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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11 responses to “The pages are turning quickly – Woman in White

  1. Oh, you like Gilmore — Meg’ll be happy.

    “Collins is effective in building a claustrophobic atmosphere to the book”

    Yes! That’s what it is. Hadn’t put words to it. I’m constantly tense about where everyone is, because she and Laura are just always being WATCHED and it’s great (from a reader’s perspective).

    • It’s amazing how Marian’s ‘investigations’ really wind up the suspense – like she checks and people seem to be out of the way of her mission, but then when she returns, someone is suspiciously handling the postbag, and someone else has just returned from ‘a walk’ looking peeved (good sign) or pleased (bad sign.) And when that awful maid blocked Laura’s door, that was definitely a claustrophobic part.

  2. Rayna (Libereading)

    You’re spot on about how Laura is very alone in the world, except for Marian. I’m surprised that Percival hasn’t thrown Marian out yet, but I suppose that would ruin the story.

    Also, I never read the inside-cover summary of The Woman in White, so I’m learning things on my own. It’s great, actually — too often the summaries of classics assume everyone knows the story and give away key plot points. This happened to me with Jane Eyre and it ruined the Big Twist.

    • Yeah, it sounds like it was only Fosco’s intervention that let Marian stay, but I think Percival would have nixed it if it were completely up to him.

      I only read the back of the book to give me something to talk about when I wrote my challenge join-up post, because I didn’t know anything about the book otherwise, except it was supposed to be good. The summary on the back of the book was fortunately very spare overall, like some of the more cryptic Netflix descriptions that I see sometimes. I just missed out I guess on suspense about Fosco’s character but I don’t think on much else.

  3. Gilmore does have some nice moments in his narrative, which I glossed over because I wanted to get to Marian’s section.

    I agree that it’s nice that Marian has a rival that won’t underestimate her. Well I mean, nice for us the readers. Would be better for Marian if everyone assumed she was a dumb lady and she could ninja about without interference.

  4. Ahhh, it’s interesting that you find Fosco creepy because of his love for the animals! Because I was like ‘well, he loves animals so he can’t be bad, but then also he’s turned his wife into a robot’ and it’s all just very contradictory and confusing!

    And Marian is SO scrappy. I do love her.

    • I guess I found it creepy in the way of the stereotypical movie villain with the fancy cat on his lap. Also, in retrospect, his teaching the canaries and mice tricks just is another evidence for his need to have everything and everyone under his control. But I had forgotten about Fosco’s wincing about the killed dog, which was a sympathetic gesture, I’ll say.

  5. buriedinprint

    I did love The Blind Assassin, so the fact that you mention it here only makes me want to read Wilkie Collins all the more. (MInd you, I only skim your posts on this book because I don’t want to spoil anything major…I’m not reading along, but I plan to read this novel this year!) Hope you keep enjoying it!

  6. Meg

    I’m so happy you love Gilmore! Alice was correct about that.

    I love your description of the Countess being moved around like a chess piece. It’s SO true! And the way she paces in a circle around the fountain when she’s not needed on some evil errand…like a robot awaiting reprogramming. Very eerie.

  7. buriedinprint – I hope you do read The Woman in White this year! I just finished it and it reads pretty quickly for its size.

    Meg – We can be in solidarity about our fondness for Gilmore. And I love your comparison of the Countess to a robot.

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