Friday, December 4, 2009

My first "sensation fiction"

The Woman in White
by Wilkie Collins

Walter Hartright is a drawing teacher whose friend suggests a position for him out in Cumberland, teaching two young ladies. On the road home one night, he suddenly encounters a young woman who is dressed all in white. She asks him the way to London, and he points it out to her. After she leaves, he discovers that she was escaping from an insane asylum. Soon afterward, he meets his pupils, Miss Halcombe and Miss Fairlie. But the mystery surrounding the "woman in white" are numerous. Who was she? Is she really insane? Why was she so afraid that Walter might know a certain man of property?

This story is complicated and impossible to summarize fully without giving away numerous spoilers. One of the disappointments for me reading was that the particular edition I read had footnotes that did so with regularity, so I've tried to avoid spoilers here. The format of the book is interesting: several people's accounts tell the events in a semi-chronological order. I enjoyed it at times, but was often frustrated with how very long the narrator (particularly when it was Hartright) took to tell me something very simple. Identity is a major theme in the novel: Who is the woman in white? Who is Sir Percival or Count Fosco? And once someone's identity is stolen, how can it be restored? I liked Marian Halcombe, but Hartright struck me as very like young David Copperfield and less aware of his own melodramatic tendencies. Laura Fairlie was very childlike and never seemed very real to me. The Moonstone was more to my taste, though I'm happy to have read this as being the first in a long line of "sensation fiction."

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