PUT a ballsy heroine and a charming villain together, and you get a plot that moves at such an inexorable pace the reader is forced to commit that sin of reading past his bedtime. You know that feeling—you tell yourself “Just one more page,” only to find that the end of this “one more page” sucks you into the next, and on and on. Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White is such a story.
Hailed as the first and greatest of the bestselling Victorian thrillers known as “sensation novels,” it hardly piqued my interest when I first purchased it two weeks before Christmas for two reasons—one, it was obligatory reading, an assigned text for my Secondary Three literature student; and two, there were other worthier, more compelling reads for the holidays: Gabriel García Márquez’s I’m Not Here to Give a Speech and Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs.
But the New Year has a way of whipping us into action, and so I crawled along, in nibbles at first, loathing the hours and weeks that would see me through the whopping 702 pages, plus another 17 more—observations by a Wilkie Collins authority Julian Symons.
January 19th comes along, and I’m only at page 129. But come page 238 on January 30th, the pages start to fly. This is exactly where Count Fosco makes his appearance, that villain with the complexion of Napoleon and the heft of Henry the Eighth, and whose “excessive grossness of size” can only be matched, as the tale unfolds, by his excessive potential for evil.
Iago may be the sexiest and slyest literary villain alive, but Count Fosco would go down in history as the suavest—his mastery of words, his piercing aphorisms, his inimitable style, at once elegant and outrageous, trumps even Iago’s earthy, racy wit.
No reader or audience ever roots for the villain, but one can’t help admiring Count Fosco’s cool persistence and his urbane manner, his flawless plotting and scheming, and that perpetual consideration and deference to another: “Yes, or no?” he likes to offer—the lethal snare that has a way of luring any victim into his lair as effortlessly as the deft moves that checkmated Marian Halcombe in ten minutes.
Even Marian, our heroine, who’s more man than woman in spirit and nerve, can’t outwit him—for now at least, at page 413, where she has been bedridden and unconscious for several days. I only hope her health restores quickly, but Collins has that wonderful gift of teasing us readers. His suspense is as bold and outsized as our dear Marian’s courage. The deeper her slumber, the deeper my distrust for every other character who is not the forthright Hartright or the foolish and faithful Fanny.
I can’t remember when I last read a book that has surprised me the way The Woman in White has. It draws you deliciously into its twists and turns and high drama like a James Bond movie without the guns and the gadgetry. Ian Fleming must have learned a thing or two from Mr. Collins.
The Woman in White
By Wilkie Collins (1824 – 1889)
719 pages. Penguin English Library.
First published, 1859
With a commentary by Julian Symons
Start Date: December 21, 2014
Estimated Completion Date: February 19, 2015 (or earlier)
Related: Running the 700-Page Race