Having never heard of Wilkie Collins before reading a post over here, when I stumbled upon a very nice looking book perusing the shelves at my local Chapters, I gathered a copy of The Woman in White and The Moonstone into my hands and found a chair so I could admire them both more closely. Although name recognition got me to take a closer look at Collins’s books, what sold me, was the awesome covers.
I don’t really know how someone can pass these up. They are way more interesting than the book covers you normally see on classic literature. And in a way, these covers, while modern, colourful and cool, remind me of the classic Penguin Books covers. You know, the striking orange ones. These ones:
So now you know why I was initially attracted to the new editions of Collins’s books. In the end, I settled on The Woman in White because the blurb caught my attention (and I couldn’t afford two classics on that particular shopping trip): “only Laura’s resourceful sister Marian and faithful Walter can save her from [her evil new husband's] wicked machinations and the terrors of the insane asylum.” It sounded Halloween-y!
Oh and on the cover was this blurb: “One of the best plots in English literature.” Wow. That’s a pretty distinctive and impressive statement. People don’t just say that about books anymore. It’s all “lyrical” and “deep” and other flighty words of praise.
I’m happy to say, there wasn’t really a moment when I knew what was going to happen next in The Woman in White. Collins’s plot kept me on my toes. Oh except the ending, I sort of figured that would happen at some point, but I had no idea how Collins was going to get Marian, Laura and Walter to that point. None. And this is something that rarely happens to me anymore. I’m good at figuring out what an author (or script writer! but that’s another story…) is going to write next.
Maybe I should have put it all together. I mean, now that I’m done the big crux of the plot seems oh so obvious from the start. But it wasn’t. Collins handled keeping the cat in the bag well, at least until such point as the cat should escape. I’m not sure that The Woman in White is re-readable as a mystery, but it was a page-turner; also, the prose itself was enjoyable.
Part of the reason the novel worked so well to keep all the plot bunnies in line was its use of the 1st person narrative pov. How the pov or I should say povs are used, is outlined in a preface by the author:
An experiment is attempted in this novel, which has not (so far as I know) been hitherto tried in fiction. The story of the book is told throughout by the characters of the book. They are all placed in different positions along the chain of events; and they all take up the chain in turn, and carry it on to the end.
This experiment worked really nicely in The Woman in White; but I worry that having a different narrator for each piece of the puzzle, and only allowing us to have as much of the incomplete puzzle each character inevitably has, would be considered some kind of literary trick, a base, tricksy trick if it were employed today. If I had read a contemporary novel using Collins’s narrative structure, I think I would feel cheated.
So why did it work so well in this classic novel? I’m not sure I have the answers. I’m only going to suggest that since The Woman in White was a bestseller of its day, and has only since become a “classic” of English literature, that this classic status is allowing me to give The Woman in White (and what I would consider a “cheap” narrative structure to enable the plot) a free pass.
The Woman in White wasn’t scary like I had hoped it would be; it wasn’t even really the kind of novel I thought it was going to be; it was hardly “Halloween-y.” But it featured a superb villian, Count Fosco, would actually made the book for me. He was one intensely, scary man. An antagonist who was worth fighting. And those feel rarer and rarer these days. I like a good, strong, worthy antagonist.
Minor quibble: Laura Fairlie/Lady Glyde wasn’t really very interesting at all. I almost didn’t care what happened to her, which is problematic since you’re supposed to care about Laura. She’s the one in peril; it’s her future and fortune on the line. We’re surrounded by interesting and powerful (not in a political way, but in an artist way) characters like Marian, Fosco, Sir Percival, Anne Catherick and to a lesser extend, Walter. And Laura is so blah. Weak and boring. And oh, we get at least five different points of view in the novel, but we never hear from Laura. I guess not hearing from her helps to make her boring, but hearing from her might have been even more boring! Poor Laura was as much a tool of the novel’s plot as was the narrative structure…
I will be reading more from Mr. Collins in the future. I’m thinking about adding that handsome copy of The Moonstone to my collection.
Next on my radar: something (potentially) scarier… from Shirley Jackson.