I picked up an edition of The Woman In White in Italian while I was home visiting my family in Milan earlier this year. It may be a weird choice to read it in my native language since it’s a British novel, but I’m trying to make sure I read consistently in Italian to keep up my proficiency now that I’ve been living abroad for over a decade.
I read it during lunchtime throughout the Spring and I found it to be the perfect novel to consume in small chunks, which makes sense because it was originally published in serialized chapters in Charles Dickens’ magazine All The Year Round in the U.K. and Harper’s Weekly in the U.S. Read my review below.
The Woman In White by Wilkie Collins
Published: 26th November, 1859 – 25th August, 1860
Often considered one of the first mystery novels, The Woman In White follows protagonist Walter Hartright, an art teacher, as he has a mysterious late night encounter on a London street with a lost woman, dressed all in white, who he later finds out had escaped from an asylum. The figure of this woman and the words they exchanged during their meeting come to haunt Walter, even as he accepts a job at Limmeridge House outside of London to instruct heiress Laura Farlie in art.
Walter soon recognizes the astonishing resemblance between Laura and The Woman In White, and finds out that the mystery woman also used to live near Limmeridge and has connections to the Farlie family. You’ll have to read further to see how the story progresses, but the plot is quite complex, twisting and turning with elements of unrequited love, unhappy marriages, murder plots and overall very shady dealings.
What I Liked
One of the main characters in the novel is Laura Farlie’s devoted half-sister and friend, Marion Halcombe. Marion and Walter act intermittently as the principal investigators of the mystery on which the novel is based, as they essentially ask and try to answer the very questions the reader is also wondering. I found Marion’s character in particular to be a very likeable one. She’s much more adventurous, proactive and strong than Laura, who is a bit of a damsel in distress throughout the novel. I also found Marion to be more likeable than Walter, because she’s more rational and less romantic. I essentially found her to be most like myself, simply wanting to uncover the truth and also to protect her friend in the difficult and even dangerous situations in which Laura finds herself.
I really appreciated the complexity with which the novel dealt with the themes of women’s inequality and lack of options in those times. The contrasting characters of Marion and Laura are the vehicles through which Collins addresses these issues. Marion is strong, opinionated and individualistic, but as she is not beautiful in a conventional sense and has no independent means, she’s very restricted in her ability to remove herself and Laura from harmful situations. For her part, Laura has beauty and a large inheritance, but her subservient, soft and yielding temperament is easily manipulated by others and she quickly loses her freedom to an unhappy marriage.
The plot of the novel overall was expertly written to keep the suspense and mystery going throughout, despite its over 700 pages. There were several twists to the narrative and the old English manor setting for most of the novel provided an optimal bleak and dreary backdrop. I was legitimately scared for the novel’s heroines Marion and Laura from the second half of the novel onwards, and I kept turning the page to see what else would happen to them or what more would be revealed about their antagonist’s intentions. Overall, it was a very captivating read, and I also really liked Collins’ technique of designating different narrators for different sections of the novel, as though they were retelling their recollections of what happened as witnesses before a court of law.
What I Didn’t Like
Without spoiling anything, there were two very evil male figures in the novel, who I felt were somewhat overly caricatured and at times not very believable. Towards the end of the novel one of the figures is also said to be involved with politics in a way that I think was kind of unnecessary to the plot – a bit thrown in there. At times, it was also hard to believe that Laura herself could be as passive as she was in the face of some of the circumstances she faced.
A tragic, haunting tale about mistaken identities, unbelievable selfishness and cruelty, bust also true love and persevering friendship. A true classic.
Have you read The Woman In White? What did you think? Let me know in the comments.
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