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The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

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Summary: A series of diaries and letters tell of the lives of Laura and Marian, two 'sisters' whose lives are disrupted by a series of sensational events. Quite a bit of the story is told through the eyes of Walter Hartright, the sisters' drawing instructor, who falls in love with Laura only to discover she is previously engaged, yet nothing is as it seems. Laura, who only entered into the engagement to please her dying father, loves Walter and knows next to nothing about Sir Percival. She receives a cryptic, anonymous letter warning her to stay away from him. Walter suspects it has been sent by the same young woman that he met before taking on his post as drawing-master, an ethereal woman dressed in all white, wandering the empty roads outside London at the dead of night. A woman who, for reasons unknown, resembles Laura so closely they might be twins, or a woman and her ghost...

Marian, meanwhile, is a fiery and charismatic narrator. She is fiercely loyal to Laura, and willing to go to any lengths to ensure her safety and happiness. Where Laura is simple, shy, and weak, Marian is cunning, unapologetic, and strong. Though she gave no credence to Walter's warnings prior to her Laura's marriage, when they return from their honeymoon and Laura asks Marian to come and live with them, she begins to observe that something is very wrong. Concerned for her 'sister' (I am putting sister in scare-quotes because they are not sisters by blood, and it has been argued that Marian is actually in love with Laura... there is definitely at least a little flavor of the homoerotic between them), Marian too begins to try to solve the mystery of the woman in white.

Review: Wilkie Collins was a rock star of the Victorian era. His sensation novels - such as The Woman in White, sold phenomenally well. Moralists complained that they were degenerate, critics complained that they were not Art, and everyone else complained that the moralists and critics should shut up because they were trying to read. The Woman in White is deft, compelling, and suspenseful. It is a page-turner, which is VERY unusual given its time period. It may not be subtle or philosophical, but then again it never aims to be. The Woman in White keeps you guessing. It is an exercise in visceral reaction, in terror and uncertainty and dread that propels you from the first to last page.

The characters are magnificent, as well. The titular woman in white has become a stereotype for all kinds of supernatural and mysterious fiction, but in this original portrayal she is nuanced and unexpectedly endearing. The villains, Sir Percival Glyde and especially the Italian Count Fosco, are an absolute delight to read. Marian is the real hero of the story - she's resourceful, self-possessed, and stubborn like nothing else.

One of the more interesting themes that emerges in this novel, which distinguishes it from the gothic, is the domesticity of its settings and events. There are no dungeons and evil kings and ancient curses to torment the heroine. In the 19th century, the prison is her own house, the abuser is her own husband, whose legal rights over her are a socially-sanctioned curse. There is a strong feminist current in The Woman in White as we see Marian struggling against the bounds of a society that tells her to be like Laura, a victim ripe for the picking, or her aunt (the Countess Fosco), unquestioningly subordinate to her husband's every whim. It is heartbreaking watching her try to help Laura, looking for any legal avenue for action, and find nothing.

I was a little worried about the format at first, with the diaries, but it works seamlessly, and keeps the story fast-paced. I highly recommend this novel.

Exerpt:I had now arrived at that particular point of my walk where four roads met—the road to Hampstead, along which I had returned, the road to Finchley, the road to West End, and the road back to London. I had mechanically turned in this latter direction, and was strolling along the lonely high-road—idly wondering, I remember, what the Cumberland young ladies would look like—when, in one moment, every drop of blood in my body was brought to a stop by the touch of a hand laid lightly and suddenly on my shoulder from behind me.

I turned on the instant, with my fingers tightening round the handle of my stick.

There, in the middle of the broad bright high-road—there, as if it had that moment sprung out of the earth or dropped from the heaven—stood the figure of a solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in white garments, her face bent in grave inquiry on mine, her hand pointing to the dark cloud over London, as I faced her.

I was far too seriously startled by the suddenness with which this extraordinary apparition stood before me, in the dead of night and in that lonely place, to ask what she wanted. The strange woman spoke first.

"Is that the road to London?" she said.
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