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Woman in White (Collins)

The Woman in White 
Wilkie Collins, 1860
~700 pp. (Varies by publisher.)


Summary
Generally considered the first English sensation novel, The Woman in White features the remarkable heroine Marian Halcombe and her sleuthing partner, drawing master Walter Hartright, pitted against the diabolical team of Count Fosco and Sir Percival Glyde.

A gripping tale of murder, intrigue, madness, and mistaken identity, Collins's psychological thriller has never been out of print in the more than 140 years since its publication. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio
Birth—December 8, 1824 
Where—London, England, UK 
Death—September 23, 1889 
Where—London, England 
Education—studied law at Lincoln's Inn, London


Wilkie Collins has long been overshadowed by his friend and collaborator Charles Dickens—unfortunately for readers who have consequently not discovered one of literature's most compelling writers.

His novels are ceremonious and none too brief; they are also irresistible. Take the opening lines of his 1852 story of marital deceit, Basil:

What am I now about to write? The history of little more than the events of one year, out of the twenty-four years of my life. Why do I undertake such an employment as this? Perhaps, because I think that my narrative may do good; because I hope that, one day, it may be put to some warning use.

It's a typical Collins opening, one that draws the reader in with a tone that's personal, but carries formality and import.

With his long, frizzy black beard and wide, sloping forehead, Collins looked like a grandfatherly type, even in his 30s. But his thinking and lifestyle were unconventional, even a bit ahead of his time. His characters (particularly the women) have a Henry James–like predilection for bucking social mores, and he occasionally found his work under attack by morality-mongers. Collins was well aware of his books' potential to offend certain Victorian sensibilities, and there is evidence in some of his writings that he was prepared for it, if not welcoming of it. He writes in the preface to Armadale, his 1866 novel about a father's deathbed murder confession...

Estimated by the clap-trap morality of the present day, this may be a very daring book. Judged by the Christian morality which is of all time, it is only a book that is daring enough to speak the truth.

Career
Collins began his career by writing his painter father's biography. He gained popularity when he began publishing stories and serialized novels in Dickens's publications, Household Words and All the Year Round. His best-known works are The Woman in White and The Moonstone, both of which—along with Basil—have been made into films.

Collins often alludes to fantastic, supernatural happenings in his stories; the events themselves are usually borne out by reasonable explanations. What remains are the electrifying effects one human being can have upon another, for better and for worse. His main characters are often described in terms such as "remarkable," "extraordinary," and "singular," lending their actions—and thereby the story—a special urgency. In one of his great successes, 1860's The Woman in White, Collins spins what is basically a magnificent con story into something almost ghostly: The fates of two look-alike women—a beautiful, well-off woman and a poor insane-asylum escapee—are intertwined and manipulated by two evil men. One of those is among the best fictional villains ever created, the kill-'em-with-kindness Count Fosco. Fosco is emblematic of another Collins hallmark—antagonists who manage to throw their victims off guard by some powerful charm of personality or appearance.

The Moonstone, published in 1868, is regarded by many to be the first English detective novel. Starring the unassuming Sergeant Cuff, it follows the trail of a sought-after yellow diamond from India that has fallen into the wrong hands. Like The Woman in White, the novel is told in multiple first person narratives that display Collins's gift for distinctive and often humorous voices. Whether it is servants, foreigners, or the wealthy, Collins is an equal-opportunity satirist who quietly but deftly pokes fun at human foibles even as he draws nuanced, memorable characters.

Though The Woman in White and The Moonstone are Collins's standouts, he had a productive, consistent career; the novels Armadale, No Name, and Poor Miss Finch are worthwhile reads, and his short stories will particularly appeal to Edgar Allan Poe fans. Fortunately in the case of this underappreciated writer, there are plenty of titles to appreciate. (From Barnes & Noble.)



Book Reviews 
(Classic books have few, if any, mainstream reviews online. See Amazon and Barnes & Noble for helpful customer reviews.)

It all makes for delicious reading—stolen inheritance, adultery, insanity, drugs, and a mysterious unidentified figure. Poor half-sister Marian—she of the light moustache, not lovely enough to land a husband—becomes the story's most appealing character, if not in appearance surely in spirit and intelligence! Collins must have rattled some Victorian cages when he created such an independent, resourceful female figure.
A LitLovers LitPick (Nov. '09)



Discussion Questions 
(Below you'll find two sets of questions: one from Penguin and the other from Random House.)

1. Laura is presented as an ideal of Victorian womanhood, obedient, respectful of social conventions, and willing to sacrifice her own wishes for others. How does her double, Anne Catherick, illuminate the dark side of that ideal?

2. "You will make aristocratic connections that will be of the greatest use to you in life," Collins's father told him when he started school. But Collins lived a life on the periphery of respectable English society that his father would not have condoned. In the novel, how is pedigree intertwined with deception and immorality? Where do the lines blur between servants and the served? How are the underprivileged used as a screen for viewing the upper-crust characters?

3. Why is Marian so mesmerized by Fosco, who she says "has interested me, has attracted me, has forced me to like him"? Why is Fosco able to see Marian, despite her physical unattractiveness, as a "magnificent creature"?

4. When Hartright returns from Honduras to restore Laura's true identity, he brings tactics he had first used "against suspected treachery in the wilds of Central America" to "the heart of civilised London." Why is he forced to work outside the laws and conventions of society to achieve his aim? Why did he have to leave England and return in order to make this change?

5. One critic has suggested that Marian and Fosco might be considered the true protagonists of The Woman in White. (In many ways they are much closer to Collins's own bohemian sensibilities than Hartright and Laura.) In what sense might this be true? How would you interpret the story's conclusion— especially Marian and Fosco's fate—in this light?

6. The use of multiple narrators was one of Collins's favorite storytelling techniques. What qualities does each narrator bring to the story? How does each change our view of the characters? Could the story have been told from a single viewpoint, and if so, whose?
(Questions issued by Penguin—cover image, top-right.)

________________ 

1. Wilkie Collins has been hailed as the creator of the “sensation novel”. Citing examples from The Woman in White, how would you define this Victorian literary genre?

2. In his preface to the 1860 edition of The Woman in White, Collins wrote, “An experiment is attempted in this novel, which has not (so far as I know) been hitherto tried in fiction. The story…is told throughout by the characters of the book.” Was the experiment a success? What is gained and what is lost in telling the story exclusively through first person narratives?

3. In her Introduction to this Modern Library edition, Anne Perry asks, “What is there in The Woman in White that transcends the change in culture from 1860 to the present, and beyond?” How would you answer this question?

4. Collins has been widely praised for his fully drawn portraits. Which characters stand out as the most vivid, and why?

5. Throughout the novel, how does Collins use premonitions, coincidences and dreams to foreshadow key events?

6. “Walter Hartright is very much a man of his time, ” declares Anne Perry. “His view of women is almost unbelievably naïve compared with today’s.” Drawing on Hartright’s descriptions of Marian Halcombe and her sister Laura, as well as Anne Catherick and her mother, do you agree with Perry’s comment? Do you think that Wilkie Collins shared his protagonist’s view of women?

7. Why does Mrs. Catherick allow her own daughter to be placed in an insane asylum, and how does she justify her actions?

8. In his concluding narrative, Count Fosco describes “thefirst and last weakness” of his life. What is the nature of Fosco’s self-described “deplorable and uncharacteristic fault”?

9. Throughout the novel, how does Collins explore the themes of respectability and social class?
(Questions issued by Random House.)

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