Opening sentences are sometimes the most enduring memories of a book. They can hook a reader and reel him in as surely as salmons travel upstream for laying eggs, like love at first sight or like birds going home to roost . A first sentence which presents such promise opens such an instant connection to the story that one is compelled to forge ahead oblivious of the day or time.
And here it is –
This is the story of what a Woman’s patience can endure and what a Man’s resolution can achieve.
Spine chilling!! What were the terrible things that must have happened to the ‘Woman’ in the sentence? What did the ‘Man’ have to do? One is instantly pulled into the narrative in an effort to answer these questions as soon as possible. And so it happened with me. I would not say I am easily beguiled, having read some awesome books in my 30 – something years, but this was one sentence that made me sit up straight. It demanded attention and a commitment. I happily obliged.
I saw this illustrated edition in my favorite bookshop in Bangalore a few months back and didn’t buy it then. It then vanished from the shelves till I found it again a few days back, on a dusty shelf tucked away in the rear, and bought it instantly. It is an abridged version by Jan Needle and is illustrated by Anatoly Slepkov and published by Walker books. Its not available online as far as I could find.
“The Woman in White” is the woman who actually makes sporadic entrances in the plot but dominates the whole story from behind the scenes. It is a sad tale when you look at it as a whole. While reading, one almost forgets that the title is about this frail, not completely stable woman, who didn’t really have a very happy life and is absent from most of the narrative. Its a story about mistaken and switched identities and so one tends to focus on the character in front of our eyes rather than the one moving around backstage. So very Bollywood. But unlike Bollywood, we are made familiar with the legal complications arising from the same. It seemed it would be impossible to prove who was who but thankfully to the author’s quick thinking’ a very devious and cunning way presented itself and saved one and all in the nick of time.
As far as characters go each one is fascinating and intriguing in their own right. I found myself rooting for the villain of the piece and hoping for a different love-story altogether from the one that was being told.
Our hero, Walter Hartright is a drawing master and seems simple enough and the perfect embodiment of the the upright Englishman. It is therefore little surprise that he shows the ‘resolution’ so charmingly pointed out in the opening sentence. He definitely displays fine detective and gentlemanly skills. Our heroine Miss Laura Fairlie is beautiful, gorgeous, insipid and absolutely colorless. But of course the hero falls for her beauty, innocence and kind heart. Being the woman referred to in the opening sentence, I would say the author confused ‘laziness’ with ‘patience’. I think innocence is ‘over-rated’ over practicality in the male of our species. I suppose it appeals to their chauvinist and primal provider instincts since this phenomenon has been seen to occur over and over again through the ages.
Sometimes I want to kick the ‘innocent’ damsels of fiction (and real life) in the shins. I am a grouchy old woman but I just can’t stand nonsense.
The best character was the Italian Count Fosco with his pet mice and birds and his obedient wife and the force of his personality. The author with typical English disdain of intelligence and cunning portrays the man in the worst light possible, as someone who is heartless and cruel. And maybe he was but there is no denying that he was supremely intriguing.
And then there is Miss Halcombe, Laura’s step – sister another strong and bright character but excessively ugly. Her loyalty and fondness towards Laura leads her into some dangerous situations as she tries to do all that she can to make her sister happy. One can’t but wonder at Laura’s selfishness when she tells Miss Halcombe to stay with her and ‘never marry’ when she is herself about to be wed for the first time. When her sister falls severely ill, all Laura can do is stand by and cry. Miss Halcombe is a lady who stands up to trouble and fights for the ones she loves. She protects and coddles Laura and provides moral support to the besotted Walter. She doesn’t really have any money coming to her from her father or mother and is sadly dependent on Laura and Walter for the rest of her life and was no doubt the free governess to their children. I wished more for her. I wished the author had carried on the plot so we could see her fall in love with a deserving man and do great things like travel and write or even become a detective.
Wilkie is an incredible author with a strong English strain of conservative thinking at times. With the illustartions of Anatoly Slepkov this book is a priceless edition.