Previously, I read a book about a woman in black. Now, I have read a book about a woman in white.
Walter Hartright is making his lonely way home one night when he is startled by a woman dressed in white, frightened and trying to find the way to London. He directs her to London, but once there overhears two men searching for an escapee from an insane asylum. He is disturbed by this, but has no time to fret. The next day he has taken up the position of art teacher to two young ladies at Limmeridge House. There he meets the plain but sharp and intelligent Marian Halcombe and her beautiful younger half-sister, Laura Fairlie, who bears a strange resemblance to the woman in white, Anne Catherick.
It doesn’t take long for the two young people to fall in love, but Laura has already promised to wed another man, Sir Percival Glyde, who has some connection to Anne Catherick. Anne Catherick sends a strange, cryptic warning letter to Laura, but has to flee when Sir Percival arrives. Walter leaves the distressing situation, but after Laura’s marriage, odd things begin happening in her household. Marian begins to suspect both Sir Percival and his strange Italian friend, Count Fosco, of plotting a way to seize Laura’s wealth.
I actually thought this was a rather riveting novel. Apparently this is known as the first Victorian sensation novel, following on the heels of the popular Gothic novels of the late 1700’s and early 1800’s. Collins sets up a very elaborate plot, but manages to hold all the threads together quite well. Walter was a bit dull at first, but once he got deep into investigating, I started thinking he should quit art and open up a detective agency. (Hartright/Halcombe detective agency? I’d read that book.) Laura was a bit boring, but sweetly inoffensive.
I enjoyed Mr. Fairlie, who seemed like a dark spiritual successor to poor Mr. Woodhouse. His constant whinging and the different ways people manage him was amusing, although not so much as with Mr. Woodhouse. Mr. Fairlie is all selfishness.
Marian was an absolute delight. She was intelligent, resourceful, and active. The woman crawls onto a wet roof to eavesdrop! That takes gumption. Alas, she falls prey to Victorian “I got rained on” syndrome, but at least it was depicted as more than just a cold. (I have a feeling a simple cold wouldn’t have kept her down.) Honestly, I kept hoping Walter would give up on Laura and just get with Marian. (Detective agency, remember? Maybe I’ll write that one day.) This is the woman who nearly managed to outwit Count Fosco. (This is why I think she suddenly developed a severe illness. Otherwise, Count Fosco would have been defeated very quickly.)
Speaking of Count Fosco, he was just as wonderfully slimy as he was in Brimstone. Messrs. Preston and Child translated him into the modern era very well. He is a colorful (in all senses of the word) character, steeped in high culture yet clearly capable of horrible brutality. Marian very quickly discerns that Count Fosco is the real threat, and Sir Percival is a mere bully. What is so frightening about Count Fosco is his absolutely amorality. He is absolutely convinced that nothing he is doing is wrong. He is the embodiment of “it’s not wrong unless you get caught”. This is demonstrated in a very interesting dialogue between him, Laura, and Marian regarding criminals who escape justice.
That said, I feel like the final ending-the sudden appearance of a global conspiracy, the coincidental connection to Walter’s Italian friend, and the way Count Fosco is brought to justice-was starting to stretch the story too long. I believe Collins was trying to eke out another paycheck or two from it. If anything, it felt like it came from some different story altogether. Perhaps Collins considered writing that and just threw it into this one. Still, the story was coherent, interesting, and had very real and detailed characters that drove the plot forward.