader’s memories, their treachery would seem quite petty and tame. Collins is incredibly articulate, but rarely gifted in poetry. Much like what I found with Sir Walter Scott, he can frame a picture well, but his brush strokes are cloddy and technical, which contributes much too much to the drooping eyelids I mentioned above.

Thankfully the antagonists make for an interesting lineup, who form a corporate structure that has been copied many times from what I can tell. Mr. Frederick Fairlie is an effete, self-centered coward, more a sinner by omission for the way he prioritizes his hobbies over his daughter’s well-being, as long as he isn’t bothered. Sir Percival Glyde is the short fused, short sighted charlatan. The most Bondian is Count Fosco, who obviously is bad just for being a count. He’s frequently described as larger than life, totally amoral, an opportunistic pig driven by absolute greed. He’s made weak by his delicate pets, he’s canny enough to manipulate the fiery Glyde, and when confronted just can’t wait to monologue at length about his master plan. The three make a triumvirate of evildoing: the lax guard, the inside man, and the mastermind. Enjoyment is most found in Fairlie’s dramatic moaning and Fosco’s contradictory cherishment of his little birds and mice.

That should do it again. Well, maybe another movie review collection will follow. I did get to read Joseph Conrad’s Typhoon while on vacation, a reunion that had been far too long in the offing. Maybe I’ll take that up too. Whatever comes next, I do need to readjust my reading and writing schedules so I can get more done faster, because that’s what Daisy Steiner would do, right?



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