Completed: The Woman in White

Is anyone as shocked as I am to find out that it’s the end of April already? I’m really not sure where the past month went. And alas, my reading seems to have vanished with it–despite a readathon earlier this month, I haven’t finished a single book since mid-March. Guess what my plan is for May? But at least I still have a small pile of drafts to post here–it makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something, even if I also wrote these up over a month ago. Sigh.

Cover: The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

The Woman in White
Wilkie Collins
England, 1859

I was determined to finally read The Woman in White last autumn as a suitably seasonal read, and although I only write it up now, I did more or less succeed in reading it during the appropriate season.

I’ve long been a Collins fan, having found The Moonstone unputdownable when I read it in high school, but somehow or another I’d never managed to read his other famous mystery. While I didn’t fly through it the way I did The Moonstone (a fault, perhaps, of me as a reader), I found is surprisingly engaging considering that the mystery seemed slight, with much of the outcome well-foreshadowed.

It is a story told through the narration of several different pens, and it begins with a long section of narration by Walter Hartright, a drawing teacher who firsts meets the mysterious woman in white on his way home one night. In his recollections, he seems unexpectedly affected by the brief encounter, though perhaps this is to be expected when only days later he discovers a strong physical resemblance between the woman and one of his new pupils. The idea of a woman in white conjures up the idea of a ghost, and indeed, this flesh-and-blood woman proves to have a sort of ghostly presence throughout the rest of novel, turning up again and again, whether in person or in conversation. The mystery of her past and her present will prove to have unexpected ramifications for the remainder of our cast of characters.

And yet, it does not seem at first as if the existence of this mysterious woman should have any true impact. Walter is to teach Laura Fairlie and Marion Halcombe drawing in the months before Laura’s marriage to Sir Percival Glyde. The marriage was sanctioned by Laura’s father shortly before he died, and there seems nothing sinister in the arrangement, at least not at first. But time, money problems, and Laura’s unfortunate affection for Walter, will prove that all is perhaps not as it first seems with Sir Glyde or his friend Count Fosco.

No man under heaven deserves these sacrifices from us women. Men! They are the enemies of our innocence and our peace–they drag us away from our parents’ love and our sisters’ friendship–they take us, body and soul, to themselves, and fasten our helpless lives to theirs as they chain up a dog to his kennel. And what does the best of them give us in return?

An early example of the mystery genre, The Woman in White remains a classic of the form. It is full of suspense and mystery and memorable characters, none of whom are extraneous to the plot. And although it sits well with the realm of Victorian sensationalist novels, I found it surprisingly feminist–it seems that Collins was not a fan of the institution of marriage, or at least the ways it could harm women. It is not merely that he gives us Marion, a strong, intelligent woman, but the undercurrent of criticism of the limitations which Laura faced as a married woman, unable to control her destiny. And although Laura may at first appear to be the prototypical Victorian lady, she has her own sort of inner strength as well, disturbed though it may be by her husband’s harsh treatment.

Suspenseful and full of great characters–Count Fosco is a fascinating study–it is no wonder that The Woman in White endures. I imagine I could read it again and get something yet different out of it. Now I’ve only to wonder why it took me so long to read it in the first place?

Moseying into Readathon

Dewey's 24 hour read-a-thon

I’m finding myself very laid-back about readathon this fall, only joining up last night, just starting now. But I’ve pulled my books off the shelf, made a cup of tea, and curled myself up on the couch. It’s time to start A Woman in White, which I’ve been saving just for today. My copy is a used edition, hardcover, and the book seller’s penciled note indicates that it’s circa 1900. Delicate pages, tiny print!

Book - The Woman in White, copy c. 1900, blue hardcover

Updates will follow at my whim.

Happy reading!

Update #1

So…I lied! I had intended to start with The Woman in White, but I ended up reading The Adventures of Tintin: Destination Moon instead. (I’ve been rereading the Tintin books since late this summer. Ah, the joys of revising childhood. 🙂 ) But I started The Woman in White after that. I’m finding it a little slow so far, although the “sensational” touch does start early on. I’m sure I just need to read a few more pages and I’ll be hooked. I might however, pick up The Hobbit for a little bit, as I’ve started rereading it a few weeks ago but haven’t made any progress since, and it seems about time I do so. The evening’s still young; there’s plenty of time for a bit of both.

Update #2

I’m finding myself starting to nod off, a bit early alas. Too many late nights and early mornings, and I must be up early again tomorrow, so this is my final update. I read a few more pages of The Woman in White, but it was The Hobbit that captured my attention this last while. I’ve rather decided that I must finish it this week, busy or not; I’m much to enchanted to set it aside for another two weeks again.

And now, good night. To those still readathoning, enjoy!

Completed: The Haunted Hotel

The Haunted Hotel: A Mystery of Modern Venice
Wilkie Collins

I seem to be running perpetually behind this year, despite all my best of plans. February was supposed to be dedicated to all books Venetian, but between running behind on Shakespeare and a library hold that came in quicker than I expected (and which was non-renewable), I’m only now getting to Venetian books.

I had somewhat hoped to find a book to read by an actual Venetian author, but those seem to be few. (Marco Polo and Casanova were the only two authors I found, do let me know if you know of any others who’ve been translated into English.) So I was limited to books set in Venice. What a hardship.

I’ve been to Venice and remember it fondly. It’s always more fun, I find, when I read a book set in a place I’ve been: the locales are easier to picture, for they’ve been seen.

Alas, the book I choose to read was only partially set in Venice. Collins’s novella, written in 1878 but set in 1860-61, begins in London (a city I’ve never been to). Interestingly, I felt that Collins’s Venice was more vivid than his London, and not just because I know the one and not the other. In The Haunted Hotel, Venice the place is also a character for it is in Venice, a city like no other, that the supernatural—events like no other—might just possibly happen.

I didn’t know much about The Haunted Hotel as I began it, so I hesitate to reveal too much here. It is more a thriller than a mystery; there are no detectives here. Lords and ladies, siblings and jilted lovers populate its pages. As the action moves from London to Venice, the tension ratchets up. We think something dreadful may happened there, or are we only the gullible dupes of a hysterical Mrs.? What dark secrets might the canals and palazzi conceal? Does the supernatural lurk, or is madness our villain?

I have never been disappointed in Collins, and this is no exception. Or rather, my only disappointment is that I didn’t save it for October, when it would be so perfectly seasonal. (And I am more excited than ever to read The Woman in White—in October.) A solid read, one I would enthusiastically recommend. Just save it for October.