The Woman in White: Afterthoughts

This entry fell off the Sunday schedule I’ve been trying to keep for a number of really good, adult reasons. I won’t bore anyone with another summary of work and stress and heat exhaustion related complaints (though those are all very good adult excuses) and skip right to last weekend when I temporarily forgot that I know better and consumed a large quantity of assorted alcohol. Additionally, my bird hasn’t yet learned that he can’t fly without feathers and in an ill advised attempt, clothes-lined himself on the edge of my laptop making Alex the only creature in the house not vomiting on Sunday. So between worrying that my bird was going to die and being certain that I was going to die, not a lot of words were produced over the weekend. Thankfully, no one died, I finished reading The Woman in White and the inflammatory post that I drunkenly typed in Word didn’t get published to my blog. All’s well that ends well.

The woman in whiteSpoilers below

The Woman in White also ended well, with the appropriate people dead and the appropriate people living happily ever after. All of the different character arcs that were started in the beginning were tied up very nicely, and the deus ex machina at the end was clever and enjoyable and left me really liking the book when I finally put it down.

Not that I ever disliked it. Wilkie Collins cleverly wrote a thrilling love story with multiple points of view, exciting danger, plot twists, red herrings and mostly likeable characters. I say ‘mostly’ because the narrative makes the antagonists unlikable on purpose­– but also because I really disliked Laura. There is a striking difference between Laura –the quintessential woman of her time­– and her half-sister Marion who is often described (not unkindly) as masculine, strong and willful. It is these qualities in Marion in fact, that win the victory for the protagonists. It is Marion’s courage and action which put the first pieces of the puzzle together in the absence of Walter Hartright. It is Marion’s words and memory, of all the women in the story, which are the most infallible and honest. And it’s Marion’s great strength of character that proves to be the weakness of Count Fosco– a weakness that ultimately ends in his entrapment.

In comparison, Laura is weak in spirit and body. She doesn’t have the courage to save herself from Percival before or after danger presented itself. When she exerts any will at all it is to make obviously foolish decisions and when it comes time for her to finally be useful in the story, she succumbs to a feminine weakness of the mind and is unable to be of any assistance. In essence, Laura is everything that I hate about weak, defenseless female characters: passive bits of dandelion seed whipped around in the vortex of their narratives. They’re hardly there at all, and yet everyone seems to love and want them. This archetype isn’t a character; it’s a plot device and like every other woman who has filled its shoes in literature, cinema and video games, I was heartily wishing she would die by the middle of the book.

Fortunately, despite being half the center of the story, Laura does not get a point of view in the narrative. Largely, the story is told by Marion and Walter as they work in varying degrees of separation and togetherness to solve the mystery of ‘the woman in white’ Anne Catherick, and to save Laura from her unhappy, abusive marriage.

The story is told in reports, diary entries and confessions by a range of characters both protagonist and antagonist in such a way that not only is the mystery of the story preserved and intensified, but the reader is made anxiously aware of all the hidden dangers that Marion and Walter unknowingly face. The twist in the middle is shocking, but pleasantly not unexpected and after the danger, deceit and ruthlessness perpetrated by the antagonists in the beginning of the book, the latter half accelerates to a very satisfying turn of fortune for the protagonists.

When Percival died near the end of the book, I was honestly expecting it to be another duplicity, and was a little surprised and disappointed when it wasn’t, however, Count Fosco was always the main villain to contend with and I was very pleased with how he was dealt with. I won’t spoil that ending for anyone, because honestly I’m still grinning over it.

One of the things I really enjoyed about the book was Collins’ way of describing characters as they were introduced into the story, not only by their physical appearance but in metaphors of their personality and manners. With so many characters waltzing in and out of the story, one might forget a color of hair or a length of a nose, but not the feeling that is impressed upon the reader as they come to their own conclusions of who a character is.

The Woman in White is a very good book, with lots of excitable mystery and strong characters– one I absolutely recommend.

The next book on my reading list is the July / August 2013 edition of Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine.

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