Friday, 30 November 2012

The Woman in White Review by Owen Jones (Second Attempt)

The Woman in White Review

The Woman in White is a work of crime-fiction written by Wilkie Collins in 1859 and is an early example of a ‘sensation’ novel. The story revolves around Walter Hartright, a young watercolour drawer and tutor who through a combination of accident and love becomes embroiled in a far reaching criminal conspiracy, which, compelled by strong motives, he attempts to unveil.
                The form of the novel is perhaps its most interesting and most original aspect. The text is divided between several different narrators, some of whom are directly involved in the criminal activity themselves.  Walter is the primary narrator; his reason for writing the narrative is to provide comprehensive evidence for the central crime of the story and to attain this he requires the perspectives of other characters. This distinctive form can be considered the reason for both the novel’s greatest successes and most critical flaws. Importantly, it allows Collins to demonstrate considerable skill as a writer: he voices each character convincingly and distinctly, fluctuating between high and low registers as well as capturing each character’s individual idiosyncrasies. This variety ensures that the novel is rarely monotonous owing especially to those characters, such as Frederick Fairlie, whose voices are somewhat too shallow to sustain a larger narrative but which in shorter ones are greatly entertaining. Changes in perspective often come in tandem with changes of place and leaps (both forward and backward) in time. The outcome is possibly Collins’ greatest accomplishment in the novel, which is to find an effective and refreshing way of presenting narrative: the reader doesn’t really experience the story linearly, but rather as a larger more amorphous collection of events, from which order is gradually formed. To excuse the cliché, it really does feel like assembling a jig-saw- an effect which in crime fiction can only be applauded.
            With regard to characterisation, the novel mostly excels. Regrettably Walter is a fairly non-descript character and the object of his love, Laura Fairlie, is only more so. This can be wearying as they occupy such central roles and Walter indeed narrates probably over half of the novel. Though this isn’t so fatal as what actually happens when he narrates is very interesting and his narrative voice is at least functional if not inspired. Fortunately, these are isolated cases and characters such as Marian Halcombe and Count Fosco are far more prominently and effectively characterised. Marian is a triumph of internal characterisation whereas the count is a triumph of external characterisation. Marian is a sympathetic character- the reader is made familiar with her hopes, affections, opinions and fears; she is also unorthodox and because of this, fascinating; she overshadows Walter, who performs a similar role, and becomes a perfect window to view events and people through. The count, conversely, is the perfect object to through view that window; he is understood in purely superficial terms; his appearance, his mannerisms and his actions are described vividly, but we know very little about his innermost thoughts. Because of this there is always an aura of mystique surrounding the Count and he can become larger than life in a way which is thoroughly believable. He is at once charming and repulsive, friendly and terrifying. Collins furthers this success when it becomes time for the Count’s own narrative; the Count protects his interiority with rhetoric and a self-awareness of his own legend; the only time he exposes himself is to show admiration for Marian- which acts as a sole and unnerving glimpse into a dark and incomprehensible self.
                Writing in the first person can create a closer proximity between the characters and the reader, enabling access to their thoughts and feelings in the most direct way. This consequently can facilitate a greater emotional connection between the reader and characters, and Collins’ success in this regard is almost total. This success, however, acts sometimes to the detriment of his other stylistic choices, namely the conventions of sensational writing. A deeper investment in a character’s emotions can intensify drama and generate suspense, but Collins occasionally overplays this and there are moments which are too emotionally exhausting for this to work properly. This is problematic as it leads one to question what Collins is actually intending the novel to do. Peter Thoms writes:

            Collins was justly recognized as one of fiction's most accomplished plotters, but this             valuation was double-edged, granting Collins talent as a carpenter of plot as it             simultaneously denied him a loftier position as a serious, well-rounded author.

In The Woman in White Collins, as previously discussed, is certainly an accomplished plotter; this doesn’t prevent him, however, from striving towards a ‘loftier position’, though perhaps it should. The central crime of the novel is one that is both ingenious and particularly cruel; Collins doesn’t seem to want the reader to forget either of these facts, something which places them in an uncomfortable position. In encouraging us to often think about the consequences of crime, specifically for the victims, Collin’s prevents us from possessing the level of neutrality required to revel in the glamour and solving of it. This problem isn’t so severe that the well shaped plot is completely ruined by it, but it can have a curbing influence on the reader’s enjoyment.
            Unfortunately, the familiarity of setting is cause for more disappointment. Almost the entire novel is set in England, and at a time contemporaneous with the time of writing. Furthermore, much of it is set in rural England, which one cannot help but feel is a little mundane, and those scenes which are set in London rarely evoke anything approaching a ‘mood’. The opening scene is perhaps the most evocative scene of all, but it is also the most misleading. It prepares the reader for a mysterious, even Gothic, tale, but by the time the plot is in full swing this sense of the uncanny has almost evaporated, and the eponymous woman in white, who at first was so compelling, eventually becomes reduced to little more than a footnote. There are even times when Collins seems to have deliberately chosen an unexciting setting, such as the town of Welmingham, and one wonders why. This wouldn’t be so much of a flaw in itself, if only the reader wasn’t constantly teased with more exciting locations that exist on the peripheries of the main plot. For instance, Walter spends a great amount of time in South America, where we are led to believe he has many life-threatening encounters; the Count, also, is involved in an international ‘brotherhood’, the nature of which is barely explored, despite its larger significance. These locations and events are admittedly only incidental and further attention to them might have seen digressive and irrelevant; but nevertheless, it is frustrating to have to read about Walter being pursued by two ruffians in a boring town in England, while he likens the experience to being pursued by savages in an exotic jungle in South America.
            Overall the novel is well written but sporadic. It is occasionally brilliant; its characterisation is often superb and its method of storytelling is well paced and original. But Collins’ focus sometimes appears misguided, and one, when reading it, sometimes is unsure what to feel, in a way which more confusing than it is interesting. The setting and main character too, lack any edge, which if they weren’t saved by the well wrought plot, might undermine the sense of danger that is so important to the novel’s effect. It seems that even in a novel that contains so much welcome unfamiliarity as The Woman in White, familiarity can be all too relied upon.

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