Reading Buddies Discussion: “The Woman in White” by Wilkie Collins

by Erin on November 18, 2011

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Welcome, Woman in White-ers! I hope you’re enjoying Wilkie Collins’ classic as much as I am. I’m about to start chapter 8 of the first section in the second epoch (got all that??), which is just about halfway through. As always, spoilers are fair game here!

(Before I go any further — if you haven’t voted for the January book yet, take a moment to check out the poll in the sidebar and pick your preference!)

I won’t actually be talking much about the plot of The Woman in White today. I’m extremely curious about where the story is going, but at the same time I’m not usually one to make conjectures and try to puzzle things out — I’d rather just see how the story unfolds. Suffice to say I’m enjoying the confusion and tension Collins is so effectively building. I also find myself looking forward to seeing who will take up the tale next and have to keep myself from looking ahead, since I assume knowing who the future narrators are would give me an idea of where the story’s headed!

The first thing I wrote down about The Woman in White is “great characterization.” I wrote it after reading the following passage, from Hartright’s description of Mrs. Vesey at the start of chapter 8 in the first part of the first epoch:

“Nature has so much to do in this world, and is engaged in generating such a vast variety of co-existent productions, that she must surely be now and then too flurried and confused to distinguish between the different processes that she is carrying on at the same time. Starting from this point of view, it will always remain my private persuasion that Nature was absorbed in making cabbages when Mrs. Vesey was born, and that the good lady suffered the consequences of a vegetable preoccupation in the mind of the Mother of us all” (p. 43).

A few paragraphs later, Hartright describes his first interaction with Mrs. Vesey, which just adds to the portrait so effectively begun. As I read, I continue to feel Collins is quite adept at thrusting his characters into the story fully-formed and ready for action. It’s like each time I meet one, he describes him or her so compellingly that I question whether he has merely drawn on a stereotype with which I’m already familiar and that is why his characters come so vividly to life. But I don’t think that’s the case. Mr. Fairlie, for instance, might be the curmudgeon-y invalid relation (ugh, do I dislike him!), but to me, at least, he leaps off the page with quirks and personality at the same time that he draws on that rather common role. And he’s just a supporting character, really, at least at this point. All this is just to say that I think Collins does an excellent job with his characters!

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (cover)At the same time, though, I can’t really tell the difference between the narrators’ voices as they add their segments to the larger story. Obviously, there are plenty of context clues to help keep the narrators straight, and I’ve never felt I didn’t know who was talking at any given point. My mention of it here is less a complaint and more an observation. It’s interesting to me that an author so adept at creating characters doesn’t do much (at least, in my opinion) to differentiate their voices.

My questions for all of you so far have to do with the two main women. First, what do you think of Marian’s occasional put-downs of women? I forgot to note down any examples, but several times she has mentioned being inadequate in certain respects or predisposed toward particular (re)actions due to the fact that she is a woman. These feelings seem discordant with her strong and independent personality, and I can’t help pondering whether it’s Collins’ voice breaking through a bit.

My other question is with regard to Laura. Do you feel she’s a weak character? She seems unable to act in many situations, and I can’t decide if she’s just weak or if she has been sheltered for too long and lacks confidence or knowledge about how to proceed. She does show moments of strength, I think, or at least attempts to show them, and she doesn’t annoy me the way helpless females often do, but I haven’t quite worked her out yet. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts.

How are you liking The Woman in White? Do you have any (least) favorite characters? Hunches about where the story is heading? Also, if you’ve posted about The Woman in White on your own blog (as I know at least a couple of you have), please leave a link in the comments so others can find your post!

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10 comments
Jane Gardner
Jane Gardner

I am still reading this book and enjoying it! I imagine it will take me a couple of more weeks because it is that very BUSY time of year for me and my family. However, I try to steal a half hour a day to read at least a chapter. I am really enjoying the way Wilke Collins present the characters and lets the reader assess them based on their interactions with the other characters. This book is a pure pleasure for me so far and I plan to stick with it to the end!

Jane Gardner
Jane Gardner

I am having so much fun reading your comments but I am still in the first section of this book (I just started it on November 13th) and feel pulled in to the story. The writing is very good and the characters are so well drawn. I haven't yet figured out what I think of Marian Holcomb, she is quite masculine in her mannerisms and if she had been born in the 20th Century may have had sexual reassignment surgery. Laura is not that interesting to me at this point because she appears to have a beautiful exterior without much happening on the personality side. However, I am still in the first section of the book so that may account for this opinion and it could change as I read more. I love reading everyone's impressions and opinions on the book thus far.

jaf
jaf

It didn't occur to me while I was reading that Marian was being ironic, it seemed just to be how it was then. But maybe Collins was trying subtly to show how foolish those attitudes were. However what also is striking is that Marian can be brave and intelligent and witty and strong, but she has to be ugly to go with it. The paragraph in which Hartright first sees her is a wonderful piece of writing, which made sure that I'd always remember this essential fact about her. Being poor and ugly, however wonderful she might be as a character, she has no hope of a husband. Laura, who seems for a long time to have no character, is beautiful. I'm inclined from this to think Collins at the mercy of Victorian stereotypes.

Christina
Christina

I'm in love with this book. If you are having a hard time keeping the sections straight, I suggest that you check out the audiobook version read by Roger Rees, Rosalyn Landor, John Lee, and Judy Geeson. It's really helped me.

I'm not sure what I think of Laura mostly because we've only seen her through the lens of those who see her as weak. As for Marian, I agree with Rainer in that I think Marian's comments are suppose to be ironic.

Here are my thoughts on the First Epoch: http://wp.me/pJFNC-2tR.

Alison
Alison

His characters are so realistic. It's a bit bizarre. I haven't read characters that are so true to life in a while. I despise Mr. Fairlie too! I just want to strangle him every time he's in the book.

I think Marian's put downs are just a product of the time period. If anyone had to live in a time period where it was constantly said that women weren't as 'good' as men, they too would pick up on that thinking.

I'm a bit all over the place with Laura. In some respects, I think she's weak but then again maybe it just has to do with the way she was raised.

Here are my thoughts on the First Epoch and the Second Epoch.

zibilee
zibilee

I have never read Collins, though I do have this book on my shelf and think it would have made for a perfect Halloween read. It also would fit perfectly into my classics project that I am starting for the new year, so I am really glad to see this discussion today, and remember that it's one that I want to read. I hope that you end up finding it really fulfilling!

Rainer Maria Rilke
Rainer Maria Rilke

I am really loving this book! I'll have more to say when I finish it. But your questions:

I noticed Marian's putdowns, too, and first assumed that it was just Collins being a chauvinist like most men of his day. But then, when I got to her section (my favorite so far!) her put-downs seem to grow more and more ironic, because all the men around her are not remotely as strong as she is, and so when she says "blah blah blah I'm only a woman" it actually seems as if Collins is being sarcastic through Marian's speech! I looked up his biography to make sure, and he was indeed a feminist of sorts. Awesome.

Also Laura annoys me to no end. I hate disgusting goody-goodies like her. Stfu, Laura. I hope the count gets her.

Rainer Maria Rilke
Rainer Maria Rilke

Oh, dear. I just got to the part after the housekeeper's narration. Now I feel badly for what I said about Laura.

Rainer Maria Rilke
Rainer Maria Rilke

Actually. No. Come to think of it, I think I know what twist is coming up.