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A Reading Vocation

"I Must Read, Read, and Read. It is my Vocation." - Thomas Merton

This is where I chronicle my reading life.  I also blog about writing at Lacey's Late-night Editing.



Book 50/100: The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins

Around the Year Reading Challenge Item #16: A Book from the Top 100 Mystery Novels

Similar to long books, I often find myself reticent to begin reading a classic, even though in both cases I have found much to love in both genres. I did not love this book, but although it is both long and a classic, my intimidation in reading it was misplaced.

I usually just assume that I will have to "work harder" when reading a classic, so I was pleased that the action in this one moved along at a nice pace, the cast was not so large that I needed a ledger to keep track of all of them, and there were very few passages where I found myself spacing out and only realizing I was totally lost when I ended up somewhere in the story not knowing how I got there. Collins was a contemporary of Charles Dickens, and although it's surely blasphemous to say so, I would much more gladly pick up another book by Collins than Dickens, who, like Shakespeare, I've sort of had to accept that I just don't LIKE reading no matter how "great" others may determine him to be. Dickens may be saying something more profound in his work; however, Collins is infinitely more readable.

Although this novel was not particularly "deep" where plot or themes are concerned, I did find its characters to be well-rendered. I also liked the multiple narratives and was especially impressed that Collins managed to differentiate the various "voices" from one another, something many modern authors haven't mastered despite the fact that it's a much more common tactic now than it was then. I also liked the conceit of the whole novel being set up as though it were evidence presented before a jury -- in general, I am partial to stories in which the character is "aware" of the fact that he or she is telling or writing the story.

With all that said, the novel did start to feel a little long around the mid-point, and although Sir Percival was a truly terrible person, the story never got as "dark" as I hoped it would. The "secret" he was so hell-bent on preserving is fairly inconsequential by modern standards, so it's an interesting cultural commentary to see what a big deal it was back then.

Speaking of cultural commentary, I couldn't help but analyze this book through a feminist lens -- it practically begs to be interpreted thus by the modern reader by the sheer amount of times phrases such as, "But I am only a woman," are uttered. Although Gothic fiction was very popular among female readers, the way that this particular story plays out is so clearly in service to male fantasy. [The protagonist, Walter Hartwright, very quickly falls in love with the woman he is hired to teach drawing to -- Laura -- but he develops a deep friendship with her sister, Marian. At one point, Marian and Walter essentially take on a parental role when Laura suffers a mental breakdown. Marian is smart, even-handed, compassionate, an excellent writer, sturdy, and all-around an excellent "catch" -- Hartwright even comments upon her bodacious bod the first time he meets her. But she is apparently unattractive nonetheless, and so Hartwright grants his romantic affections to the mentally fragile, child-like, but beautiful Laura -- a wife to whom he can feel superior despite the fact that he is from a lower class than she is. At first, it seems as though the class difference will separate the lovers forever, as Laura marries a nobleman. It is only after Laura's husband steals all her money and then conveniently dies that she is free to marry "beneath" her -- and in one fell swoop, also become both financially and emotionally dependent on Hartwright. His good fortune is literally the result of the woman he loves losing everything, and yet there is never a moment of guilt or regret. Indeed, everyone seems to think this is a desirable outcome. The book ends after Walter and Laura have a son, named Walter Jr., of course, and Laura's uncle dies, leaving all of HIS land not to Laura, but to the infant male heir, Jr. And so Hartwright gets the prestige of becoming a landed gentleman in the end by virtue of his son, his wife totally bypassed for what would have otherwise been her inheritance. Again, everyone is tickled pink with this outcome.

And then there is the complicated issue of Marian, a woman for whom the author seems to hold a great deal of respect. But yet, it is as if such intelligence in a woman must be tempered by ugliness lest it be too threatening. Presumably it is because of this ugliness that no one has ever courted Marian, and she is perfectly happy to subvert her significant talents to her sister's and her nephew's needs, succumbing to the life of the "maiden aunt" rather than taking the intelligence and fortitude that makes her the strongest character in the book out into the world to create a life of her own. To add insult to injury, the only man who finds her desirable is one of the book's villains, Count Vasco.]

So while this book remains interesting and readable centuries after it was written (no small feat), and while it probably was even a little revolutionary in its time [Hartwright has no qualms about marrying a woman who has been widowed and thus is not a virgin, he trusts a woman as his closest confidant, etc.], to the modern reader with feminist sensibilities, the package as a whole can be a little stomach churning, perhaps all the more so because it is dressed up in the guise of romance and gentility.