Few of us do not enjoy a good murder mystery. The man we all have to thank for this genre is not, as many may think, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but rather Wilkie Collins — a contemporary, friend, and rival of Charles Dickens.
Written in the mid-19th century, The Woman in White incorporates every desirable element of a Victorian Sensation novel — women unjustly locked in mental asylums, secret illegitimate children, title usurpation, doubling, mistaken identity, forgery, thwarted love across class lines … all the ingredients for a spellbinding read. The Woman in White was the world’s first mystery novel, and with Collins’ subsequent narrative, The Moonstone, he officially solidified the genre of detective fiction. In the former, Collins not only invented a new genre, but he created a new form as well.
The Woman in White was the first book to be written in multiple character narration, impressively including nearly all the principals; when one person has finished his or her portion, another picks up the thread of the plot. This form lends itself to a deep study of character development as each person shares their particular perspective and unavoidable bias. At the time, character development was considered the highest priority in a novel; Collins conversely believed in the supreme importance of a riveting plot and felt that character development would naturally follow. Through this form, Collins also explores, incidentally, the irony of confirming personal memory with written documentation, contradicting the Gothic norm of implicitly trusting official documents and recognizable handwriting.
It is apparent from the introduction that the story, assembled by the accounts of multiple witnesses, has been gathered for the purpose of making a legal case, the crux of which will be revealed in due course of the narrative. Though no professional detective is employed, the protagonist, Walter Hartright, adopts many of the sleuthing techniques later practiced by private detectives.
Walter and his innocent lady love, Laura Fairlie, can come across rather clichéd as the stereotypical insipid Victorian heroine and her ardently devoted, star-crossed art teacher, and Laura’s husband, Sir Percival Glyde, is revealed as the classic Byronic villain typical of Gothic literature. However, the two main supporting characters — Marian Halcombe, Laura’s elder half-sister, and Count Isidor Ottavio Baldassare Fosco, Sir Percival’s best friend — are two of the most interesting and gratifying characters arguably ever written.
Marian is described as a physically unattractive woman yet one with immense wit, vivacity, and nerve. Both incredibly intelligent and resourceful, Marian is, in my opinion, the most likable and intricate character in the novel; her narrated portion of the tale is by far my favorite. Victorian scholar John Sutherland described her as “one of the finest creations in all Victorian fiction.”
Marian’s wits and motives are openly pitted directly against those of Count Fosco, the most fascinating villain I have ever encountered. And so he should be, for he enchants and “tames” everyone in the novel — including Marian, even while she throws her whole energy toward thwarting his efforts, and the readers themselves. A jovial, rotund man, he holds tremendous respect and genuine regard for Marian and is passionate about opera, fine art, fashion, exquisite cuisine, and his beloved pet mice and birds. However, he emerges as the most dangerous man in the novel and the true antagonist who stands in the way of truth and justice, not Sir Percival Glyde.
Considered one of the greatest novels of all time, The Woman in White is the perfect choice for an enthralling trip to Victorian England, containing all the dark twists of a mystery with a satisfying denouement.