Wilkie in Winter!: Epoch the First

WILKIE IN WINTER I LOVE THIS SO MUCH. A hundred thank-yous to the wonderful Estella Society for hosting this event. Today we shall discuss the First Epoch of The Woman in White, or as I like to call it, the much-more-successful-first-act-than-the-first-act-of-The-Moonstone. (It’s a long nickname, yes, but it makes some good points.)

Of Wilkie Collins’s two most famous works, The Moonstone has a stronger finale, and The Woman in White a much much much stronger set-up. Where The Moonstone spends a lot of time on place-setting, The Woman in White has a short set-up where we meet Our Hero, Walter Hartright, and his friends and relations; and then, straight away, he finds himself in the middle of a mystery: He meets a woman in white, who won’t tell her name or her circumstances, but who is in some sort of atmospheric trouble and desperately needs his help to get to London.

just like this, except the woman has fair hair, and the enormous blue hand is the totality of strictures imposed on Victorian women

When Walter gets to his job in Cumberland, he is shocked to find that one of his pupils, Laura Fairlie (a woman of extraordinary beauty and sweetness, obv), is nearly identical to the mysterious, desperate woman he helped out in London. The memory of the woman in white gives him chills. Her similarity to Laura gives him chills. Hanging out in graveyards gives him chills but he elects to do it anyway. Like, kind of a lot, considering he’s a drawing master.

It’s hella atmospheric

Nobody cares about Laura Fairlie anyway because MARIAN! Marian is Walter’s other pupil, and she is — let’s face it — the point of this book. Marian Halcombe is Laura’s half sister. Where Laura is beautiful, sweet-natured, and dumb, Marian is outspoken and brilliant and ugly. Laura is too fearful and timid to even be told that there is a crazy lady walking around wearing her face and talking smack about her affianced husband — oh yeah, I was too bored with Laura to mention that the reason Walter’s love for her is doomed is that she’s engaged to this minor noble, Sir Percival Glyde, and she can’t get out of it because ?her father set it up? I don’t even know, and she’s too sweet-natured to change her mind. Oh, and she’s an heiress, also. Whatever.

So, MARIAN. While Laura is painting second-rate pictures or whatever she does to pass the time, Marian is using her wits to figure out whether Sir Percival Glyde is, in fact, a villain. (She thinks yes.) She and Walter try to get Anne Catherick to explain her horror of Sir Percival Glyde; but it’s tricky to get any sense out of her because she’s crazy. After Walter leaves (because of doomed love), Marian enlists the family lawyer to help her out. They do this by basically going to Sir Percival Glyde and saying, “Are you evil?”

Marian’s philosophy (for now)

Sir Percival Glyde gives a totally Snape-in-the-first-chapter-of-Half-Blood-Prince answer to this. Marian has reservations still, but the family lawyer buys it completely. Then he discovers that the proposed marriage settlement for Laura is insanely profitable to Sir Percival Glyde and would give Sir Percival Glyde a twenty thousand dollar incentive to murder Laura, basically.

Here’s where the book really picks up, suspense-wise. The strength of The Woman in White is how vividly it portrays the choicelessness of the women. Though Laura is wealthy and Marian clever, they still depend enormously on the goodwill and integrity of the men in their lives. All of Marian’s considerable intelligence cannot save Laura from the marriage; in fact, she depends on the goodwill of Sir Percival Glyde to remain in Laura’s life after her marriage. Whatever Wilkie Collins’s views were on women, he makes crazy suspense out of female inequality in his era.

I’m excited for the second epoch! The first epoch is scene-setting — which is great — but the second epoch is where it’s really at. Marian gets to do stuff, and Count Fosco shows up, and those are both good things.

  • It’s years since I’ve read the Woman In White but it has always stuck with me, I really should read it again. But not until I’ve read Armadale (which is on my list for this year). Glad you’re having such fun with it, I love Count Fosco!

    • Gin Jenny

      I love Count Fosco too! He doesn’t show up, except mentioned by other characters, until the Second Epoch — I’m hugely looking forward to it.

  • Man I disliked this book, it’s depiction of women just pissed me off too much and it went on too long. It was a shame, as I loved The Moonstone. It just really irked me that for a woman to be awesome she had to a) have mostly masculine attributes (looks and personality) and b) be ugly – there was just no scope that a woman could be awesome by being a woman. Because, obviously men only want delicate flowers they have to protect. It’s insulting nature spans the genres.

    *Breaths* however, I am aware it’s a product of it’s time – I’ve tried not to dislike it.

    • Gin Jenny

      Whoa, really? You hated it? I thought it was interesting about gender the way Victorian books often are — way more progressive than you’d expect in some ways, and exactly as regressive as you’d expect in others.

  • This is the most brilliant post EVER. I very nearly squirted coffee through my nose at your description of the Hercules gif. Bravo, my dear!

    • Gin Jenny

      Hahahaha, glad I could make you laugh on a Monday. 🙂

  • haha, too great! I had hoped to reread this and participate, but I haven’t had a chance to get to it. 🙁

    • Gin Jenny

      I’m worried I won’t be able to stick with it through the whole readalong — I’m well behind! So many books to read and so little time for blogging. :p

  • I’ve been meaning to read The Moonstone for a good long while. But wait, why Wilkie Collins and not Charles Dickens? They were friends!

    • Gin Jenny

      I don’t know! It’s not because Charles Dickens was a jerk — I disliked him way before I knew he was a jerk. I just love Wilkie Collins and I can’t deal with Charles Dickens.

      • Wilkie can be imagined giggling with glee when he comes up with his story line but Dickens is all “Hope they ‘get’ my message here.”


  • LauraC

    This is my first time reading your blog, i came here from the Estella Society link. You are hysterical! I will be checking out the rest of your blog. Meanwhile, I read this book for the first time (I have finished it). I didn’t love it, but I really liked the plot of the first epoch. Unfortunately, I don’t care much for ANY of the characters. This will prove a problem for me as the book hits some slower points, in my opinion. I loved the set-up of the different narrators, so I will try The Moonstone, at some point, which i understand to also have multiple narrators.

    • Gin Jenny

      Thanks for stopping by!! 🙂 I think The Moonstone actually starts a little slower than The Woman in White, so be prepared for that if you thought The Woman in White was slow. You really didn’t like the characters in this one? Not even Marian? (I love Marian.)

      • LauraC

        OK, MAYBE Marian. Maybe.

  • I loved the book but Laura was so so annoying and even Walter was slightly ridiculous in the role of savior. It was Marion, and Count Fosco, and Anne who saved the book.

    • Gin Jenny

      Especially Marian. Marian is way the best.

  • Ahhhh, love me some Wilkie Collins! The Woman in White is my favorite, and I reread it a few years ago for one of Carl’s R.I.P. challenges. Loved it just as much or maybe even more than the first time!

    • Gin Jenny

      I can never decide whether I love The Moonstone or The Woman in White best — they’re both so good! (I need to read some more Wilkie Collins so I can have a broader base of books to judge from.)

  • Brilliant! Best Post Ever Award to you! So many chuckles. So many nods YES. So much love. Wilkie love.

    And, uh, “just like this, except the woman has fair hair, and the enormous blue hand is the totality of strictures imposed on Victorian women” is so brilliant. Just so brilliant. I can’t wait for the second Epoch too. I’m in it and it’s hella awesome.

    • Gin Jenny

      I KNOW I am so excited for the second Epoch. The second Epoch is the best in the book. I think the book totally comes apart in the third Epoch.

  • That’s because, like me, you sense that Dickens was pure evil. Evil, I tell you! lol

    • Gin Jenny

      Hahahahaha, YES. Somehow I sensed it!

  • I read this when I was 17 and unsurprisingly, I find I have completely forgotten it. I should have jumped on this readalong because I’d like to reread The Woman in White this year, and it is off-puttingly huge. But I loved your summary – you make me laugh so!

    • Gin Jenny

      Is it off-puttingly huge? You should have my edition! It’s an older hardback with color plates in it, and it’s a large-size book so it makes the book as a whole look shorter. Plus, there are pretty pictures. (I really miss illustrated editions!)

  • Yes! Yes to you reviewing this in your adorable insightful style. Yes to this wonderful “the enormous blue hand is the totality of strictures imposed on Victorian women”. Yes to you gif-ing up your adorable insightfully stylized posts.

    Oh, and I think I’m subscribing to your podcasts? So far, only one shows up when I am wanting to listen, ie driving, ie thus unable to discover why I only have one to listen to. And it was the Sandman introduction one and. Well, not yet me to be the correct audience of. or something. I’ll keep trying!

    The point is that I can or somehow am now able to listen to podcasts and drive – the technology showed up one day and I’m not sure what I did exactly to make it happen.

    • Gin Jenny

      Hmmmmm, that is strange! Did the new one show up yesterday? The Luminaries one? Because The Luminaries podcast I think you are the PERFECT audience for — I think you would really like The Luminaries!

  • I also loved this book and have long intended to reread it. Have your read Lady Audley’s Secret? It gives and interesting perspective on the “choicelessness” of Victorian women and is a darn good read, too.

    • Gin Jenny

      No, but I want to! I’ve had it on my radar since I was little and Betsy Ray was reading it in Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill. Her father thought it was trash.

  • I finally finished this epoch today and, on reread, I find it so much harder to get through only because I know what is coming and it infuriates me even more than the first time when I (obviously) didn’t know what was coming. I think the reread actually highlights the women’s issues so much more for me, both Marian’s and Laura’s (and I’m sure later with Anne’s). I certainly think that Wilkie Collins’ tongue was firmly in his cheek when he said “The Lady is ugly!” I don’t think it reflects badly on Collins but rather on Hartright, right, who actually said it? This is why Wilkie is the best. Because readers at the time would have been like “ooh, that Marian does seem awesome from behind … except that, oh yikes, she’s ugly and, no … really? she speaks her mind? and, dear God, she has no money … so, really, she’s not awesome at all … but that Laura!” He played into the prejudices of the time to lead the readers’ sympathies but I believe he did it consciously. I love this book so much even though it probably has some of my most hated characters in literature. I can’t wait to continue!