The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

Cover of the first American edition of The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

Cover of the first American edition of The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

I’m not sure how I managed to earn a Ph.D. in English without ever reading Wilkie Collins’s book, The Woman in White (1859).

I’m not sure how I became a Dickens fanatic without ever even learning about Wilkie Collins, who was 12 years younger than Dickens and who published often in the journals Dickens edited.

The Woman in White is an undertaking.

My paperback copy was just over 500 pages, which is short compared to the Dickens novels I’ve been reading lately (I just finished Our Mutual Friend before tackling The Woman in White), but the type was tiny and it took me a long time to read.

The beginning, which focuses on a quirky Italian man named Pesca whose life one of the book’s main characters and main narrators, Walter Hartright, saves, is a little slow but the rest of the story is as fascinating as it is disturbing. It has a brilliant, complicated plot, centered around two half sisters: Laura Fairlie and Marian Halcombe.

Written from the point of view of several characters, the book tells the story of a poor art teacher (Walter) who falls in love with his rich pupil (Laura). But even if Walter were of the rich station in life to marry Laura, she is already pledged to a Sir Percival Glyde, who is as wily and evil as his name implies.

In the meantime, there is a mysterious woman who dresses only in white who looks strikingly like Laura and who has escaped from an insane asylum. Her story is brilliantly weaved into the plot right from the very beginning when Walter, not knowing what she is running from, helps her escape.

The English obsession about money, inheritance, and class status that this book explores reminded me of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (published in 1813).

Wilkie Collins’s own life is as sordid as his novels. He struggled with an opium addiction, had an affair with his own woman in white, had three illegitimate children by another woman, and died after being ill for years.

I look forward to reading another of his books, especially The Moonstone. But before I do, Little Dorrit is next on the docket.

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  1. Wow. Harper and Bros. It’s amazing how much publishing itself has changed! I’m impressed that you are reading your way through these classics, but also awed because I didn’t even know about Wilkie Collins.

  2. Alexandra hits on a good point. Wilkie Collins’ books rather lend themselves to film, I think.

    Woman in White has been made into film several times. also, an English television production of it was aired in the US as part of the PBS series Masterpiece Theater.

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