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The Woman in White

Page history last edited by J F Norris 13 years ago

Collins, Wilkie - The Woman in White (1860)


Victorian sensation novel w/ detective novel elements


Finally read this now that Lloyd Webber has turned it into a musical.  Although I suspect the “freely adapted” version will differ greatly from this often complex, overly populated novel.  I am not positive, but I believe this is the first detective novel that deals with the machinations of a financially irresponsible man plotting to get his wife’s fortune.  Interestingly, the only murder occurs in the final pages when Count Fosco’s body, stabbed and mutilated, is displayed for tourists in the Paris morgue.  Other deaths occur (Sir Percival Glyde dies in an accidental fire he himself causes; Anne Catherick dies from natural causes, albeit unexpectedly) but they are not murders.  The main thrust of the story consists of the cat-and-mouse game that ensues between Marian and the Count as Marian attempts to discover if Glyde and Fosco are plotting Laura’s murder in order to gain her fortune.  Fosco sees Marian as his intellectual equal and she is at first taken in by his near mesmeric charm.  I found it interesting that Collins gives Fosco a somewhat supernatural power over animals – there is a telling scene in which he calms a ferocious dog in the presence of Marian and Laura.  Although Fosco has earned a place in the literary hall of infamy as one of the quintessential Victorian villains simultaneously oozing unctuous and chivalrous charm he is not, in my opinion, really that much of a villain.  Among the numerous supporting characters are the memorably drawn Mrs. Michelson – a housekeeper with a religious hypocrisy similar to Drusilla Clack (The Moonstone); Frederick Fairlie – the neurotically phobic and selfish uncle who would prefer to remain with his coins and collection of rare drawings than be bothered with people; Mrs. Catherick – an embittered woman bent on ruining Percival Glyde and the sole person who knows his “secret;” Mrs. Clements – Anne’s protector, nanny and surrogate mother; and Professor Pesca who appears briefly in the beginning of the novel, provides the employment reference for Hartright to obtain his post at Limmeridge House and resurfaces in the final chapters to reveal his own secret that will lead to Fosco’s deservedly violent end.  Truly a masterpiece of this type of Victorian fiction – a work that belongs entirely to its era and resists any update. (2006)


J.F. Norris

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