Wednesday, March 05, 2014

284. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

The Woman in White (FP: 1868; Penguin Popular Classic (1994), 569) by Wilkie Collins is the first book I read in 2014. It was a selection of the Book and Discussion Club of the Writers Project of Ghana for the month of February*. This is a fantastic story about love - found, lost, and found again; trust and mistrust; impersonation and title-chasing or more specifically an egregious quest for an upward movement into a more respectable class of English society; and about a misunderstanding that ended in divorce and loss (and regain) of reputation. 

Laura Fairlie was engaged to marry Baron Percival Glyde; the match was made by Phillip Fairlie, Laura's father, before he died. Marriage between the two was therefore a matter of time, at least until a poor drawing master - Walter Hartright, around whom some of the events in the story surrounded, entered the Limmeridge household. The two - Laura and Hartright - were doomed to love each other the first day they met. Miss Marian Halcombe - Laura's half-sister - has made it her duty to protect her sister and to ensure that the engagement was not broken. Fortunately, Walter was wise and cared about reputation - his and hers, so he agreed to leave the household to forestall any further desires they both might develop. Unfortunately, Percival had a secret and The Woman in White - Anne Catherick, a woman of doubtful mental capabilities and who stunningly resemble Laura, thought she knew what this dangerous secret was about. And because of her love for Laura's mother, whom she had lived with for sometime and who had convinced her to wear white, Anne made it her duty to prevent the marriage between Laura and Glyde. But she could not prevent a man on a mission to solve his financial problem from marrying the very woman who had the solution. And so the charms of Percival won over Laura Fairlie and any apprehensions that she had from the letter Anne had sent her dissipated. The marriage was quickly arranged and Laura's inheritance became the chief discussion point. Finally, when he had obtained access to her wealth, he would show her his true person. He really did not care for Laura and treated her badly. The money was all he wanted. But Anne would not stay quiet. The rest of the story is about Glyde and his friend - Count Fosco - trying to shut Anne up.  

Wilkie weaved his story in a way that made it difficult to second guess him and even when you are sure that something was going to happen, it eventually turned out not to have. In fact, the suspense in this tale is tense and palpable and he sustained it to the very end. Most authors, in the telling of their stories, shed off the peripheral (or lateral) stories and events to concentrate on the crux as the story heads towards its final unravelling (the denouement). But this was not so with Wilkie Collins. He kept every angle of the story going. This non-exfoliating (or killing off) of events produced a story that did not rush towards an end and that held the reader's interest until the last page. In fact, it is in reading to the end would conceptions and beliefs made from the beginning be broken.

Another beautiful thing about The Woman in White, apart from its ability to hold the reader's attention and command his or her reading time, is its characterisation. Each and every character in this story is unique. Each is memorable. And each is relatable. There is a Prof. Pesca who prided himself on being a perfect Englishman in his language and who said Now, my good dears... and who described the family he tutored Italian as
Among the fine London Houses where I teach the language of my native country, ..., there is one, mighty fine, in the big place called Portland. You all know where that is? Yes, yes - course-of-course. The fine house, my good dears, has got inside it a fine family. A Mamma, fair and fat; three young Misses, fair and fat; two young Misters, fair and fat; and a Papa, the fairest and the fattest of all, who is a mighty merchant, up to his eyes in gold - a fine man once, but seeing that he has got a naked head and two chins, fine no longer at the present time. Now mind! I teach sublime Dante to the young Misses, and ah! - my-soul-bless-my-soul! - it is not in human language to say how sublime Dante puzzles the pretty heads of all three! [7]
There is Count Fosco, also Italian and a well trained Chemist, who addresses himself as the Count of the Holy Roman Empire, Knight Grand Cross of the Order of Brazen Crown, Perpetual Arch-Master of the Rosicrucian Masons of Mesopotamia; Attached (in Honorary Capacities) to Societies Musical, Societies Medical, Societies Philosophical, and Societies General Benevolent, throughout Europe etc. etc. etc., and who spoke English with a flourish but in a way markedly different from Prof Pesca's. For instance, at the beginning of his narrative he writes:
I arranged to pass the preliminary period of repose, to which I have just referred, in the superb mansion of my late lamented friend, Sir Percival Glyde. He arrived from the Continent with his wife. I arrived from the Continent with mine. England is the land of domestic happiness - how appropriately we entered it under these domestic circumstances. The bond of friendship which united Percival and myself was strengthened, on this occasion, by a touching similarity in the pecuniary position on his side and on mine. We both wanted money. Immense necessity! Universal want! Is there a civilised human being who does not feel for us? How insensible must that man be! Or how rich! [544]
Fosco was a charmer whose true intent is forever hidden under a mask of plastered laughter. His talks could veer off into other directions for long periods before repairing to the original route. There is also the unforgettable Frederick Fairlie - a hypochondriac who could not tolerate sunshine and human presence. Everybody was below him in significance and as a bachelor he saw no reason why he should be responsible for the problems of married folks. Any intrusion into his space - physical presence, sound arising from the banging (or even squeaking) of his door, the misalignment of his curtain to invite more light than necessary - put him into a nervous state which would require days of absolute peace, lying prostrate in bed, to recover. Fairlie is your absolute egocentric who found decision-making extremely tasking and would want to be not bothered with any worldly thing apart from his collection of paintings. Even when Fairlie had come to know the cost of his selfishness and neglect of duties, he had to be threatened to tell his part in the story:
It is the grand misfortune of my life that nobody will let me alone.
Why - I ask everybody - why worry me? Nobody answers that question, and nobody lets me alone. Relatives, friends, and strangers all combine to annoy me. What have I done? I ask myself, I ask my servant, Louis, fifty times a day - what have I done? Neither of us can tell. Most extraordinary!
The last annoyance that has assailed me is the annoyance of being called upon to write this Narrative. Is a man in my state of nervous wretchedness capable of writing narratives? When I put this extremely reasonable objection, I am told that certain very serious events relating to my niece have happened within my experience, and that I am the fit person to describe them on that account. I am threatened if I fail to exert myself in the manner required, with consequences which I cannot so much as think of without perfect prostration. There is really no need to threaten me. Shattered by my miserable health and my family troubles, I am incapable of resistance. [304]
Miss Marian Halcombe was the straightforward character who took command over problems and events. She was one who did not bend easily and was not easily frightened. Lady Glyde nee Laura Fairlie was the usual English lady with English sensibilities and gentility. Even when she fell in love with Walter Hartright, she found it impossible to break the promise she made to her father to marry Baron Percival Glyde and rather wished that Percival would do it for her. She was weak and was counterbalanced by her half-sister, Marian. In fact, all the characters in this story are memorable even the dumber servant, Margaret Porcher. Countess Fosco, Laura's auntie, was unique in her submerged hatred and suppressed jealousies of her husband's female friends. Once in a while, when Count Fosco became too friendly with his female acquaintances, a wave of unexpressible fury pass across her face.

And Walter Hartright, the poor drawing-master who was struck by love but was willing to let it go for the sake of reputation. Not only was he central in the story, or did he put the various narratives together, but his role as an innocent and a good man was memorable. He grew from a weakling to a person with immutable resolve to protect a young lady from the rapaciousness of her husband and his friend. 

All the characters in this story were fully developed. None was flat. Pesca was not the anglophile he pretended to be; Halcombe was intelligent - albeit ugly - and together with Hartright sought the interest of Lady Glyde. Countess Fosco moved from the women rights' activist she once was to become a servile wife of Count Fosco, perhaps with the help of the latter's impeccable knowledge in Chemical compositions.

What is impressive about The Woman in White is not only in these unique characters but in the narrative style. Wilkie Collins used eleven - two major and nine minor - narrators in the telling of this story, each telling it from his or her own point of view. The stories of the narrators were arranged to give a smooth flow. It was like the prosecution calling in his witnesses to tell what they know of a case. The two major narrators were Walter Hartright who put all the stories together and who was part of the central characters and Marian Halcombe, whose journal entries was a great wealth of information for Walter's stories. The other nine contributed the parts which concerned them towards the compilation. None of the stories of the nine was up to forty pages.

Through these characters Wilkie Collins introduced humour in an otherwise serious story. Pesca's quaint English, Count Fosco's flourish use of language, Fairlie's verbosity and total ignorance of life around him, and even in Hartright's early description of the Fairlie household, were all sources of humour that lightened up the story.

This is a unique story on all fronts. It is not a story trying to imitate life - some of the coincidences were all too good to happen; however, it is a story that is proud to remain a novel: to entertain and to offer avenues for the discussion and analyses of human nature. A story should more than just imitate life. And The Woman in White does just that.
*We are reading Mawuli Adzei's Testament of the Seasons

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