Markham, ON: Penguin Canada, 1984, c1859-60.
Yes, I freely admit, I hadn't read this book until just this fall! I love Wilkie Collins -- I've read many of his other works (Armadale is my favourite) but somehow I just hadn't gotten around to reading this specific one, the book that Collins himself preferred, so much so that he asked for "Author of The Woman in White" to be inscribed on his tombstone.
It was so worth it. I loved it. One of the things I really enjoy about Collins is his awareness of and focus on women's status in Victorian society. The Woman in White deals with the way in which women are reliant on men's money and men's wishes, both as a dependent daughter / niece / other female relative and even more so as a wife.
There are a few women who are vital in this story: Anne Catherick, the original 'woman in white' and Laura Fairlie and her half-sister Marian Halcombe. Ann is a mysterious wraith who first appears to Walter Hartwright when he is walking to London one night, and is the key to the entire mystery as the book goes along. Laura, who looks very much like Anne, ends up being married to Sir Percival Glyde on her dying father's wishes even though her personal preferences lead her more in the direction of Walter. And Marian is a fearless, staunch supporter of both Laura and Walter. Once Laura (a respectable heiress) becomes Lady Glyde, a new character is introduced to their lives... a shady Italian friend of Percival's, Count Fosco.
All these characters spin around each other in complex webs of deceit and desires. Marian's powerful personality is a more than a match for the excessively charismatic yet chilling Fosco. Laura herself is a little bland, but as the love interest I suppose she wasn't allowed to be too ornery or individualistic. The story is told in a series of discrete narratives -- Walter's experience, Marian's diary, letters and affidavits from varied bit players, and so on. This plethora of perspectives makes the story multifaceted and utterly absorbing. It remains an exciting thriller even today; and the treatment of the women involved and the lengths they have to go to in order to survive will make you livid.
Really, there is no need for me to describe the plot or the progress of the story. It is enough of a classic that most people likely have a vague idea of the outlines of the plot, and telling any more detail would ruin the thrill of the reading experience. What I want to share is simply that while long and involved, this is a great book with a sensational plot that will keep you turning pages, while also being full of social commentary and great characters. It's a classic that still has power to move us, to make us consider the plight of others and view our world differently.
Definitely recommended...an enjoyable, lengthy read, perfect for the holidays when you have more time available to read and are in the Victorian mood.