Considering that I chose this book as the basis for my research paper in one of my classes this semester, I should have a lot to say about this but after writing over 4500 words, I'm not even sure where to begin. I had never actually read anything by Collins before though I knew he was a contemporary of sorts of Dickens, they had a bit of a friendly rivalry, and I had also read Drood by Dan Simmons which explores the author a bit. Having said that, Dickens is one of those authors I have never quite gotten into - he can certainly put a sentence together, but his women characters always struck me as very black and white, either good and evil. I enjoyed Collins much more, and hope to read The Moonstone next year.
This novel is credited as the first novel of the sensation novel genre. Collins weaves through various narrators, depending on who witnessed which parts of the story, thus making it rather like a court document. The Woman in White refers to Anne Catherick, a mysterious woman that Walter Hartright, one of the main narrators, encounters in the beginning of the novel. As he begins a summer position as a art tutor to two half sisters, he notices a startling similarity between his pupil Laura Fairlie and Anne. While Anne is a bit mad, and Laura is a rather forgettable character, it is the rest of the cast that makes this such a memorable story. Though Walter describes Marian Halcombe as ugly and mannish, she runs off with the story, setting herself up as a very intelligent, no nonsense woman who loves her sister Laura above all else, and feels the constraints of her gender as she tries to protect Laura.
Additionally, while Walter is the "hero" of the narrative, he too feels rather boring and proper compared to the entertaining and fascinating villain Count Fosco. That's one thing that I found so fascinating about the novel - on the one hand, Collins delivers the usual innocent naive female and steadfast male hero one might expect from a Victorian novel, but it is Marian and Count Fosco that are the truly memorable characters. While I didn't argue this in my paper because I didn't want to make arguments about Collins I couldn't completely support, one truly gets the idea that he also was bored with the norms and himself preferred Marian and the Count. One of my main arguments was that having the normal Victorian characters in the novel would make a modern woman like Marian more appealing to a conservative audience since the presence of Laura and Walter still fufill their expectations. A few articles I used in my research also had some interesting arguments about Walter being the third villain of the novel, after Count Fosco and Sir Percival Glyde - Walter is not only one of the main narrators (Marian has the second largest chunk of narrative) but is also the editor as it turns out. As a result, it is his choices that take away Laura's voice and eventually Marian's. Though Laura is the reason for much of the plot, she herself is a rather shallow and unknowable character but this could also be blamed on Walter because perhaps he does not want to truly know her and prefers to keep her on a pedestal as something pure and innocent to be protected.
Anyway, it was a rather fun ride - I thought the end dragged on a bit more than it needed to, but I quite enjoyed Collins, and I usually tend to prefer the female authors of the past, such as Austen to the men, so it was a pleasant surprise. Additionally, it can be read as a "straight forward" but twisty thriller suspense novel, but there is also so much more food for thought if someone wants to dwell deeper. I actually compared some of Collins' characters and situations to problems addressed in John Stuart Mill's The Subjection of Women as both deal with the position of women in society, and specifically discuss inheritance and property laws.