Monday, November 24, 2014

Autumn is for Gothic Fiction: "The Woman in White"

I often try to read some classic Gothic or horror fiction during the autumn months -- it seems like the right time of year for it. This year, my decision to start reading The Woman in White in late September also had something to do with the fact that I'd just gotten dumped by a fellow who loves to read but hates nineteenth-century novels. (I'd always tell him that he didn't know what he was missing.) What better way to start the healing process than to read a book that my ex wouldn't like?

The Woman in WhiteThe Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Woman in White could easily have been a run-of-the-mill Gothic potboiler about a scheming baronet out to steal the fortune of an innocent young lady, but it rises above the mundane thanks to Wilkie Collins' gifts for atmosphere, humor, and characterization. As in Collins' The Moonstone, the story is related in a series of first-person narratives; some of the narrators are sympathetic and relatively "normal" (upstanding Walter Hartright, courageous Marian Halcombe), while others are wildly eccentric and unreliable (selfish hypochondriac Frederick Fairlie; jolly megalomaniac Count Fosco).

The notes to the Penguin Classics edition say that when the novel was published, several gentlemen wrote to Collins and asked if he'd based the character of Marian on a real-life woman, because they wanted to marry her -- which gives me a much better opinion of Victorian gentlemen than I had possessed hitherto. Marian is intelligent, passionate, brave and hard-working -- but she is ugly, and she constantly reproaches herself for being too headstrong. To learn that some Victorian readers preferred stubborn Marian to her conventionally sweet and docile half-sister Laura is very heartening. And perhaps it's what Collins wanted, too; after all, the novel suggests that Laura could have avoided many of her tribulations if only she'd stood up for herself.

Sir Percival Glyde, the fortune-hunting baronet who marries Laura, isn't much of a villain -- he comes across as a whiny brat. But his crony, Count Fosco, is a magnificent creation. Singing opera, eating bonbons, petting his white mice, and cooking up dastardly schemes the whole time, he's truly a villain you love to hate. Wisely, Collins has Fosco narrate one of the later sections of the novel, and makes his downfall (rather than Sir Percival's) the book's climax.

Collins wrote in his preface to The Woman in White that he thought a novel would succeed only if it presented interesting characters. This long, twisty, absorbing mystery story admirably bears out his theory.

Previous marissabidilla posts about reading Gothic fiction in the fall:

Vampire City by Paul Féval, October 2013
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, October 2010

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