Wilkie Collins – The Woman In White

One of my goals while exploring the world of books is reading the classics of literature. I don’t aim to read all of them because some  simply turn out not to my liking. So if I have tried at least one famous novel of an acclaimed author I am satisfied enough as I am able to express my opinion on its nature as a classic. One branch of classics, which is a bit more obscure, is reading those novels which created a new genre or subgenre in literature. Of course such definitions are prone to discussion as literature always goes through different stages of development. Novels can be denoted as partially creating a new genre so one defining line would be that a whole novel is intentionally written to be in the new genre as a whole and that it lead to many new authors copying the new genre.

One of those classics in literature which created a new genre is The Woman In White (1860) by Wilkie Collins, the first “sensation” novel. Of course sensation is a broad term. What defines The Woman In White is that its sole purpose is to captivate the reader with an exciting story while making use of cliffhangers to keep them reading. So one could say a sensation novel is a pageturner. It makes the reader unable to put the novel down. The novel was originally published as a weekly serial and its success achieved great heights. This format and the aim of the author to put in each part something that would keep the reader hooked was on a level not seen before.

So what is The Woman In White? It is a complex story with many layers which are well structured. The story is told from the viewpoint of several narrators who each contribute a part of the story. There are two main narrators. The others mainly fill in gaps so the reader gets the whole picture. The two narrators also pretty much define the nature of the story they tell. The first narrator, who is male, opens the story, then follows the second narrator, who is female, after which the first does the remainder. The first part is for the greater part told as a simple romance which on the background contains a lingering mystery. The latter is what keeps the reader going as the romance might be enjoyed by a female reader, but is nothing special.

The second part however turns everything upside down. It is a pure thriller, dark and captivating, in which the reader has little understanding of all that is happening and only knows that it is bad and nasty. There is great power in the central part of the story and as it is told by a female narrator who is part of the events and much constricted in her actions because of the social limitations she is bound to.

The third part changes style yet again. Now the story becomes more of a tale of mystery as the first two parts have created too many which need to be resolved. Collins takes his time and step by step everything is unveiled, either by chance or by smart reasoning. Even so nothing happens in any way that is predictable. There are some surprising twists which I hadn’t seen coming at all. This novel may have started a new genre but it did not contain any typical clichés we are now familiar with.

Until so far the story. What about the characters? There is not much particular development. Only the main male narrator undergoes a change which certainly improves the story. The others important characters are not so much developed but have great depth. The villains would have been very original were it not that they are one of the few elements which have been copied in later thrillers and mysteries. Even so they have many layers and very interesting. The character that stands out most among the main characters is the female narrator. She is almost manly (like a feminist), a relatively modern woman with great intelligence and understanding and a strong will. She dares and acts and is very likable. She is dominant despite her lesser social position and the rock that holds everything together.

Usually I’m very good at finding flaws and weaknesses in a story and most of my reviews contain much of that. The Woman In White is however a wonderful story with great complexity which is written with a good pace and with many strong twists that will  shock you. The different styles might set different moods of which one may be enjoyed better than the other but each serves it purpose. Because of the romance, the thriller hits harder and deeper and the mystery allows you to recover while still being much engaged. The only thing that makes me wonder about this novel is how little known it is. I only discovered it because I like browsing the available books in the libraries of publishers like Penguin Classics, Oxford World’s Classics and Wordsworth Classics and look at books I haven’t heard about. The internet makes this easy to do. I certainly consider this novel to be literature because of the complex structure, the strong characterization and the mid-nineteenth century setting. This novel is certainly highly recommended. Anyone who loves a great book or a thriller or a mystery should certainly pick it up.

 

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