By Wilkie Collins
Full book at Gutenberg.org
Edgar Allen Poe invented the mystery story with “The Murders of the Rue Morgue” in 1841, and the genre caught rapidly. But it was mostly a short story genre. It was English author Wilkie Collins who started to create mystery novels, and The Woman in White is often cited as the earliest in the genre. But the fact it was a pioneer doesn’t take away from the fact that it is still an extremely good book in its own right.
Collins was born in 1826, son of landscape painter William Collins and grew up planning to be a lawyer. In 1851, he met Charles Dickens. They became close friends and Collins started to write articles and short works. In 1852, his first novel, Basil, was published, and he started making a living at it. In 1859, he wrote his fifth novel, The Woman in White.
The story centers on William Hartwright,* a drawing master who meets a woman dressed all in white, who is extremely upset and has some disreputable men trying to capture her. He helps in her escape, but not after she asks him, “Do you know any baronets?” a question that piques his interest, especially when he learns she is an escapee from a mental asylum. He is then hired to teach drawing at Limmeridge House to two young women: Laura Fairlie (who looks remarkably like the woman in white) and her half sister, Marian Halcombe.
Walter falls for Laura, but she is pledged to marry a baronet: Sir Perceval Glyde. There are many disturbing things about Glyde, including the fact that he clearly is marrying Laura for her money, but Laura’s hypochondriac uncle Frederick insists that the marriage must go through. Due to Marian’s investigation, Laura slowly learns that Glyde – and his ebullient but dangerous friend Count Fosco – is up to no good.
Despite the fact the book is over 105 years old, it turns out to be surprisingly modern in many ways, and the plot never goes where you think it might go. It revolves on a secret known by the Woman in White, and it turns out that the secret is not what anyone expects.
It’s told in an unusual style: chunks of the book are told in the first person by different protagonists. While most of the chapters are told by William Hartwright, others are told by Marian, Count Fosco, Laura’s uncle, and one of Gylde’s servants, among others.
The book is filled with wonderful characters. Walter is a serviceable and resourceful hero, but the three most interesting characters are on the periphery.
Laura’s uncle Frederick is a selfish and lazy hypochondriac who whines about the slightest change to his routine and it put out by the smallest request. His section of the testimony is a delight of whining and complaints of how much work it is to remember.
There’s also Marian. Laura is a pretty bland heroine, but Marian is clever, resourceful, insightful, and every bit a modern female protagonist. She advises Laura and protects her, and is willing to put herself at risk to ferret out Sir Percival’s plans. If the book were written today, she would be the one that Walter falls in love with.
But the real find is Count Fosco. He’s charming, but also dangerous, with a personality that dominates every scene he’s in, whether it’s doting on his pet mice and birds, scheming against Laura, or threatening murder. His ego is a joy to behold, and his honest admiration for Marian – even though she is a threat to his plans – makes him one of the most interesting villains in literature.
The book was a popular success when it came out, even though the critics of the time thought it too melodramatic,** but the book has remained popular even today.
Collins continued to write. His book The Moonstone is another landmark in mystery fiction, establishing many important genre tropes and it what he’s best known for today. But he seems to have thought The Woman in White was his best work. It’s still an wonderful read after all these years.
*With a last name like that, you know he’s going be be a hero.
**Not an unfair claim; the means of resolution of the mystery is pure pulp years before pulp fiction was a thing.