The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins

Posted 9 February, 2009 by Trish in Reading Nook, Review / 33 Comments

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Title: The Woman in White
Author: Wilkie Collins
Date Finished: Feb 8, 2009 #6
Published: 1859 Page: 498
Rating: 5/5 (not perfect, but I’m tired of holding out for perfection!)

I want to know who started the rumor that classics are awful, and dry, and boring, and dull, and dumb. Sure, I confess that I feel some belong in that category (ahem…James), but I loved The Woman in White. I will admit that it took me a little while to get into the nineteenth century language, but once I found the rhythm (and the patience to read slowly), I was swept away by the writing and the story.

The Woman in White is a collection of narratives which are strung together in order to solve a series of mysteries. The narration begins with Mr. Hartright, who is commissioned to teach two young ladies, Marion and Laura, painting. On his way to their home in Limmeridge, Hartright meets a strange, distressed woman who is dressed all in white. He helps her momentarily, and after they part, he finds that she has escaped from an insane aslyum. The rest of the novel works to explore who the woman in white is and how she relates to several other characters and events. The plot is extremely intricate and is unraveled as different narrators give their accounts of the events–thus making it difficult to neatly summarize, but making it a compelling read.

It’s difficult for me to express why exactly I enjoyed this book so much. Part of the reason is because I really enjoyed getting little pieces of the puzzle from the experiences of the different narrators. This provided a richness to the story that couldn’t have been achieved with an omniscient narrator, especially as I had to learn which characters I could trust to tell the whole story and to find the holes in the stories I wasn’t entirely sure I could trust. Also, though, all of the different narrators gave such varied perspectives into the other characters. I got to see the everyone’s eccentricities through multiple lenses. And the characters! I won’t even go there because it would make this review super long, but great characters.

In addition to the narration style, I simply really enjoyed Collins’ writing style. I think I might still prefer Dickens’ dry wit and social commentary, but I was constantly dogearing pages and marking passages in this book. Reading this book made me miss grad school tremendously, and I was even tempted to dig out my old notes on a 19th Century Sensationalism course I took (we discussed The Moonstone) and see if I could find some old literary criticism articles I might have kept. This is the type of book that is enjoyable on its own, but I also know that there is so much hidden beneath the plot that could be picked apart. Mostly what I found interesting was the treatment of women in the novel–especially comments made on the correct roles of females and the differences in thoughts and actions that men and women have.

I could babble on and on, but I won’t. There were a few lulls for me, especially with the main narration by Mr. Hartright (who I found a little dull), but overall I had a difficult time putting this one down. There are so many twists and turns that just when I thought have it all figured out, I realized that I was no where close to knowing the answers. So, if you’re looking for a great mystery to read while curled up by the fire, this is your book. It is one of those pesky classics, and it is really long, but despite all of that I had such a great time with this one that it made me want to dig out some of those other classics on the shelf.

33 Responses to “The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins”

  1. I can’t can’t can’t WAIT to read this book!! Even though we’re reading it in October, I might just skip ahead and read it sooner than that. I’ve heard nothing but good things about it.

    And I’m with you – whoever lumped all classics together and boring and dry needs to be horsewhipped. ;)

  2. I love the reason why you gave it a 5. I didn’t think I could be even more excited about reading this one, but now, thanks to you and Laura, I am. My idea was to read it for RIP, but can I wait that long?

    I love multiple perspectives/narrators too. When used well they add so much to a book.

  3. I think you’re the second person this year who’s mentioned how readable Wilkie Collins is. I might have to look into it, thanks.

  4. Perfection is highly overrated anyway. :)

    I so want to try this book…it sounds absolutely wonderful. I just worry, because it takes me forever to read books it takes most people a couple days to read. I can’t imagine how long I’d be at reading this. Of course, I guess I could just look at it as I’d be spending even more time than usual enjoying a book, huh?

  5. Never heard of this book or this author before..(that just goes to show how ignorant I am!)..reading this review has now put me in a quandry.. i wanted to keep this year’s classics challenge picks all Austen.. but this one seems interesting too! hmm.. i am going to have to rethink my list!

  6. I had heard of this title before, but never knew what it was about. It sounds interesting. Someday when I feel like opening classics again, I’ll reach for this one.

  7. I read this over Christmas break and absolutely LOVED it! You did an awesome review of the book!

    I am very anxious to find to time to begin reading The Moonstone. Have you read that one yet?

  8. *Bermuda – I hope you like this one–I’d definitely recommend it over The Moonstone.

    *Amanda – Haha! I don’t see any reason to wait. It took me a while to read it, but the reading didn’t drag at all.

    *Nymeth – I’m so stingy with those 5s and I’m tired of it! I think there is always going to be something that I can nitpick, but overall I really liked this one. Maybe you could use it for one of your classics picks!

    *Michelle – Very readable. Like I said, I think I prefer Dickens for a couple of different reasons, but I think Collins’ writing is much easier to digest.

    *Debi – And what is perfection anyway?? It took me a good two weeks to read this one, but I tried to just read a little every day. The story was so engrossing that I didn’t feel as impatient as I normally do with longer books.

  9. *Ramya – I don’t think that Collins is a very well-known author. I hadn’t heard of him either until I had to read one of his books for a course a few years ago. Maybe you could read this one as a pre-challenge warm up! Haha!

    *Michelle – I wish I could get more out of the meaning and the writing–I’m always wanting more! But thank you–and thank you for sharing the passion with me. :) I love that we have love for books in common.

    *Jeane – Unfortunately it is difficult to summarize without giving too much away or ruining any of the surprises, but it’s definitely a fun read. Hope you like it!

    *Molly – Yay–I’m glad you loved it too! I liked the Moonstone but I didn’t love it as much as this one. It could have just been the timing, but it seemed a little slower to me. Still good, though!

  10. Thanks for the great review, Trish! I’ve this book in my pile for some time and I’m tempted to read it everytime I look at it but I guess I’m intimidated by the thickness of it. I guess after reading your lovely review, it has helped me move the book forward! ;)

  11. Congratulations on finishing! I agree with you that it is worth it. I also gave it a 5 rating and I love your reasoning for rating it so!

  12. I’m sure I didn’t start the rumor, but I sure have supported it. :) Funny that I didn’t know this was a classic. I guess 1859 would qualify it, huh? Glad you thought it was almost perfect!

  13. I read this book last year and I thought it was wonderful. After reading James’ “The Turn of the Screw,” which I didn’t like at all, this was a great reminder how wonderful classics really are. I’ve had “The Moonstone” on my shelf ever since, but I’m saving the pleasure for a special occasion. =) Glad you liked it!

  14. I have this in my gmail, I got it through I admit to reading the first chapter or so and not being able to get into it at all- so I switched to Persuasion. You have me wanting to give it another go.

  15. I loved, loved, loved this book! I read it in the early 90’s, and now you’ve put me in the mood to read it again! A good classic is never disappointing…

  16. *Eva – I haven’t heard of No Name…will have to check it out.

    *Melody – It is a long book, but it didn’t feel like I was reading it forever (although it took about 2 weeks). It’s hard to put down sometimes!

    *Amy – Haha–I’d like to know what perfection IS! :)

    *Sam – I hope you get to it soon…maybe for the classics challenge?? ;)

    *Shelley – I liked this one a lot more than The Moonstone, but they are both good. Hope you enjoy it!

    *Veronica – I don’t know if this will be my favorite of the year, but it’s definitely a contender for favorite classic (after Wuthering Heights, of course).

    *Terri – Definitely worth it. It was a really fun read and a great book club pick–we had some good discussion! Thanks for the link, too.

    *Joy – Oh–I hate trying to figure out what is a classic and what isn’t. My sister was asking me about Lolita the other day (published in the 50s) and I told her “maybe.” I think you might like parts of this one, but it is a long one…

    *JS Peyton – James? Ewww! :) I haven’t read Turn of the Screw, but I have it somewhere in the stacks. I hope you like The Moonstone–another great mystery book!

    *Lisa – Haha–the first few chapters are a little dry. You meet the woman in white really early, though, and things start to pick up from there.

    *Bellezza – Wasn’t this a great read? I’m sure I’ll be reading it again in a few years. So glad you liked it too. Have you read The Moonstone?

  17. I had tried getting this from the library a few months back, however all 6 copies had been stolen over the years. Now I am thinking that should have clued me in that this was a good read :)
    Thanks for the excellent review, it sounds like a story I will really enjoy, I will be hunting a copy down (lol)

  18. OK, I think you have me convinced! I’m ashamed to say I’ve never read anything by Collins, but he’s one of those authors I thought might be too dense for me. It does sound complex, but in a good way!

  19. Trish,
    I am reading this book right now. It took me a while to get into it, but now I am very interested! I am still in the beginning. Hartright just encountered Anne at the cemetery. I love the mystery and I love the characters. You are right that just discussing the characters would take a long time. I am glad you liked the book so well. It gives me hope for the ending!

  20. *Joanne – The copies were stolen!! Too funny. I hope you can find a copy–there’s nothing better than a great mystery.

    *Bellezza – In a way I’m glad that I read The Moonstone first because I think it would have really paled in comparison after The Woman in White!

    *Lesley – Don’t feel bad for never having read Collins. I hadn’t even heard of him until a few years ago (and only because the class I was taking in school). If you like classics, though, you should definitely try this one.

    *Rebecca – The book only gets better! I had a tough time getting into it initially as well, but once I did I never wanted to put it down. Can’t wait to hear what you think of it.

  21. *S. Krishna – I hope you like The Moonstone! It is another great mystery, although I do prefer The Woman in White.

  22. Oh, I love Wilkie Collins but don’t think I’ve picked up one of his books in more than 10 years. (Man, I feel like I am getting old. Has it really been that long?)Maybe I will pick one up for the classics challenge. :-)