The Woman in White

The Woman in White

By Wilkie Collins

Published serially in Charles Dicken’s magazine “All the Year Round” 1859-1860; in book form in 1860

Read Dec 2019

The Woman in White has had a long history, being first published serially in 1859-1860 and being adapted multiple times for theater (starting in 1860), in film (starting in 1912 and as recently as 1982), TV mini-series in multiple languages (starting in 1971 and as recently as 2018).  It brought commercial success to Collins if not critical success at publication.  It made the “the top 100 greatest novels of all time” list compiled by Robert McCrum for the Observer in 2003. 

What has made this novel so engaging for all this time?  The story includes love, deceit, thrills, mystery, intrigue, and a virtuous approach to revenge.  It is set in a time and place when marriages are arranged by parents, are necessary to provide financial security for women, but in which married women have a very unequal position in the marriage. 

Collins uses a structural device he used again in The Moonstone:  portions of the story told by different narrators, each being a primary witness to the material they provide.  Walter Hartright, a young teacher of drawing and of limited means, compiles the story which he has been driven to reveal in his quest to restore the stolen identity  of the woman he loves but could not marry due to social standing issues and prior planned engagement arranged by his love’s father.  This approach provides not only “reliable narrators” (and “real evidence” for Hartright’s case), but also a chance for the reader to engage directly with, become familiar with, and to form an opinion regarding each narrator, most of whom are essential characters in the story. 

The serially published novel was a huge hit for Dicken’s magazine.  Collins is adept at creating many engaging and interesting installments for a serial, each keeping the reader looking for the next issue, which nicely publish as a (very) long novel.   This was an enjoyable read via audiobook (25 hours at 1.25 speed) for this reader while cooking, cleaning, gardening, driving, etc.  This reader anticipates it would may have been somewhat tedious at times to read “via eyes” given the language and intensely detailed descriptions, but this reader agrees with McCrum that it’s a very worthy read.

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