Tag Archives: The Woman in White

A Classics Challenge – February Prompt: Character

This month’s focus from Katherine of November’s Autumn for the Classics Challenge is on character. Write about a character you find interesting, it doesn’t have to be your favorite. Perhaps your least favorite or a minor one: choose any.

I’m answering a combination of her Level 1 and 2 questions. What phrases has the author used to introduce this character? Find a portrait or photograph that closely embodies how you imagine them.  Has your opinion of them altered? Do you find them believable? Would you want to meet them?

I read The Woman in White in January and wrote some thoughts about previously. The book has some very interesting characters and I’ve chosen to describe the villain – Count Fosco, a friend of Sir Percy Glyde.

We see him first through Marian Halcombe’s eyes (see my earlier post for her description). She is Laura’s half- sister and I think she is the real heroine of this book. She describes Fosco:

He looks like a man who could tame anything. If he had married a tigress, instead of a woman, he would have tamed the tigress.

The man has interested me, has attracted me, has forced me to like him.

he is immensely fat. Before this time I have always disliked corpulent humanity.

here, nevertheless, is Count Fosco, as fat as Henry the Eighth himself, established in my favour, at one day’s notice, without let or hindrance from his own odious corpulence. Marvellous indeed!

She is impressed most by his unfathomable grey eyes, which have a cold, beautiful, irresistible glitter and hold an extraordinary power, one which forces her to look at him and causes her sensations she would rather not feel. Although an Italian, he speaks excellent English. He is old (sixty!), but his movements are light and easy. He is very sensitive to noise and winced when Sir Percy Beat one of the spaniels – he cares for animals more than he cares for humans.

And his most curious peculiarity is his fondness for pet animals – a cockatoo, two canaries and a whole family of white mice, all of which are familiar with him. The birds sit on his fat fingers and the mice crawl all over him, popping in and out of his waistcoat. He kisses them and twitters to his birds.

Below is an illustration from the 1865 edition of the book, which doesn’t really portray him as I see him.

But this is more like it – Michael Crawford’s portrayal in the West End musical in 2004.

As for his character, Marian may be attracted to him, but he is is a true villain, completely domineering, sinister, clever and untrustworthy. He is powerful, a sensualist whose wife is completely besotted by him. Whilst it might seem from my description that Fosco is a caricature, he does come across as a believable character and certainly one I would not wish to meet.

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins: a Book Review

I read The Woman in White (TWIW) by Wilkie Collins in January and have been wondering how to do justice to it in a post, because it’s a real chunkster of over 700 pages. (For a summary of the plot, with spoilers see the article on the book on Wikipedia.)

It’s one of the first if not the first ‘sensation novel‘. A ‘sensation novel‘ is one with Gothic elements  – murder, mystery, horror and suspense – within a domestic setting. Since reading TWIW I’ve read The Sensation Novel by Lyn Pykett, which describes such novels as a ‘minor subgenre of British fiction that flourished in the 1860s only to die out a decade or two earlier.’ They have complicated plots, are set in modern times, and are reliant on coincidences, with plots hinging on murder, madness and bigamy. They exploited the fear that respectable Victorian families had of hidden, dark secrets and explored the woman’s role in the family. There is a pre-occupation with the law – wills, inheritance, divorce and women’s rights over property and child custody. They are emotional dramas about obsessive and disturbed mental states, with villains hiding behind respectable fronts, and bold assertive women, as well as passive, powerless and compliant women.

These issues and more are present in TWIW. It has several first person narrators, who are each not in possession of the whole story. Their accounts from letters, diaries and formal statements are limited to what each one knew or had experienced, and are not always reliable. It begins with Walter Hartright’s meeting with the mysterious Woman in White, as he is on his way to take up the position of drawing master to Marian Halcombe and Laura Fairlie at Limmeridge House, in Cumberland.

 There, in the middle of the broad bright high-road – there, as if it had that moment sprung out of the earth or dropped from heaven – stood the figure of a solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in white garments, her face bent in grave inquiry on mine, her hand pointing to the dark cloud over London as I faced her.

Just who she is only becomes clear much later on the story. During their conversation she reveals that she knows Limmeridge House and its occupants. Walter helps her, but then is filled with guilt when he is told that she had escaped from an asylum.

Laura and Marian are half-sisters, living with their uncle, Frederick Fairlie, a weak, effeminate invalid. Walter is immediately struck by the beauty of Marian’s figure, but astonished when he saw her face:

The lady is ugly! …

The lady’s complexion was almost swarthy, and the dark down on her upper lip was almost a moustache. She had a large, firm, masculine mouth and jaw; prominent, piercing, resolute brown eyes; and thick coal-black hair, growing unusually low down on her forehead.

Marian, clever and assertive is in complete contrast in both appearance and character to the lovely Laura. Walter falls in love with Laura, but she is pledged to marry Sir Percy Glyde, a marriage arranged by her dead father. Matters are complicated by the fact that Laura and the Woman in White look remarkably alike, which is central to the plot. Sir Percy attempts to gain total control of Laura’s money and property, aided by the villainous Count Fosco.

I found it a book of two halves – slow to get going, full of descriptive writing and I was beginning to wonder when something was actually going to happen. Then in the second half the pace increased, the action was fast and complicated, with plenty of tension and melodrama. I enjoyed it, although I do prefer The Moonstone.

I read this book as part of November’s Autumn Classics Challenge and The Book Garden’s Tea and Books Challenge (reading books of over 700 pages).