Charlotte Reads Classics

Slowly, slowly, she sipped a sentence.

Tag: The Woman in White

Look at Me! The Author!

A Classics Club achievement – another Wilkie Collins completed. After loving The Woman in White I moved onto The Moonstone and I now appreciate why Collins is accredited with being the father of the detective novel. It’s a little bit of a tie as to which was my favourite because there were parts of both books that I enjoyed. With The Woman in White it was the characters and the atmosphere that captivated me, but The Moonstone was completely plot driven.

The Moonstone is about an Indian diamond that goes missing after a dinner party, but it goes much further than a classic whodunit! There are some great characters, particularly the ones languishing away with unrequited love, but I didn’t get attached to them like I did with characters in The Woman in White. However, this was a really enjoyable book that kept me guessing  all the way through (I didn’t work it out).

Wilkie Collins is an author who always draws the reader’s attention to his purpose. The Dead Secret was an experiment in what happens to the reader when they are told the plot twists at the beginning of the book, before the characters are. In The Woman in White Collins wanted to ‘trace the influences of circumstance upon character’, whereas the purpose was the opposite in The Moonstone – how characters shape circumstance. I thought it was quite witty the way different narrators appeared as the ‘author’:

Here follows the substance of what I said, written out entirely for your benefit. Pay attention to it, or you will be all abroad when we get deeper into the story. Clear your mid of the children, or the dinner, or the new bonnet, or what not. Try if you can’t forget politics, horses, prices in the City, and grievances at the club. I hope you won’t take this freedom on my part amiss; it’s only a way I have of appealing to the gentle reader. Lord! Haven’t I seen you with the greatest authors in your hands, and don’t I know how ready your attention is to wander when it’s a book that asks for it, instead of a person?

I think the self-consciousness of the book makes reading it feel a bit like going to a murder mystery party: You and a group of people are dressed up and acting out parts and you have an influence over the outcome.

Even whilst writing this post I’ve been umm-ing and ah-ing about which I preferred… I think it is The Woman in White, but only just.

The Woman in White

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.