This is a day late because I will not abide by putting out a tardy podcast!1 But the beautiful and brilliant Alice of Reading Rambo is hosting an excellent A+ readalong in which we all will learn all the facts of Wilkie Collins’s life. And I am doing the thing! Stay tuned for WILKIE COLLINS FACTS every Wednesday/Thursday through mid-July.
1. Where are you located!
Louisiana! Hurricane season has begun, which I’m trying not to think about. Meanwhile we are in the midst of summer weather, which is sunny mornings and thunderstorm afternoons, i.e., the best weather if you are a curmudgeon who wants to stay in every night.
2. What do you know about Wilkie Collins already?
He’s the secretly-better version of Charles Dickens. Maybe he and Dickens had a fight one time? Or am I just thinking of Hans Christian Anderson? Anyway, some kind of relationship with Dickens. Also, I want to say, opium? He was addicted to a drug and I think it was opium.
3. What have you read of his? The Moonstone, which my most brilliant and intimidating friend gave me for my thirteenth birthday and I was like “well this doesn’t look very exciting” but then I LOVED it. And The Woman in White, which is kind of the exact opposite of The Moonstone in that it starts really strong but honestly kind of peters out towards the end, and The Moonstone follows an opposite trajectory to that and consequently is my favorite because I love good endings.
4. How much do you love the cover of this book?
I don’t think anyone possibly could love the cover of the book as much as Alice.
The podcast Statler and Waldorf are up in their balcony yelling about lies right now and THEY ARE RIGHT. ↩
MARIAN. The second epoch of The Woman in White is the Marian Halcombe Show. Not coincidentally, the second epoch of The Woman in White is by far the best of the epochs. It begins shortly after Laura’s marriage to Sir Percival Glyde, when Marian is waiting to welcome her sister to their new home at Sir Percival’s estate, Blackwater. Even before Laura and Sir Percival come back from their awkward honeymoon, it is clear that there is nefariousness afoot.
When Laura does get home, she refuses to talk about how Sir Percival has been acting because marital confidence, I guess? Mainly, Laura is stupid. If the teams are Laura and Marian against Sir Percival, Count Fosco, and Lady Fosco, it’s basically three against one-half, because Laura counts as negative points. That is how dumb she is. It warmed my heart when this happened:
“I have always heard that truly wise men are truly good men, and have a horror of crime.”
“My dear lady,” said the Count, “those are admirable sentiments; and I have seen them stated at the tops of copybooks.”
You have to love a villain who says all the same things you are thinking about Laura Glyde. I get that Marian and Walter love her for her extreme goodness, but legitimately: her extreme goodness is the only quality she possesses. Meanwhile, here’s what Count Fosco (and I) have to say about Marian Halcombe:
“Thank your lucky star,” I heard the Count say next, “that you have me in the house to undo the harm as fast as you do it. Thank your lucky star that I said No when you were mad enough to talk of turning the key to-day on Miss Halcombe, as you turned it in your mischievous folly on your wife. Where are your eyes? Can you look at Miss Halcombe and not see that she has the foresight and the resolution of a man? With that woman for my friend I would snap these fingers of mine at the world. With that woman for my enemy, I, with all my brains and experience—I, Fosco, cunning as the devil himself, as you have told me a hundred times—I walk, in your English phrase, upon egg-shells! And this grand creature—I drink her health in my sugar-and-water—this grand creature, who stands in the strength of her love and her courage, firm as a rock, between us two and that poor, flimsy, pretty blonde wife of yours—this magnificent woman, whom I admire with all my soul, though I oppose her in your interests and in mine, you drive to extremities as if she was no sharper and no bolder than the rest of her sex.”
Oh, yeah, and I meant to say that Marian overhears the Count say this because she has climbed up on the MOTHERFUCKING ROOF to do some eavesdropping in the rain. She wouldn’t have to do this if she had any allies, but because she has negative allies, she is forced to extreme measures.
As I mentioned in the first post, Wilkie Collins brilliantly portrays the way Marian lacks the power to get herself and Laura out of the power of the men who control them.
I felt already, with a sense of inexpressible helplessness and humiliation, that it was either [the Count’s] interest or his caprice to make sure of my continuing to reside at Blackwater Park, and I knew after Sir Percival’s conduct to me, that without the support of the Count’s influence, I could not hope to remain there. His influence, the influence of all others that I dreaded most, was actually the one tie which now held me to Laura in the hour of her utmost need!
“In the meantime say nothing to any one of what we have heard and seen.”
“Because silence is safe, and we have need of safety in this house.”
Poor Marian. Poor Laura, even. (Needless to say, Laura’s the one saying “Why not?” like she doesn’t even know what her life is.)
Honestly, the suspense in this section is murder. Marian’s never in doubt that Sir Percival and Count Fosco are up to shady doings, so the suspense is about whether Marian can clever herself and Laura out of the bad men’s clutches before whatever their plan is comes to completion. Spoiler alert: She can’t.
BUT IT IS NOT HER FAULT. Failing the typhus fever thing, or certainly if she had allies and money like Count Fosco has, Marian would stomp all over Count Fosco. She is easily as smart as him. If she had allies and money, she could eat twelve Count Foscos for breakfast. Marian rocks and none of what happens is in any way her fault.
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.
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.
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?”
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.