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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13 responses to “The Woman in White: The WAAAALT!er edition

  1. I’ve read The Woman in White twice & like the book a lot, but after reading The Moonstone earlier this year, I must say I liked it even better than The Woman in White. Have you read any other of his novels?

  2. Walter’s narrative is just so dry. I agree that the best scene is him with Mrs. Catherick and that’s mostly because her character is amazingly cold. Her whole reaction to her daughter’s death is to change her mittens? Harsh, lady.

    • I’m writing this comment after having finished the book, and the book includes a letter written by Mrs. Catherick that is just as coldly imperious as her conversation with Walter was. It’s great.

  3. Believe it or not, my first impulse also was that Laura and Anne had changed places without the Count noticing! I’m not over-fond of Laura (to use Mrs Catherick’s amazing words), but apparently I should be since the people in the book all are, so I never believed in her death.

    Oh, and I do hope Marian and Fosco will have an epic duel just like in Once upon a Time in the West!

  4. I’m an idiot and missed this. Must..check…feed better.

    Yessss to the North By Northwest reference. That whole chase scene was excellent.

    “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”

    Aww, that’s a really good idea! Had not occurred to me. Poor Laura. Poor Anne. Poor everyone. Except Fosco.

  5. I’m so glad you mentioned the “Walter outruns thugs” incident. And I’m now picturing him as Cary Grant…which is a vast improvement on the previous image. So THANKS!

  6. ragoblogger

    I’m so up for a Count / Marian stand off! That would be legendary!

  7. Walter’s such a jerk! He’s the lamest. Marion is so awesome, and Walter should always defer to Marion in everything because she is way more amazing than he is. That’s all.

  8. ragoblogger – Alas, that stand off will just have to be in our imaginations!

    Jenny – It’s true.

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