The Woman in White

by Charlotte Reads Classics

I hadn’t planned on reading Wilkie Collins straight after Little Dorrit, because I really really want to read the copy of I Capture the Castle I bought last week. But there is a The Woman in White readalong and seeing as it was on my Classics Club list – why not? I’m self confessedly rubbish at following reading schedules so you shall not be surprised that I didn’t manage to follow this one either. If you want to take part, the readalong is going on until the end of April.

Before I say anything else, I have to start with some gushing. The Woman in White is brilliant! If you haven’t read it, put it on your to read list immediately (and then actually read it). A mightily fine book, but maybe not the one you were expecting. As the readalong graphic proclaims: there are no ghosts. This was a surprise as I had just always assumed this was a gothic kind of ghost story. Instead it is an insanely well crafted thriller told by several different narrators with twists that made me (embarrassingly, actually) gasp out loud. Should you be in the mood for a gothic story, there are plenty of elements to keep you happy; passions running high, doubles, people being locked up and setting churches on fire.

Comparing Dickens and Collins seems quite natural; they were contemporaries and travel buddies. What struck me about both writers was that I thought their writing was quite effeminate.  Both have a reputation of authoritative maleness that made their choice of writing from a woman’s perspective surprising. I was definitely pleasantly surprised when Esther appeared as a narrator of Bleak HouseI suppose the question is whether the female voices are accurate, or just appear to be. With women’s voices so limited in the 19th century their fictional representatives often fall into types: Virtuous or scandalous, wronged and weak or defiant and disobedient. There are hints of both in Collins’ writing.  The male / female divide wasn’t limited to the female characters themselves. Walter Hartright, the overall narrator of The Woman in White reminded me of Gilbert Markman from The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Were the Brontës writing in their own voices, or had they mastered writing as men writing as women? A side note: if you like Anne Bronte you’ll like this.

Earlier this year I read The Dead Secret, which was the novel that Collins wrote before The Woman in White. It very nearly put me off Wilkie Collins altogether! I read that it is seen as Collins practicing the themes he mastered later in his writing. To be honest, the effect of this was that it seemed like a very underwhelming version of this novel. There are still secrets, grand old houses and mysterious parentage, but it is nowhere near as successful as The Woman in White.

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