Oh, the relief to be back and writing these little blog posts again—the feel-good twitch of fingers over a keyboard: how I missed you! And you of course, too, dear readers, whoever you might be, if you be.
You’ll have to excuse that melodramatic introduction; (or you don’t, it’s really up to you), but I’ve spent the last three weeks in county Galway, simultaneously devouring the verdant greenery of the place as well as well as the verdant poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose selected poems, long after-sought, I finally found yesterday in a used bookshop. It’s made me quite the romantic.
But this is also due in no small part to Wilkie Collin’s “The Woman In White”, which I bought by accident and have since been unable to put down. Sexual and baffling, paced at the maddening speed of a teenager in a Corvette, but constructed with the poise of a Gothic cathedral, it’s a page-turning masterpiece since elided by a modern-day focus on graphic sex and cheap thrills. I name no names.
Collins dominated the commercial literary market in his day, surpassing even his colleague and close friend Charles Dickens in terms of popularity. Read the Oxford World’s Classics Introduction and you will learn how the novel spawned a whole literary culture: everything from fans betting on the novel’s outcome, letters posing marriage directed at the novel’s chief characters, and pets whose names were changed to mirror those of the book’s villains.
Collins was presumably baffled and embarrassed by this storm of interest. He had stepped up to embark on a serious venture and ended up creating a Romanticism-era “Twilight.”
“The only narrative which can hope to lay a strong hold on the attention of the readers,” he said, “is a narrative which interest them about men and women—for the perfectly obvious reason that they are men and women themselves.”
It’s nearly impossible now to read this quote with the simplicity Collins intended. One does not finish “The Woman In White” thinking chiefly about its portrayal of humanity, but by its many preternatural ‘firsts’ that continue to dominate the market. Arguments could very well be made for how the writer created the tradition of the ‘spy-novel’, the archetype of the gentleman villain, the literary obsession with the occult, and, with his “The Moonstone” the first ‘McGuffin’: a term coined later by Alfred Hitchcock for a plot-driver.
Nevertheless, it’s important to separate oneself from these now-conventional tropes in order to read the novel as Collins intended it to be read. It’s not as difficult as it sounds. The writer, speaking through the manifold voices that narrate the story, drops hints constantly, such as in this famous opening line from the gallant Walter Hartright: “This is the story of what a Woman’s patience can endure, and what a Man’s resolution can achieve.” The line is extremely useful for the reader trying to secure his footing in the dense pages to come, and it foreshadows well Hartright’s character’s progression. It is also misleading. On the outset, Walter is hardly the man, more like boy, for making any serious resolutions.
Dispatched with the well wishes of his family and his friend Pesca from his comfortable London lodgings to an estate in Hampstead as a drawing tutor, he is daunted by the idea of adventure. His experiences in the world are limited; his decisions the product of instinct and fear rather than of rational forethought. His relationship with the Italian Pesca, for example, comes from an experience the two men shared at the beach when Walter saved Pesca from drowning in the ocean. Yet the memory is clouded over by the fact that it was Walter who originally pressured the Italian into swimming, careless of the fact that the latter had never learned to do so.
Collins introduces the shadowy “woman in white” almost the instant that Walter leaves London. The move itself is strategically brilliant, but moreso is the diction that accompanies it:
“I turned on the instant, with my fingers tightening round the handle of my stick. There, in the middle of the broad, bright high-road—there, as if it had that moment sprung out of the earth or dropped from heaven—stood the figure of a solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in white garments; her face bent in grave inquiry on mine, her hand pointing to the dark cloud over London, as I faced her.”
And later, Walter’s thoughts about her:
“The loneliness and helplessness of the woman touched me. The natural impulse to assist her and to spare her, got the better of the judgment, the caution, the worldly tact, which an older, wiser, and colder man might have summoned to help him in this strange emergency…I trace these lines, self-distrustfully, with the shadows of after-events darkening the very paper I write on; and still I say, what could I do?”
There’s much analysis that can go into these words. Hartright asserts that his “natural impulse” was to “assist her and spare her”, yet the reader knows that his impulse was really to assure himself that his walking-stick was close enough that he could fight with it. The Freudian symbolism is too obvious to dwell upon. More important are the broader themes of immediate foreign danger (London, shrouded in darkness, representing the shadowy past of Hartright’s hearth and home; and the mysterious woman, though pitied by Hartright, is an escaped mental patient), Hartright’s indecision (“I trace these lines self-distrustfully”), and his questionable honesty as a narrator due mostly to his inability to properly control his impulses.
We move on. Hartright arrives unmolested at Hampstead where he meets the fractious and annoying Mr Fairlie, his pupil and Mr Fairlie’s niece, Laura Fairlie, and her infinitely intriguing foster sister, the bumptious Marian Halcombe. What follows are the events characteristic of typical romance. Hartright develops a crush on Laura, complete with fawning love verses, which are nearly reciprocated, but Marian dissuades him of, seeing as how Laura is already engaged to one Sir Percival Gylde. Hartright is devastated and, by Marian’s council, determines to leave the manor, but not before discovering the identity of the mysterious woman as a Miss Anne Catherick, well known to the Fairlie family. Collins cuts his narrative off here, wisely choosing to resurrect Hartright only until after he has matured.
The reader is thankful for this abrupt conclusion of Hartright’s narrative. Collins, a lifelong philanderer and lover of women, strikes a curious personage as someone able to not only enjoy women’s company, but also able to respect their attributes of strength and determination. One can read the flirtation between Hartright and Laura Fairlie as an unassuming parody of conventional romance and Victorian society: melodramatic, obsessed with protocol, and thoroughly boring. Hartright, at least this early form of Hartright, is a plastic sheet with some pretty lines in terms of character. Larua is a pretty face. Their love-turns take no drama but that of social politicking.
Marian Halcombe, on the other hand, represents a triumph of Victorian radicalism. Fat but not overbearing, more mannish than Hartright in her determination and ability to act, she even enjoys a more realistic love affair with Laura than Walter:
“I waited a moment, looking at her from behind her pillow, as she lay beneath me, with one arm and hand resting on her night-dress never moved—I waited, looking at her, as I have seen her thousands of times, as I shall never see her again…MY own love! with all your wealth and your beauty, how friendless you are!…Who else is left to you? No father, no brother—no living creature but the helpless, useless woman who writes these sad lines, and watches by you for the morning, in the sorrow that she cannot compose, in doubt that she cannot conquer.”
It’s easy to read Marian’s relationship with her ‘sister’ as lesbic. Doubtless Collins was aware of his readers’ discomfort at the sight of this large, manly woman enjoying such a passionate and also incestuous relationship. Collins’s solution is admirable—he makes Marian Halcombe so likable that the reader cannot help but empathize with her. This answer also helps to solve the other problem of why Marian would be so willing to part with her beloved Lauren with a man as flighty and irresponsible as Walter Hartright, were the option available.
Enter Lauren’s beau-to-be, Sir Percival Gylde. He is every inch the brutish and churlish villain the Victorians were used to seeing; so unprepossessing that even Walter stands a chance with Lauren in comparison.
But even Sir Percival is not the focus. For here, approximately one-half of the way through, the romance would take off, if the book were that romance, had not Collins chosen the moment to introduce his most brilliant creation.
There are a thousand adjectives to describe Count Fosco, and a thousand more that the man would recommend for himself if they did not first occur to the reader’s attention. Daring and cunning, flamboyant and flirtatious, built like a kettledrum yet tender as a faun (the man flirts with white mice and cockatoos).
But I don’t need to say any of this. Count Fosco has long since entered the public domain as an ingenious marriage between gross personality, gross ego, and an even grosser villainy. We’ve met him before as the prototype of Bond villains and those of other espionage thrillers (Auric Goldfinger, and Mr Theodorescu of Burgess’s “Tremor of Intent”) We meet him here, after Laura has become Mrs Percival Glyde, as a friend of the baron Percival come to live with the couple at the secluded manor in Blackwater Park where, as events unfold slowly, he emerges the sinister mastermind of a plot to deprive Laura of her inheritance in order to pay the debts of the capricious Sir Percival.
For a man as larger than life as Fosco, these comes off as a rather trivial use of character, who could, by our modern thinking, employ himself to much bigger tasks such as murder or world domination. We’re not too far off from expecting more from Fosco as matters pecuniary soon turn to matters murderous when Laura, en route to the Count’s London home in order to visit the ailing Marian Halcombe, ostensibly transported some time before, contracts a fever and dies.
It does not spoil any of the novel’s pleasure to report that this Laura’s death is a façade, enacted in order to kills two troublesome birds with one stone: the first, the bearer of the inheritance, and the second, Miss Anne Catherick, who has become privy to Sir Percival’s mysterious and perhaps fatal “Secret”.
I need not elaborate any more on plot: no reader would want me to. Condense the novel down to sequential events and summarize its ‘curtain-endings’ (we would use the term ‘cliff-hanger’ nowadays) reduces the read to a laundry list.
Nevertheless before I end, it is imperative to address at least one fault of the novel. Fleming, who taught us that every good villain deserves an equally good demise, could very well have taken this clue from Collins in how the writer dispatches of Fosco in the novel’s final pages. It spoils nothing to allude to the fat Count’s death: Western Literature is far too steeped in the conventions of moral society to let its baddies go unpunished. An active killer on the pages keeps readers intrigued; an active killer off the pages turns their stomachs.
And so the mammoth of a man comes to his end, draped on a slab outside the French morgue like a dried-fish to be viewed for the amusement of an ignorant mob. Does the Count deserve this death? Anyone who has read the novel and read it thoroughly couldn’t agree so. There’s too much life in the man to be so suddenly extinguished, too much sentiment that gives the reason for this death (which I will leave unsaid), and an even grosser injustice that spares Hartright and Laura. What’s more, the manner in which he was dispatched (Collins tells the reader that it was Fosco’s involvement in an esoteric spy organization, but this feels more like a plot device than a realistic turn of events).
Even so, it’s easier coping with this end knowing that the brilliant criminal, notwithstanding what we read on the page, has wormed himself into conventional literature where, for all intents and purposes, he will, like his creator, remain.