200 Pages of Tension in The Woman in White

Wilkie Collins (1824-1889) composed the memoriam on his own tombstone,  listing what he considered the singular accomplishment of his life: “AUTHOR OF THE WOMAN IN WHITE.”

Collins wrote other famous books–The Moonstone, for example, is considered the first true detective novel– but he will forever be tied to this one serial that was published in the same year  (and in the same magazine) as Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. To be put in such company and hold your own is saying something, so I came to The Woman in White with high expectations.

A couple hundred pages in to this 700 page doorstopper and I was beginning to question Mr. Collins’ choice of epitaph. Perhaps this was not the book on which to pin a legacy. The Woman in White is a breezy read for a mid-19th century serial, and yes it has some great characters such as the Dickensian-inspired grotesques Frederick Fairlie and Count Fosco, but all that accounted for, the first third of the book is predictable British Gothic. It borrows heavily from tropes found in the work of any Bronte sister worth her salt:

Wide-eyed protagonist of decent moral stock finds work at eerie English mansion; protagonist meets denizens of said mansion who are hiding a “big family secret”; often there are talk of curses or hauntings; finally, a forbidden love begins to develop with a moody males aristocrat  

Hark a Vagrant

So far, so predictable. Only at the start of The Second Epoch, as the book calls it, does this novel suddenly turn into something wholly its own.

Just to get up to speed on the plot, we have five characters in this section: Sir Percival Glyde, a baronet-who-is-hiding-something, the beautiful Laura Fairlie who he has just married; her spunky half-sister Marian Halcome, who narrates; the Falstaff-like schemer Count Fosco, and his sinister wife. The scenes they share are so spare in major plot developments that Wikipedia summarizes them in four sentences: 

After their honeymoon, Sir Percival and Lady Glyde return to his family estate, Blackwater Park, in Hampshire; they are accompanied by Glyde’s friend, Count Fosco (who is married to Laura’s aunt). Marian Halcombe is also living at Blackwater and learns that Glyde is in financial difficulties. Sir Percival unsuccessfully attempts to bully Laura into signing a document which would allow him to use her marriage settlement of £20,000. Determined to protect her sister, Marian crawls out onto a roof overlooking Percy and Fosco whilst they plot; but it begins to rain, and Marian, completely soaked, falls into a fever which shortly turns into typhus.

“You positively refuse, then, to give me your signature?”

There are only two major scenes: a debate about the signing of a suspicious document, and a woman eavesdropping on a secret conversation.  Wilkie Collins stretches it all out for 200 pages, and it was the most impressively constructed 200 pages of rising tension I have ever read.

Consider, for example, that one scene about signing a document. 

Sir Percival unlocked a cupboard beneath one of the book-cases, and produced from it a piece of parchment, folded longwise, many times over. He placed it on the table, opened the last fold only, and kept his hand on the rest. The last fold displayed a strip of blank parchment with little wafers stuck on it at certain places. Every line of the writing was hidden in the part which he still held folded up under his hand. Laura and I looked at each other. Her face was pale, but it showed no indecision and no fear.

“Sign there,” he repeated, turning suddenly on Laura, and pointing once more to the place on the parchment.

“What is it I am to sign?” she asked quietly.

“I have no time to explain,” he answered. “The dog-cart is at the door, and I must go directly. Besides, if I had time, you wouldn’t understand. It is a purely formal document, full of legal technicalities, and all that sort of thing. Come! come! sign your name, and let us have done as soon as possible.”

“I ought surely to know what I am signing, Sir Percival, before I write my name?”

Count Fosco

This scene is, on its face, both impossible and frighteningly believable: a desperate man trying his best to get someone to act against her best interests. What increases the realism–and tension–is its exceptional length. The debate over the signature, and a breathless conference between the sisters in its immediate aftermath, takes nearly six thousand words. Yet the ceaseless game of cat-and-mouse never feels excessive. While reading I couldn’t help but want the scene to keep going, and see how much longer Collins could draw out this impasse. 

Finally events come to a head when Marian Halcombe overhears the entire wicked plot while lying on a roof during a rain storm. She manages to write the schemes of Count Fosco and Sir Percival down in her diary and we readers cheer in triumph. The wicked will be punished! But then, in a masterful innovation for the epistolary novel, Marian falls sick. And during her illness, who should come across the diary she’s written (and that we have been reading) but Count Fosco himself, who adds a postscript to her diary that sent chills down my spine:

The illness of our excellent Miss Halcombe has afforded me the opportunity of enjoying an unexpected intellectual pleasure.

I refer to the perusal (which I have just completed) of this interesting Diary.

There are many hundred pages here. I can lay my hand on my heart, and declare that every page has charmed, refreshed, delighted me.

If The Woman in White had nothing more to offer than these 200 pages, ending with Count Fosco’s devilish discovery, it would still be a classic. No other book of these era comes close to building and sustaining such dramatic tension. My only wish is that should you read this book, read it as it was intended to be read–in intervals. Like other serial classics of the day, from Dickens to Tolstoy, Collins’ The Woman in White excels by progressing slowly. Swallow it all at once and this feast of brinkmanship is gluttonous. Taken  in small intervals, each set piece of The Women in White feels grand in its detail while remaining simple in construction.  

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