Having read some slightly silly thrillers recently in the form of I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes, I thought it was time to read one of the very first “sensation” books of the mystery genre. Originally published in serial form between 1859 and 1860, ‘The Woman in White’ is Wilkie Collins’ most famous novel and also happens to be a book which has been on my reading list for a very long time. It opens with Walter Hartwright encountering a mysterious woman dressed all in white near Hampstead Heath. He is later hired to tutor Laura Fairlie and her half-sister Marian Halcombe in watercolour painting at Limmeridge House in Cumberland. Walter falls in love with Laura but she is engaged to Sir Percival Glyde. Although Walter learns that the woman in white is Anne Catherick, a local woman who has escaped from an asylum, he notices that Laura bears a striking resemblance to her. After their marriage, Sir Percival and Laura return to live in Blackwater accompanied by Glyde’s friend Count Fosco, one of the most formidable villains in literature who concocts a cunning plan to help Sir Percival get his hands on Laura’s money.
It’s easy to see how ‘The Woman in White’ has influenced the work of Sarah Waters, Barbara Vine and many other novelists who have written engaging psychological mysteries. The heavily descriptive narrative can occasionally be repetitive for modern readers – most likely due to the story being serialised with lots of mini cliffhangers at the end of each chapter – but the overall plotting is intricate without being convoluted. The story switches between different narrators several times with many of the main characters outlining their version of events based only on what they have actually witnessed. The epistolary device was considered to be highly innovative at the time and is used very effectively here with Marian and Walter taking on the role of amateur detectives to gradually uncover what really happened to Laura.
‘The Woman in White’ successfully blends mystery, romance, suspense and gothic elements whilst balancing a gripping and twisty plot with strong characters and it’s unsurprising that it has remained so popular with modern audiences. Although I haven’t read any of Collins’ other novels, ‘The Woman in White’ is widely regarded as his best and I think it is also a very accessible introduction to Victorian classics for general readers. I picked up a copy of Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Wilkie Collins’ life earlier this year at the Hay Cinema Bookshop in Hay-on-Wye although I would definitely like to read more of his other novels first before I get round to this, particularly ‘The Moonstone’ which has also been highly acclaimed.