Thursday, 28 July 2011

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins: Classic Review

Drink with this: Gin and tonic.

Gin, as well as our classic under review, was hugely popular in the Victorian age. Tonic, originally containing quinine, was added to create a refreshing, anti-malarial drink ideal for empire-building in steamy climates. Therefore the gin and tonic is where mass popularity and aristocratic sensibilities meet. Invented eleven years after the publication of TWIW, so drink alongside to be as avant garde as the novel itself.
The Woman in White has never been out of print since 1859. This kind of enduring popularity is hard to dismiss. (But I intend to anyway.) When first published, it represented a remarkable innovation in terms of narrative structure and thematic concerns. But like any good ideas, the features which originally made the novel stand out have since been explored, exploited and improved on by so many authors that their original incarnation feels dated, and even irritating.  This is not to say the novel isn’t still worth reading. As a study in Victorian mores and in the context of 19th century literature, it’s fascinating. It just doesn’t necessarily stand alone as an enjoyable and suspenseful read in the way it seemingly did 150-ish years ago. 

 It is often described as a precursor to the detective story, but it really bears no resemblance to the modern detective novel. Collins’ characters fumble around for whole chapters, clueless about what’s going on. Meanwhile the reader skims impatiently through, having figured out the ‘mystery’ pages ago. It is de rigeur in the genre nowdays for the ending to leave certain details unexplained. (See: Stieg Larsson, Jo Nesbo) The careful advanced signaling of every single secret in the novel felt clumsy in comparison.

"If the cinematic idea of the male gaze can exist in literary form, it undoubtedly exists here."

TWIW was revolutionary in its heyday for its treatment of motifs such as forbidden secrets hidden underneath a veneer of respectability, and its examination of the lack of legal standing afforded to married women. But even by the standards of its contemporaries, its investigation into woman’s rights feels unsatisfactory. Tenant of Wildfell Hall, for example, (Anne Bronte) takes a much more impassioned and considered look at the same issues, which also happens to be from the viewpoint of the character affected. And compared to other sensation novels of the Victorian era – Lady Audley’s Secret, anything by Oscar Wilde, and even Dracula – TWIW seems rather tame.

My biggest issue with the novel was its treatment of female characters. If the cinematic idea of the male gaze can exist in literary form, it undoubtedly exists here. Wilkie’s female characters never really felt believable to me. The clammy, leering presence of the author was something I was uncomfortably conscious of in every scene which involved a woman. Laura, the ostensible heroine, is stripped of both agency and voice in the novel, while also running the gamut of insulting female stereotypes. (Attractive dimwit, subservient angel, child-like romantic heroine, hysterical/insane woman).

 Marian, with her intelligence and bravery, arguably represents a more positive portrayal of a woman; yet each of her admirable qualities is filtered through the prism of her ‘masculinity’. She is clearly established as a ‘deviant’ woman, unworthy of sexual consideration except by the monstrous Count Fosco. Only within this context is she allowed to act as narrator, and engage with the male characters on their own terms.

"Too tedious to enjoy in an ironic ‘so bad it’s good’ kind of way" 

 Even within the genre of gothic romance, The Woman in White stretches credulity to its utmost limit. In Dickens’ capable hands, melodrama and coincidence are intrinsic parts of the world he creates and the themes he develops. Compared to his masterful command of these devices, Wilkie’s writing feels like a desperate attempt to keep the story trundling along, by any means possible.

It’s hard to evaluate TWIW fairly today. Too tedious to enjoy in an ironic ‘so bad it’s good’ kind of way – just as Kipling is too racist for this game – it is better appreciated as product of its times than by comparison to its modern equivalents.

Verdict: Worth reading, but only while taking part in an elaborate drinking game. Rules as follows – shot every time a woman faints/has hysterics. Chug every time Collins uses six words when one would do. Drink every time the ‘working classes’ are described in a condescending manner.

On the big screen: There have already been several films and TV series made of this, none of which I’ve seen. The book’s narrative structure, with first-person narratives from various characters, make it well suited for film adaptation. The fact that Laura is a pathetic idiot would be no obstacle to Hollywood success. I would love to see a Todd Haynes take on this, with the gothic melodrama amped up.  

Highbrow/Lowbrow: It’s a Classic, which automatically makes it highbrow, although it wasn’t regarded this way in the 19th C.

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