Friday, November 15, 2013

Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White (1860)

Fact is, I have not read very many Victorian novels, and most of the ones I have have been for classes.  I have this engrained notion that I have found it difficult to excise that they're going to be too much like homework: maybe possibly ultimately kind of edifying, but not that fun to actually read at any given moment, and jeez, most of them are so long…

Well, but I'd been wanting to give Wilkie Collins a go for some time, and The Woman in White is certainly long, but it sure didn't feel like homework.  Let us smash our lazy preconceptions!

A young, somewhat doofy drawing instructor named Walter Hartright is set to depart for a new Situation teaching some rich guy's two nieces.  The night before he leaves London, however, he comes across a woman dressed all in white, seemingly confused, trying to get somewhere.  He helps her along, only to find out afterwards that she was apparently an escapee from an insane asylum.  The next day, he departs as planned.  His new students are half-sisters, Miss Laura Fairlie and Miss Marian Halcombe.  He falls in love with the former, but oh no!  She's engaged to be married to a baronet, Sir Percival Glyde!  But whence this anonymous letter desperately warning her away from the baronet?  And what does the woman in white have to do with all of this?  Well, to say any more would be telling.  Suffice to say, there are many twists and turns to this narrative.  It begins and ends with Hartright as the narrator, but various parts of it are told by a number of different characters, most notably Miss Halcombe.

Collins has created some really memorable characters here.  Hartright is, as noted above, kind of doofy and oblivious, but in an amusing, intentional way.  And few would deny that the novel's heroine, Miss Halcombe, is just fantastic.  When Hartright first meets her, he frankly declares her "ugly" (by which he means, "altogether wanting in those feminine attractions of gentleness and pliability, without which the beauty of the handsomest woman alive is incomplete"), but I would strongly suggest that in this regard, he is a decidedly unreliable narrator.  She's assertive and she gets shit done; she's an actual Strong Female Character, and not in the Hark! A Vagrant sense.  We all cheer for her.  Sir Percival is also great; I don't think it's much of a spoiler to say that he ultimately turns out to be a villain (with a Terrible Secret!), but the thing is, for a long time he doesn't really seem overly villainous, and the exact nature of his villainy remains mysterious for a long time.

Even better, however, is his friend and co-villain, the Sinister Italian Count Fosco.  Holy shit is Count Fosco ever awesome!  He is a morbidly obese man with a disturbingly submissive wife.  He philosophizes about murder and coos over his pet birds and white mice like a proto-Bond villain.  And he is genuinely charming, to the point at which the reader can't help but be charmed as well, even though you know that he's up to no good.  Fosco is great, end of story.

I could go on like this for a long time; suffice it to say that that is not all.  Even the minor characters (the viewpoint characters especially), make a strong impression.  Especially notable are Miss Fairlie's Uncle, the lugubrious, absolutely self-centered Frederick Fairlie, who views any request that he do anything ever as something akin to a crime against humanity; and the religiose, self-righteous serving woman Eliza Michelson.  These characters are more or less incidental, and certainly didn't have to be as memorable as they are for the text to work.  But they are, and it does.  Well done, Wilkie.

The first half or two-thirds of The Woman in White is great.  The best part is Miss Halcombe's lengthy narrative, as she's living with her sister, Sir Percival, and Count Fosco.  We know that the bad guys are up to something, but we don't know what, and the story becomes more and more suffused with claustrophobic, paranoid dread.  It's really remarkable, and surprisingly Modern: we have all these characters who are telling the truth as far as they're able, but there's no objective, outside way to tell what's actually going on.  There was a point at which I was all ready to declare this the BEST BOOK EVER.

I am aware that the "but" is implicit in that, unfortunately.  So: but the book goes steadily downhill when the narrative returns to Hartright as he investigates, searching for the Terrible Secret and trying to bring down the bad guys in general.  It actually starts off engagingly enough, but the more that's revealed, the less interesting things are (as is so often the case).  The Terrible Secret is--somewhat predictably--not very likely to cause contemporary audiences to reach for the smelling salts, and you get the impression that Collins wasn't exactly certain how to bring things to a close.  Sir Percival's ending is more or less okay, if a bit overly convenient, but when it comes to Fosco, the author basically goes insane, dragging in a really bizarre, left-field plot contrivance to get rid of him.  I was not amused!

Also, after being such a great character for so long, it's very disappointing to see Miss Halcombe move to the background and cease to do much of importance.  Of course, this is all from Hartright's viewpoint, and we've previous seen what a clueless goofus he is, but lacking any other perspective, we're really not left with much.  It is implied quite strongly that there will be some sort of final showdown between her and Fosco (who seems to genuinely admire her as enemy), which would surely be one of the greatest things ever, but that never happens.  Bah.

And now, unfortunately, we come to the part where I have to talk about what an awful character Laura Fairlie is.  The thing is, she doesn't really have what one would call "character traits," unless "frail" and "feminine" count.  This is why Hartright falls for her, and it is certainly a big part of what makes him such a huge dork (if he were less of such, he'd have fallen for her sister instead).  Still, this isn't such a problem until the latter parts of the book: the early romance stuff isn't any too gripping, but there's not much of it, and soon enough Hartright is out of the picture for a good while.  Miss Fairlie still isn't a great character, but it's not a big deal, especially with Marian there to make up the difference.  But when Hartright reappears, BOY HOWDY is she ever condescended to/infantilized.  There's this part where the three of them are living together in a sub rosa fashion; he's making money by engraving, and Marian by sewing, and she's feeling like she's not contributing anything, so he comes up with this great idea where he gets her to do drawings that he'll sell along with his own stuff--so that contents her, but actually NO ONE would ever buy her "poor, faint, valueless sketches," and he's just pretending that some of the money coming in is now thanks to her.  Oogh.  She's just never shown doing anything of any note, and when the two of them get married, it feels uncomfortably akin to pedophilia.  All of this could be some sort of social commentary on Collins' part; I don't know his work well enough to say anything for sure--but I have my grave doubts.  Well, at least he lets her remarry, whereas if this were Dickens, her first marriage would have been deemed to irrevocably sully her in such a way that she would NEVER EVER be allowed to find romantic happiness.  Man, that guy could be such a prick.

The good does outweigh the bad in The Woman in White.  Make no mistake: when it's good, it is really good.  I just hoped--and, for a while, had reason to hope!--that it would do so to a greater extent.  Collins transcends his milieu for a while, but ultimately he's brought down by typical, lame Victorian things: here, gender roles and the compulsion to neatly tie everything up in a bow even when it involves really implausible contrivance.


Post a Comment

<< Home