The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins


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.

The woman in white
The woman in white

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.

Woman in white
Woman in white

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.

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13 thoughts on “The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins

  1. As a grouchier and older woman, I agree about wanting to kick ’em in the shins! Illustrated books are so much nicer, aren’t they? Or maybe it’s just me…..I live (and love) in the world of animation.

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    1. I love illustration! You should see me in the second hand bookshop I frequent, where I delve into its darkest corners to pull out old editions of books with a few illustrations thrown in. I love the pen and ink ones best with a little bit of watercolor thrown in … *sigh*

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  2. Lovely, this is one of my favorite classics. Btw, it came out as a television serial. I used to watch it when I was a kid. It was pretty popular, it was in marathi tho 🙂

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    1. @Nish – I’d completely forgotten about “Shwetambara”. Mohan Gokhale was so cool….too bad he passed away.
      Thanks, Malvika, for the walk down memory lane even if you didn’t intend for this to become one. 🙂

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      1. @ Nish I have never seen that particular tv serial .. Doordarshan had some awesome story lines back in the day…they have recently restarted ‘Buniyaad’ and my hubby and Me are probably one of the very few people below the age of 50 watching them so avidly. Why is it so impossible for any Indian channel/ Doordarshan to adapt novels into serials nowadays!! Its as if we are regressing, instead of progressing with all those subservient saas-bahu serials! Everything else in the Indian Govt. follows in the tradition of the British forebearers, why can’t they take just copy the BBC model for their Govt. sponsored channel!
        @ Radhika As you can see I am always open to a walk down memory lane…intentional or otherwise 🙂 also, I am prone to extremely strong opinions in the morning 😉

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      2. @Radhika: That’s the one, yes. I had forgotten the name. Maybe I am becoming sentimental in my old age, but I remember that serial being really very good 🙂

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    1. I agree with both of you…..good TV has taken a backseat to something quite mind-numbing. Remember Yeh jo hain zindagi? Maybe those times were simpler – I don’t know.

      @Malvika: Strong opinions are essential to being human, me thinks. Without them, we’d be a watered down version accepting just about anything presented or sold to us disguised as culture, progress or profit. People who came before us cared enough to express their opinions – we who now enjoy the change and freedom they stood for. It’s our turn to pay it forward – blogging is such a great and effortless way to do so.

      @Nish: Yeah, it’s as if all the reality is either taken out or made askew in ‘reality’ shows. All marketed as culture whose message is melodrama, emotional blackmail, excessive gold jewellery, silk sarees, hair dye, heavy makeup and precisely shaped eyebrows! :O

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  3. Malvika..the times were better in the yesteryears…the feelings were genuine…I recently saw the black & white film Dil Ek Mandir (has two awesome numbers: Yaad ne jaaye bite dinon ki…and Ruk Ja Raat Thaher ja re chanda…), and I was struck by the simplicity of the plot..even a slight suspicion from the heroine about the hero’s intentions in treating her husband, was enough to break the heart of the good doctor…while the cancer patient survives, the good doctor has a heart attack and dies….it was a very strange twist to the tale..something which we can’t even imagine nowadays…

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