The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

The Woman in White Wilkie CollinsHaving 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.

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40 Comments

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40 responses to “The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

  1. So glad to see a post about this fantastic book! It is one of my all-time favorites 🙂

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  2. Another on the shelf that I must get to, you make it sound intriguing!

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  3. One of my all time favorites! It’s been years since I read it – your post makes me want to go back and read it again!

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  4. RedHeadedBookLover

    This is one of my all time favourite novels!

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  5. Nice review. I’ve been curious about this one. I just finished The Haunting of Hill House and been thinking about this one.

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  6. I absolutely love The Woman in White. I so enjoyed my re-read of it a couple of years ago.

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  7. On my Classics list and can’t wait to read it. Thanks for your review, has made me even more enthusiastic about putting it at the top of the pile.

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  8. I haven’t thought about this book for years (ahem…several decades, actually). My parents belonged to one of those book-of-the-month programs, with each book a nice hardback. I read most of them as a teenager, including The Woman in White. Thanks for bringing back pleasant memories!

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  9. Really liked this and The Moonstone. Nice to see it reviewed.

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  10. The Moonstone is excellent too and a clear harbringer of the work of Arthur Conan Doyle. With its action in India and mysterious events in English country houses, it is the definitive (and I think earliest) detective novel. Looking forward to seeing your review of that one!

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  11. Such a gem of a book! I’ve even managed to convince my dad to read it and he’s a staunch non-fiction reader. He’s loving it so far!

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  12. This book is a lot of fun. My favorite is The Moonstone, however.

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  13. I also loved this novel and I suspect it began an abiding addiction to detective and police procedural novels which I read in and out of other books. Edgar Allan Poe might deservedly hold the title for the first detective fiction for Murder in the Rue Morgue written in 1841, but only as a short story. But Wilkie Collins really nailed it as a genre and is definitely worth reading more than once and to whom many writers have subsequently been significantly indebted.

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  14. Your review made me want to read the book. Have added it to my l-o–o-n-g list!

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  15. Tredynas Days

    I also enjoyed this, and the Moonstone is a pioneer detective story with interesting narrative structure: WC was an innovative engineer of plot, and his influence on Dickens (and vice versa) is apparent. ‘No Name’ is also good, juicy Gothic stuff.

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  16. Well rounded review – thanks for the detailed post. I think you did this classic justice!

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  17. I really enjoyed this as a teenager, loved the character of Marian.

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  18. Great man Wilkie Collins – The Moonstone is my favourite.

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  19. I also read it recently and really enjoyed it. quite spooky! Need to go to the Moonstone as well

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  20. Wilkie Collins requested to have “Author of the Woman in White” on his gravestone. He got what he wanted. Love this book.

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  21. Pingback: My Books of the Year 2015 | A Little Blog of Books

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