Monthly Archives: April 2012

The Woman in White: The End

Out of all of these readalong posts, this one – being about the end of the book – is the most *spoilery*! So, beware.

What I have learned from reading The Woman in White is that adding a Secret Society at the end, complete with Italian sleeper agents and scar-faced assassins is a knock-out way to end your Victorian novel. (And wow, Pesca, who would have thought?)

So, Count Fosco surpasses Sir Percival’s garden-variety villainy by leaps and bounds:

1.  “I am thinking,” he remarked quietly, “whether I shall add to the disorder in this room, by scattering your brains about the fireplace.” The Count’s true colors come out and it’s like Victorian noir.

2. When Walter starts asserting his righteous cause, Fosco shuts him up with “Gently, Mr. Hartright. Your moral clap-traps have an excellent effect in England – keep them for yourself and your own countrymen, if you please.” Ooh, burn.

3. His letter of confession concludes “They are worthy of the occasion, and worthy of


His signature is the end of his sentence, like the movie title appearing at the end of a trailer. The man has style, which it’s fair to say that Sir Percival never had at all.

4. His Achilles’ heel was Marian. For weaknesses, the man has taste.

5. Fosco dies by being assassinated and thrown in the Seine and his Secret Society brand is marked in blood with a T for “Traditore” – that is, traitor. Sir Percival trapped himself in a vestry and accidentally set it on fire. To the greater villain, the more sensational death.

And I don’t want to forget Madame Fosco. When she told Walter, “If I had been in his place – I would have laid you dead on a hearth-rug” and then coolly sat down with her book while the Count took a quick nap, she was the iciest she has ever been and it was rather awesome.

Speaking of icy women, how about that Mrs. Catherick? I loved that we get a little more of her, in the form of a letter to Walter.  Towards the end of the letter, she invites Walter to tea as a token of her thanks, but then lays down some ground rules for such a meeting. She closes the letter with “My hour for tea is half-past five, and my buttered toast waits for nobody.” This delighted me to no end.

Walter himself really rose to the occasion, borrowing the menace of the Italian Brotherhood to serve his own purpose. The bit with the letter to Pesca as a safeguard was impressive.

As much as The Woman in White is about an honorable man (Walter) setting a wronged woman (Laura) to rights, Wilkie Collins clearly takes pleasure  in writing his villainous and amoral characters and the things they say.

In contrast, there’s the depiction of Laura. At one point, Walter describes himself as serving “the cause of Laura and the cause of Truth.” That is what Laura is – a cause, a representation of virtue that needs to be protected. Laura as a person has a brief moment of flinty resolve at Blackwater Park before devolving into a vague presence once more, spending most of the story ignorant of everything. (Anyone else creeped out when Laura showed off to Walter how heavy her purse was with the money she had “earned”?)

At one point in Walter’s confrontation with Count Fosco, Walter reveals that Laura is his wife. Walter says “I could see that I sank in his estimation, as a dangerous man, from that moment.” I don’t think it was meant this way, but I fancied that Fosco’s estimation of Walter sunk, because Fosco was thinking “Her? You chose her, when Marian was right there?”

My hopes of seeing Marian face off with the Count were not realized. They met off-screen but it wasn’t really a face-off. But for all that Marian’s active role was diminished, to this reader’s disappointment, she was instrumental in averting Count Fosco’s plans. Her sheer awesomeness made Fosco surrender several advantages that he had. Also, Walter and Laura’s children are going to have the best aunt ever! Under Marian’s tutelage, they will be extraordinary mini-ninjas.

Let’s see here, there were a couple more odds and ends that I wanted to mention. First, I thought it was interesting that the story ended up being about three half-sisters: Laura had a half-sister on both her mother and her father’s side. Kudos to whichever bloggers called it on Anne’s parentage.

Also, how funny is it, that at the end everyone is like, hurrah, let’s celebrate that Mr. Fairlie died and we have an inheritance now!

Well, this has been a fantastic book and a fantastic readalong! I’m writing this several days before the designated day for posting and I can’t wait to read everyone else’s thoughts.


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The Woman in White: The WAAAALT!er edition

(Bonus points if you get my silly, irrelevant allusion in the post title.)

Just to give fair warning for all that may not realize, spoilers abound in the following post for Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White.

So I had to remind myself that there were other narrators other than Walter Hartright for this most recent installation of the Woman in White Readalong. I feel like I’ve been with him for-e-ver.

But where we picked up the story was actually Mr. Fairlie, the hypochondriac shut-in relative who wants nothing to do with anyone else’s lives. He is very annoyed at having to write a statement about his distanced but still crucial involvement in the tragic events. I felt after reading his section that I wanted to liberate his servant Louis, who is at Mr. Fairlie’s constant beck and call. However, Mr. Fairlie’s horror at learning that Count Fosco had just been from a house with sick people is rather hilarious.

The next narrative is that of Eliza Michelson, the housekeeper of Blackwater Park. Her narrative serves to underscore the claustrophobic campaign of Sir Percival and Count Fosco. Almost all of the household staff is summarily dismissed, responsible third-party persons are kept away, and worst of all, the sisters are separated.

After that, there are three very short narratives by strangers (the newly hired cook of the Fosco’s, the doctor, and the woman who helped prepare the body) that tell of the death of Laura (Fairlie) Glyde. And I pretty much believed it and was shocked. The truth comes out soon after, and I don’t know if this makes sense, but the truth didn’t surprise me as that initial death pronouncement did.

(As an aside, I loved how both Mr. Fairlie and the cook comment on Count Fosco’s predilection for sweets with amazement. Mr. Fairlie: “Had he lunched; and if so, upon what? Entirely upon fruit-tart and cream. What a man! What a digestion!” The cook: “He was past sixty, and fond of pastry. Just think of that!” No wonder Fosco deceives almost everyone as to his true nature. He behaves in public like an overgrown child, fond of sweets and little pets.)

Okay, and then Walter Hartright comes back from Central America, prepared to put Laura Fairlie behind him, and his family breaks the bad news that she’s dead. But he goes to the grave, and is discovered there by Laura, who is alive! It is Anne Catherick, her doppelganger, who has died.

Before I found out the full story behind the switcheroo, this is what I imagined happened: I thought Laura had successfully avoided meeting Count Fosco and stowed away with Mrs. Vesey, before reuniting with Marian. I imagined that Anne Catherick had sacrificed herself by pretending to be Laura, because Anne knew that she was dying anyway. Alas, instead of these two women saving the day, the switcheroo was actually Sir Percival and Count Fosco’s plan.

I understand how Laura’s mental health would have been completely destroyed by all that happens to her. It’s weird, the moment when my heart went out to Laura the most, was when she was kept in that house by Count Fosco and two strange men came in to ask her questions. Collins writes how Laura had thoughts of “claiming the protection and assistance of the only woman she had seen in the house – the servant who answered the door.” And that just hit me on how incredibly lonely and desperate she felt that she would be grasping for any possible sympathetic soul.

So I understand Laura’s mental breakdown, but I am so sad about the diminished version of Marian as seen through the eyes of Walter Hartright. Her destroyed strength makes sense, I suppose, considering the incredibly long period of helplessness forced upon her by her ill health. But I wish Walter would be at least somewhat affected by his ordeals in Central America. So far, that experience doesn’t seem to have mentally harmed him. Rather, his expeditions abroad have taught him how to find out if he’s being followed and also he runs faster. Apparently, the deaths of many of his fellow comrades don’t factor much into the state of his psyche. More likely, Collins didn’t want the Central American sojourn to distract away from the story at hand.

I’m not enjoying Walter Hartright’s narrative as much this time around. I think it’s because so much revolves around Walter interacting with very ancillary characters – vestry-clerks, the hired thugs who follow him, magistrates, Dr. Dawson. The most exciting passage so far was his interview with Mrs. Catherick. She is an interesting piece of work. How deliciously cold was her reaction to the news of her daughter’s death? I mean particularly that moment when she coolly and dispassionately trades her slate gloves for black ones as a token sign of mourning.

Also I liked Collins’ vivid description of the modern desolation of the town where Mrs. Catherick lives, e.g. “the trees that drooped helpless in their arid exile of unfinished crescents and squares; the dead house-carcases that waited in vain for the vivifying human element to animate them” (p. 493).

EDIT: I also liked the scene where Walter barely eludes the thugs trying to get him while he is walking on a road. For some reason, this scene makes me think of that iconic crop-duster plane scene in North by Northwest.

I’m rambling on though, so let me try and wrap up. This section ended with the death of Sir Percival, which I’m guessing might have been in the Count’s plans or at least hopes all along. Sir Percival’s temper and lack of manners would surely have been viewed as a liability by the Count.

I hope that it’s a face-off between Marian and the Count in the end.

“Begin with the Count!” [Marian] whispered eagerly. “For my sake, begin with the Count.”

“We must begin, for Laura’s sake, where there is the best chance of success,” I replied.

Shut up, Walter.


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Music I’m liking lately: Dry the River

I heard the band Dry the River first on an All Songs Considered podcast, and have been looking forward to the release of their album, Shallow Bed, which came out this past week. It’s full of songs that have dramatic build-ups and biblical allusions. It can sound pretty epic at times, is what I’m saying. I’m thoroughly enjoying it.

I made myself pick just one to share here:

And then for something completely different music-wise, less dramatic and more of a retro fun song, from a singer called Kimbra:


Happy Friday everyone!

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The pages are turning quickly – Woman in White

The Woman in White is definitely a page-turner. With only scraps of reading time last week, I wasn’t sure if I’d finish the readalong benchmark by today. But then I set myself down for a couple of hours yesterday and was rapidly moving through the story.

This past week’s reading started with the section written by the Fairlie family solicitor, Mr. Gilmore. But most of the reading comprised of ‘excerpts’ from Marian Holcombe’s diary.

I will get to the diary in a bit. As awesome as Marian’s diary is, I don’t want to overlook Mr. Gilmore’s ‘testimony’, if that’s the right word for it. It was just the right transition viewpoint we needed between Walter Hartright and Marian Holcombe. Mr. Gilmore is not as involved in the story as they are. I became quite fond of him while reading his narrative and was dismayed to read later in Marian’s narrative, that he was struck down with illness. Gilmore’s role as friendly solicitor reminded me of possibly my all-time favorite fictional solicitor, Noel Strachan from A Town Like Alice. (It’s neck and neck between Strachan and Mortimer Lightwood of Our Mutual Friend.)

Back to Gilmore: I think because of Gilmore’s distance from the main mysteries and events, his misgivings about the marriage of Laura Fairlie to Sir Percival Glyde seem especially ominous. If even this observer can sense the danger, then it seems very bad indeed. At the end of his narrative Gilmore says:

I repeat here the parting words that I spoke at Limmeridge House: – No daughter of mine should have been married to any man alive under such a settlement as I was compelled to make for Laura Fairlie.

I think this line struck me as particularly ominous because it underscores how Laura is without the traditional protectors – a father, brother, an uncle that was worth anything. Marian notes this lack in her own diary later. At least Laura has Marian as a protector, but Marian’s power is constrained by her position in society as an unmarried woman without her own financial resources.

Still Marian is a force to be reckoned with. Some of my favorite parts in Woman in White were when Marian gets good and angry:

I should have broken down altogether and burst into a violent fit of crying, if my tears had not been all burnt up in the heat of my anger. As it was, I dashed into Mr. Fairlie’s room – called to him as harshly as possible, “Laura consents to the twenty-second” – and dashed out again without waiting for a word of answer. I banged the door after me; and I hope I shattered Mr. Fairlie’s nervous system for the rest of the day.

p. 180

I write the villain’s words about myself, because I mean to remember them; because I hope yet for the day when I may speak out once for all in his presence, and cast them back, one by one, in his teeth.

p. 328

There are not many times that Marian gets to express her anger outwardly. Instead, after Laura’s marriage, it’s a tense cat-and-mouse game with a veneer of politeness from all but Sir Percival. Sir Percival is the familiar bait-and-switch husband – all civility in the courtship, all brute in the marriage. He is a familiar type, but still quite scary, especially considering what little legal recourse and rights Laura had in those days.

But the cat-and-mouse game: Collins is effective in building a claustrophobic atmosphere to the book, where Marian is constantly having to keep tabs on where other people are in the house. Meanwhile, they are also keeping tabs on her. The post-script to Marian’s diary was a particularly chilling evidence of how almost useless it is for her or Laura to keep any secrets.

Which brings me to Count Fosco. Of course the back of the book already let me know he was a villain. However, Laura’s dislike of him and Marian’s heed of Laura’s dislike, would have tipped me off anyway. Also, his infatuation with his little birds and mice was downright creepy. There is something I don’t trust about a character whose main, perhaps sole, tenderness and feeling is spent on little pets, plants or objects. (This is not a hard and fast rule, as sometimes characters have strong bonds with intelligent dogs and horses and I don’t find them suspicious.)

I kind of like that Marian has at least one rival who understands her worth. It’s bad for her, in that she cannot be underestimated, but it’s good for the story.

As far as Madame Fosco, she’s quite creepy as well, especially in the way she moves about like a chess piece by her husband.

Anne Catherick shows up again, but with all the new and interesting characters about, she’s more there to instigate new plot developments and add a few new clues to the mystery. I hope Marian gets to meet her before Anne is gone forever.

We get to know Laura better through Marian’s diary. I still wish Laura had not submitted to the marriage and got out while she had the chance, but I wonder if she would still have been trapped somehow if she’d broken the engagement. Would Sir Percival have sued her for breach of the engagement?

Back to Marian Holcombe: Sometimes I wish she would catch on sooner to certain clues about what the villains are up to, and their true natures. Still just when I’ve thought she’s let herself be oblivious, the next diary entry will show her making a breakthrough in judgement.

I love that she climbed out on that roof. Now that’s scrappy.

The Woman in White sometimes reminds me of Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin. I think it’s because The Blind Assassin is also about two sisters who find themselves taken advantage of due to one sister’s marriage to a vile man. But the sisters in that book are not close at all, and are driven apart by their trials, because neither sister understands the oppression experienced by the other. (I didn’t love The Blind Assassin, but it is a book that has stuck with me apparently.) I’m glad that Laura and Marian love each other and that makes their trials more bearable.

Well, I’ve certainly gone on long enough. Can’t wait to keep reading to see how Marian can outwit the villains! (Because what the villains have planned may involve at least one murder, or so it has been suggested and implied.)

EDIT: I nearly forgot to mention the shout-out to Wilkie’s forehead that was in Marian’s narrative!

Even baldness, when it is only baldness over the forehead (as in his case), is rather becoming, than not, in a man, for it heightens the head and adds intelligence of the face.

p. 186


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The Warden by Anthony Trollope

1855. Oxford Univ. Press. Paperback. 294 pages.

From: the public library

In a nutshell:

Mr. Harding has a comfortable living as a warden for a charitable home for old men called Hiram’s Hospital. He is also precentor (one in charge of the music) for Barchester Cathedral, to which Hiram’s Hospital is attached. Mr. Harding is a mild man who lives with an unmarried daughter, Eleanor. His older daughter is married to the archdeacon of Barchester, a Dr. Grantly.

Scandal shakes up the comfortable way of life. John Bold, a young man looking for causes, questions the financial set-up of Hiram’s Hospital: why are the old men given such small allowances while the warden, whose job is easy, gets so much compensation? The cause is taken up by the media, and Mr. Harding finds himself the subject of scathing articles in the press. He wouldn’t mind giving up the post in light of the scandal, but his son-in-law the archdeacon has other ideas.

To complicate matters, John Bold and Eleanor Harding have long been nurturing affection for each other, a romance that is obviously destabilized by Bold’s newest occupation.


After reading one of Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire novels which was set in the early 1950’s, I decided I wanted to go back to the beginning of the fictional Barsetshire. This means going to Anthony Trollope who created the county in his own series of books, The Chronicles of Barsetshire. The Warden is the first book of the series.

My sister lives overseas at the moment and I suggested the idea of both of us reading Trollope’s The Chronicles of Barsetshire. She could get them for free on her e-reader and I will be getting mine from the library.

I definitely enjoyed The Warden. I thought the character of Mr. Harding was really quite sweet. My favorite part of the book may be when he ventures to London in an attempt to settle the matter in terms satisfactory to his own conscience. Unused to the city and afraid of being thwarted by his son-in-law, Mr. Harding goes out of his own comfort zone as he traverses around the city. He is committing little courageous acts that are not understood by others, or seem of little consequence to others, but they say a lot about his character.

As far as the scandal of The Warden, while aspects of it may seem arcane and very ecclesiastical, Trollope’s discussion of the role of the press seems still quite relevant to today. Trollope does not think highly of the press at all, and spends a chapter satirically and critically describing the press’ unchecked power for ruining reputations and lives.

Trollope’s writing is definitely full of humor and awareness. He anticipates readers’ reactions to some plot developments and addresses the reader directly on them. My sister and I both loved his humorous description of a tea party where the interactions of the young men and women are described as a skirmish or battle.

. . . young gentlemen, rather stiff about the neck, clustered near the door, not as yet sufficiently in courage to attack the muslin frocks, who awaited the battle, drawn up in semicircular array. The warden endeavored to induce a charge, but failed signally, not having the tact of a general; his daughter did what she could to comfort the forces under her command, who took in refreshing rations of cake and tea, and patiently looked for the coming engagement.

p. 78-79

My edition included small illustrations scattered throughout the text which I thought were rather cute. I’ve scanned one in below. I don’t know who made them – I couldn’t seem to find mention of them in the book’s title page, etc.

Excerpts of others’ reviews:

The Captive Reader – “Honestly, the plot of The Warden is not terribly well formed.  Even as the scandal is escalating, it was difficult to feel much concern when the narrator clearly didn’t, happily contenting himself with making amusing remarks about all the actors involved and the complications of their home lives.”

Old English Rose Reads – “His persona as the narrator come as being genial, jocular and slightly bumbling, like an elderly uncle in a Dickens novel (an impression not helped by his bearded and bespectacled physical appearance), but at the same time it is impossible to forget that as an author he is sharp and intelligent. . .”

Worthwhile Books – “Because Trollope took pains to go against the grain of the sensationalist literature of his day, many modern readers find his books slow going. But if you like rich character descriptions, British witticisms and a relationship-driven (rather than action-driven) story line, you might want to give him a try.”


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Woman in White Readalong Update #1

Just a word of warning. I expect I may get semi-spoilery about Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White in these weekly readalong updates. These posts will be mostly of interest to those readers who are also participating in the readalong, or have read it before.

This week we read from the beginning to the End of Hartright’s Narrative, which in my edition was through to page 122.

I’m just going to throw some thoughts out without much organization whatsoever.

– Walter Hartright, drawing-master, was the narrator for this portion of the book. He’s a sort of everyman, who generally does the ‘right’ and gentlemanly thing but still experiences feelings of hurt pride and self-doubt. I thought he was decent enough . . . and then he fell in love at first sight with the angelic and beautiful Laura. I find this amusing and if I were to address him, I’d say: “Oh go on Walter, you go on pining over the beautiful girl and wallowing in your sorrow that you can’t have her. I’m going to focus on the more interesting characters over there.”

– Interesting character #1, Marian Holcombe, half-sister and protector of her sister Laura. I love how intuitive she is about people, and how content about her own lot she seems. I wince when she denigrates her own sex, but overall she’s first-rate. I hope she gets a narrative. I haven’t looked ahead to see if she does.

– Interesting character #2, Anne Catherick, a.k.a. The Woman in White herself. As the person of mystery, I am definitely intrigued to find out more of her story. We know at this point that she was kept in a private Asylum run by Sir Percival Glyde, Laura’s intended. How she got there and what happened to her there and the full story of how she escaped is still unknown.

– Mr. Fairlie is also hilarious in his passive-aggressive, hypochondriac way.

– I have to disagree with Walter Hartright when he says, “We go to Nature for comfort in trouble, and sympathy in joy, only in books.” He says this at the time that he has met Laura Fairlie and is saying that the delight she gave him surpassed all the natural beauties around them. But then he expounds on the impersonal relationship between man and Nature. To an extent, that can be true, but I know that I have derived comfort from being in Nature, in the quiet, among forests, or other completely natural place. So, I disagree with you there, Walter, but I give you a pass because you are in the full grips of Victorian romantic swoon.

– The writing is great. As with Dickens, Collins’ descriptions are vivid and atmospheric:

The evening, I remember, was still and cloudy; the London air was at its heaviest; the distant hum of the street-traffic was at its faintest; the small pulse of the life within me and the great heart of the city around me seemed to be sinking in unison, languidly and more languidly, with the sinking sun. I roused myself from the book which I was dreaming over rather than reading, and left my chambers to meet the cool night air in the suburbs.

p. 4

I can just picture a summer night like this.

I feel like I haven’t said much of note about the book, but it’s early yet. Also, I hope for the future readalong posts to do my write-up over the weekend so this was all hastily done in the little time that I have on Monday nights. Easter kept me busy so I couldn’t do it this time.

I am enjoying The Woman in White very much and will happily continue on. If you have read it or are currently reading it, feel free to throw me any questions in the comments.


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My Woman in White readalong join-up post

So when Eva of A Striped Armchair recommended that I read Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White in her Most Particular Compendium post, several people commented that I should join the April readalong hosted by Reading Rambo.  That was the first that I’d heard of Reading Rambo’s blog and I’ve clearly been missing out, because aside from the fantastic title, Reading Rambo is a great snarky blog, liberally sprinkled with apropos gifs.

Anyway, so the readalong starts today and I’ll be joining in on the weekly posts and hopefully keeping up with the readalong schedule. It’s a bit of a Victorian tome. Eva recommended the book to me based on my love of Dickens’ Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend. I haven’t read any Wilkie Collins before, though he was Dickens’ contemporary. I actually don’t remember what The Woman in White is about, although I’m sure I’ve read reviews of it in the past. All I know is that lots of people love it.

But this is what the back of the book says:

Generally considered the first English sensation novel, The Woman in White features the remarkable heroine Marian Halcombe and her sleuthing partner, drawing master Walter Hartright, pitted against the diabolical team of Count Fosco and Sir Percival Glyde.

So sensation and diabolical villains! I’m all for it.

Also, for others who are doing the readalong, I’m thinking I may throw out thoughts as I’m reading onto twitter. I haven’t really used my twitter account much, but I think that it might be fun in a readalong situation. So if other readalong participants are going to tweet, let me know so I can follow you if I am not following you already.


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