20 Books of Summer, #10: The Woman In White

This year, I’m doing 20 Books of Summer as a rereading challenge. I can read any twenty books I want as long as I have read them already!

L: The edition of The Woman In White I read in 2005 from the library. R: The edition I read this time around, purchased second-hand.

Before rereading: I remember loving this novel when I first read it as an eighteen-year-old in 2005, but almost nothing else about it.

When I first read The Woman In White, I wrote: I happened to read The Woman in White during a very brief period in my late teens when I wrote frequent updates on all the books I was reading. So, here they are!

April 25th, 2005. I haven’t really read enough of this to form an opinion on it yet.

April 27th, 2005. This is improving – I’ve read about 50 pages and I’m interested in Marian Halcombe and Laura Fairlie, who have just been introduced. The narrator of this section seems fairly boring, but then narrators often do. I’m thrilled that it’s written with switching 1st-person perspectives; so few books are and I absolutely love it, though it can be quite badly done, as in FALLING ANGELS [by Tracy Chevalier]. I didn’t find his first meeting with ‘the woman in white’ particularly chilling though…

May 2nd, 2005. Have read about 100 more pages and is v. good, though Laura Fairlie is v. boring. Have just read the legal section which I liked. Unfortunately I am fairly sure on what happens having read spoilers, but intrigued that Wilkie Collins was the 1st to use switching perspectives. [I don’t think this is true. Collins’s introduction to the novel makes this claim, which is where I got it from.]

May 5th, 2005. Have read quite a bit more (to p.225) but not much seems to have happened. Already know the bit about the insane asylum and LF so am waiting for it to happen.

May 9th, 2005. The same. V. slow at the moment. Wish I didn’t know what was going to happen.

May 16th, 2005. Has just got off the ground and is now v. good. I loved all the short narratives, especially Mr Fairlie and Fosco’s note, and I’m now on the Third Epoch and in the depths of the mystery. The part of the plot I know about has now happened and I’m not sure what the secret is – much better. I actually quite like the slow pace now, and if I read it again I think I’d enjoy it a lot more. Common with most classic books.

After rereading: Oh, what a pleasure it was to revisit The Woman In White. It’s one of those books that’s so famous that writing a full review seems a bit silly, though for the benefit of those who haven’t read it, it’s a ‘sensation’ tale of inheritance, asylums and mistaken identity. A few observations: this really feels like a proto-psychological thriller. It was serialised in the journal All The Year Round from November 1859 to August 1860, and was such a hit that readers used to queue outside the journal’s offices to get their hands on the next instalment as soon as it was published. The Penguin edition marks the beginning and end of each section, so you get some sense of what it must have been like to read it when it was first coming out, and the cliffhangers are brilliant. However, I was also fascinated by how it mimics the structure of a traditional ghost story, despite not actually containing any hint of the supernatural. The ‘woman in white’ appears out of the night, disappears without trace, reappears standing by her own gravestone – she’s much more of an apparition than a character in her own right, especially as her name and identity get detached from each other.

I enjoyed The Woman In White more than when I read it as a teenager. I didn’t experience the lull in pacing that my notes record; if anything, I thought the very beginning was slow and it speeded up from there, plus I wasn’t so bothered by knowing the plot in advance. And yes, Laura Fairlie is boring – and perplexing to a modern reader. Collins seems to have been inspired by Dickens’ ideal of the child-woman when figuring her as the romantic lead, for her main appeal seems to be that she is utterly incapable of doing anything. Unsurprisingly, both contemporary and modern readers preferred her clever, capable spinster sister, Marian Halcombe, whom we actually see interacting with Laura’s love interest, Walter, far more than Laura does, making us wonder why he doesn’t prefer her too. Nevertheless, if you’re used to Victorian novels, this isn’t a surprise, and this is one of the most absorbing and gripping nineteenth-century blockbusters out there.

Random trivia: It took me at least 21 days (and probably a few more) to read The Woman In White first time around, and it took me 19 days the second time.

My rating in 2005: ****

My rating in 2022: ****1/2

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17 thoughts on “20 Books of Summer, #10: The Woman In White

  1. Marian is so great. Did you get a queer vibe from her? I definitely did, which somehow makes Count Fosco’s sexual interest in her all the creepier. (And Fosco is a brilliant villain. So suave, so horrible, so difficult to call out because his effect relies on accumulated unease.)

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    • Totally agree about Fosco! I’m usually all about the queer subtext but it didn’t stand out to me with Marian. I think I read her more as asexual/sensibly not keen on marriage given her poor chances on the market and the general badness of being married woman in mid Victorian England. Despite finding Laura annoying, I loved their relationship and Marian’s focus on living a life of platonic love as the favourite sister and aunt – reminded me of the Jo-Meg dynamic from Little Women.

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  2. This would be a fun one to reread! I think I must have read it on my MA Victorian Lit course at Leeds because I had one module entitled “The Literature of 1859” — a big year also including things like The Origin of Species. I remember it being pure enjoyment, unlike some of what I read that year.

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  3. I can never remember if I’ve read The Woman in White or The Moonstone! I love your earlier notes and chuffed that you liked it even more this time round, what a win! You’re making me feel old, though, I was 33 in 2005!

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    • The Moonstone is often called the first classic detective novel, whereas The Woman In White has no detective and feels much more like a thriller centred around mistaken identity – maybe that helps? I didn’t get on with The Moonstone because I’m not really a fan of classic crime/detective novels (as opposed to modern police procedurals).

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  4. Count Fosco is one of the most memorable characters in nineteenth century sensation fiction – even though I forgot much of the plot, years later I could still remember the sense of menace he exuded.
    The structure of the novel suggested to me witnesses in a court case, each giving their version of events.

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  5. Pingback: 20 Books of Summer, #15 and #16: The Memory of Love and Beloved | Laura Tisdall

  6. Pingback: 20 Books of Summer, 2022: A Retrospective | Laura Tisdall

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