I’VE never run a marathon before, not even its half sibling. I can only imagine the exhilaration at the finishing line, but what I don’t have to imagine is that same sensation at the end of my marathon equivalent—the 1,366-page A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth, and its half-cousin, the 702-page The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins.
Seth’s doorstop of a book was conquered sometime in 1994, bits of it read over forbidden hours at an open cubicle behind a clunky computer monitor—the only protection I had from a snappy, snarky lady boss, whose office was less than ten steps away. I hadn’t touched another oeuvre in the thick league since, until Wilkie Collins’s Victorian thriller came along just before Christmas last year, twenty years hence. It wasn’t a Yuletide gift, alas, but an obligatory read—a 2015 literary text for one of my students.
I feared this was going to be a replay of Bleak House—that 900-page beast of an ‘A’ level literature text which I never read in its entirety, yet somehow managed to wing it at the exams. My early days with Collins were as bleak as Bleak House: at a two-page-per-day crawl punctuated by days of devoted abstinence colored with an enthusiasm fit enough to fan my boredom, I figured I had to devise a method to run the 702-page race.
A spreadsheet was in order, one I’ve used for about a year now, first inspired by Atul Gawande’s book The Checklist Manifesto. It has kept me on top of my daily regime of singling out at least one headline from The Nihongo Wall Street Journal—the august journal in Japanese. The best part about my homemade spreadsheet is that it comes with checkboxes—checkable checkboxes that have a salutary effect on folks who are weirdly obsessive, compulsive, anal; and, in moments of anxiety, terribly flighty and unfocused.
Only a few tweaks had to be made to my template Japanese headlines spreadsheet before I labelled it The Woman in White, laid out in five columns: checkbox, date, page number, pages covered, and “+/-”—the excess or shortfall of pages I had achieved for the day.
With a 20-page-per-day commitment, I worked out I would finish the novel by February 22 from the day I started my reading tracker on January 19. I would, however, clock a much-earlier finish 11 days ahead of schedule. This was by no means the trick of the spreadsheet, but the mastery of Collins—his intricate plotting and genius characterization that had given birth to literature’s king of villains, Count Fosco, who only makes his first appearance a third of the way through the novel.
The hours and minutes that carried me through Collins’s last pages on the morning of February 11 were a fervid rush—one I imagine must have consumed him too as he worked his prose to a feverish finale, captured in such an emotionally resonant line, “Marian was the good angel of our lives—let Marian end our Story.”
I finished my race with disbelief that the moment had arrived, and like Truman Capote when he completed writing his first novel Other Voices, Other Rooms, I too felt “a wonder simultaneously regretful and exhilarated.”
Having invested so many hours in the lives of Collins’s characters, particularly Count Fosco and Marian Halcombe, villain and heroine parrying and thrusting with such great art and wit, I didn’t want their stories to end, but I knew the only encore I could settle for would be a re-read.
Oh, that one has to bid Count Fosco adieu! I could honestly have lived with the idea of him getting away scot-free. How could I not? Especially after his remarkably written chronicle of events, rendered with such honesty I couldn’t help feeling how all that breathless pomp and indulgent self-puffery was more endearing than annoying. And who would have known he would be a Man of Sentiment, one whose actions would ultimately be “restrained” because of his “fatal admiration for Marian.”
For someone so despicable and dangerously lovable all at once, I wanted his mischiefs and genius scheming to go on, perhaps not forever, but just a little longer—which is exactly what you don’t want in a real marathon.
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
Completed: February 11, 2015
Related: The King of Villains