Well OK, not really a secret. I just don’t like to read about books before reading them, due to my morbid fear of “spoilers”. And Wilkie Collins has never been on my go-to list of Victorian novelists. I might not have gotten to him at all, were it not for a scrawled note in the little notebook I always carry, to firm up my leaky memory. I don’t remember who or what supplied me with this lead, but as the saying goes, I will forever be grateful.
As for what led me to this particular book of his: I knew that The Woman in White and The Moonstone were his best-known novels. And since (all things being equal) I like to read an author’s works in chronological order, I chose the earlier TWIW (1860).
After I had been reading TWIW for a time, I made the note
poster child of STICK W THE BK
In other words, I experienced that wonderful (well, to me) feeling of having input persistence, patience, and observation without much immediate reward … only to have that reward finally come, and in spades.
What put me off initially? One thing was that very early on, we meet Professor Pesca, a good friend of the protagonist Walter Hartright. Pesca, from Italy, is shown as an excessively enthusiastic fellow who excessively bubbles over, cheerfully mangling the English language as he goes along. He recalls some of Walter Scott’s “sidekick” characters (probably speaking in some deep Scottish dialect) who are evidently inserted into the narrative to add “color” and “humor”. As you may have surmised, I tend not to be too fond of these fellows. (Though I am really a Scott partisan; see my review of Rob Roy.) Anyway, as it turns out, I had to eventually revise my appraisal of Pesca … which is, I hope, enough said to tantalize but not to give anything away.
There are other aspects of TWIW that would perhaps also fall into the “old fashioned” category, and that put me off for a while. There is a melodramatic cast to things, characters being either very good or … very much the other way. The surroundings for a given scene are set up so as to enhance the story; for example, you can imagine what kind of events might transpire given this scene:
It is a still, sultry, moonless night. The stars are dull and few. The trees that shut out the view on all sides look dimly black and solid in the distance, like a great wall of rock. I hear the croaking of frogs, faint and far off, and the echoes of the great clock hum in the airless calm long after the strokes have ceased. I wonder how Blackwater Park will look in the daytime? I don’t altogether like it by night.
Now for the good news. Or, as I noted succinctly at the time,
SPIN STRAW INTO GOLD
What was this gold I was now finding? Firstly, a very unusual story. TWIW is a murder mystery that’s … well, not quite a murder mystery. (I don’t mean to confuse, just to tantalize without giving away the store.) The freshness one feels reading this, might connect to Collins being a pioneer. TWIW is regarded as one of the very first mystery (or detective) novels. By anyone. (Note the “novel” qualification; Edgar Allan Poe had already penned “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” in 1841, but that was a short story.) On top of that, TWIW is known as the first “sensation novel”. I hadn’t been aware of this category, but it seems that sensation novels were big in Great Britain in the 1860’s and 1870’s. Like everything, there is a Wikipedia article for this subject, and you could pursue it there, but I will just mention the keywords Secret, Crime, Romance, Melodrama, Gothic. (But unlike gothic fiction, the story of the “sensation novel” is given more realism by being placed in a true-to-modern-life setting.)
So, TWIW is an early example of both the Mystery novel, and the Sensation novel. And it is regarded as one of the best in each category. It is noteworthy that pioneering works in a given genre can quite often emerge later as one of the greatest in their genre. (Doesn’t this seem to fly in the face of common sense notions of things originating “rough”, and subsequently improving?) The example that comes to my mind first is Don Quixote, one of the earliest novels, but also one that has been considered the greatest novel ever. [See, for example, the Guardian list, which incidentally places TWIW as #23.]
To come back now, to my own personal reactions to TWIW. Two things stand out positively. Firstly, Collins’ ingenious method of narration. The story is initially related by Walter Hartright. But when it becomes more appropriate for someone else — who was an eye-witness to the subsequent events — to tell the story, then that person becomes the narrator. I was initially disappointed to see this, since I like to “bond” with a central character, so might be sorry to see him walk off stage; but Collins’ narration plan ends up working beautifully. Not only does it give a great sense of verisimilitude, but it creates variety in a long novel that else might turn wearying.
Secondly, Collins writes with great skill. Reading his prose can be a pleasure in its own right. I should perhaps have noted several examples, but just recorded one, which seems very deft in its arrangement of words:
I am to ask a personal favour, for the first time in my life, and to ask it of the man of all others to whom I least desire to owe a serious obligation of any kind.
So … if you are ever hankering for a novel that’s “modern” in the sense of being a mystery story, but also one of the best products of another age, I hope you will give The Woman in White a try. It is not a short read, but if you are at all like me, you will soon be expertly swept along by many successive voices, taking turns in relating a devilishly clever plot.