Sunday, May 11, 2008

40. "The Woman in White" - Wilkie Collins

A mysterious woman in white... is she a ghost? A spectral predicting the future? A blood and bones warning?

Bah. I lost interest by the third "act."

The plot was compelling and chilling, and I can imagine the goosebumps of parlor guests as someone read this aloud 140+ years ago. The story of two sisters, one ill-fated to marry a gold-digging man though in love with her art teacher, is intriguing in the theory behind the mystery. And I love mysteries. However, I do not like plodding through five pages of repetitive clue dropping and useless dialogue to get to the point. If those five pages were beautifully written, then we'd have a different discussion.

So, I tried reading every fourth or fifth page. It worked. I understood the mystery and zipped through this 500-page monster.

If I had heard it read aloud while darning socks or embroidering handkerchiefs next to oil lamps or candles, I would have adored it. But in this time...

2.5 out of 5.0 White Ladies.


Anskov said...
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Anskov said...

Ouch, Dodge! You just dissed one of my favorite Victorian novels. Say it ain't so!!!!!

I have to put a few comments here in the novel's defense. Obviously you are entitled to your opinion of it, but for what it's worth...

-What about the epistolary approach (fairly innovate for its time)? Marion's Diary, which makes up the middle third of the book is, to me, an amazing read. I will say that some of the initial narratives (the solicitor's for example) got a bit dry. This novel inspired Bram Stoker to copy the epistolary format in Dracula.

Also, in it's original form it would have been serialized in a magazine. Basically, it was for the Victorians, what Lost or 24 are for television viewers today.

-What about the fact that Collins is one of the few male Victorian writers to create complex female characters and even manage to insert a rather strong feminist statement? (Here, I think the novel is rather contemporary - the fact that Marion, upon seeing a bruise on her sister's arm takes action and even comments on having to possibly swear to her husband's abuse of her in court, to me seems much more vital than the usual milk toast, passive way women are portrayed in most nineteenth-century novels). One critic on the Victorian web describes Collins' contribution to the depiction of women well: "... Collins' heroines set new standards for the literary depiction of women and their problems. Marion Halcombe is fully independent of men, and Laura Fairlie ... functions well at several levels. That Collins' females violated stereotype is but another indication how carefully he observed women and how he attempted to represent as they really were."

At the time it was written, Marion (the ugly, yet resourceful sister) was so realistic and such an active, compelling character that bachelors all over London were writing Collins asking him who she was based on.

-What about the fact that his style is much more readable and entertaining than his friend and contemporary, Dickens? He doesn't name his characters Mr. Mumblety Peg or anything so ridiculous. Further, he doesn't make his female characters either angels or whores which is what Dickens does.

-What about the fact that Collins is addressing real issues of his times? This story was written before the Married Women's Property Act of 1870. What happens to Laura Fairlie could have and indeed did happen to other women. Women could quite easily be cheated out of their inheritance. Collins used a real story about a French woman who had been cheated out of her inheritance when her husband had her declared dead and in doing so, stripped her of her identity.

-Speaking of that, what about the theme of identity? Not only does Glyde effectively steal the identity of Laura, but he also squelches those of Mrs. Catherick and Anne. In the same way, Fosco take young lady Fosco, once known for her vocal feminism and reduces her to a pet dog or a parrot.

You have in Laura and Marion almost a bifurcation of a single soul. You also have this in Laura and Anne Catherick. When it becomes apparent that Anne and Laura are also half sisters, you have character split into three. An interesting look at psyche.

-What about Fosco? In Count Fosco, you have the prototypical charming, Falstaffian villain. The way he controls both the women in his life and Glyde is fascinating. His written confession, like Marion's diary is brilliant. He and Marion emerge as the true hero and heroine to the less effective Laura and Walter.

I'm often accused of being old-school about things (and not without some warrant), but reading this in junior high for the first time, I had to read every word, and I was held captivated by its charm and suspense.

All that said, I want to get together with you soon to discuss a play idea I have and also have you look at a VERY rough draft of a mystery I wrote. How often do you get up to the city?

Kristin Dodge said...

For you, I'll make plans to come for a visit.

I hear what you're saying, which is why I wrote that *if* I had lived back then, I would have loved it. The language was meant to be read aloud.

Holy thesis, Anskov! Your passion for the subject matter made me smile and remember why I'm lucky to have gone through grad school with you.

Anskov said...

Cool. I was talking to Liz yesterday and she said she was going to call you about getting together as well. Let's plan for the three of us to meet up in the cities. It will be great to see you again.

Are things greening up nicely at the ranch this spring?