This wonderful book by Wilkie Collins was published in 1860 and is an early mystery novel. It plays with structure and presentation by having different chapters narrated by or focusing on the various main characters. The story was gripping and fascinating; the characters were very well-drawn and compelling.
A young art teacher goes to provide lessons to two young women, but passes a woman in a white dress on his way there. He finds out that the woman has escaped from an asylum but also that she is from where he is going. Without giving anything away, there is intrigue on multiple levels, greed that leads to criminality, and an examination of the vulnerability of women and their position in society. The story relies on the relative importance of social class, demonstrated by the nobility and wealthy getting away with things that would be impossible for someone in the middle class. I had a visceral response to this – the frustration of seeing how people used their influence and power for their own gain.
The story highlights the importance of growing up in a family and the importance of having a home where people care about you … and how quickly it can go away. This is particularly harrowing for women, give the lack of autonomy for women in Victorian life. It is all too easy to take advantage of their lack of power and freedom – to the point of having them committed to an asylum where they can just “disappear”. The reliance on the kindness of not only strangers but relatives as well is troubling and frightening. It may be easy to say that it wouldn’t happen today, but one only has to look at human trafficking, countries ruled by dictators, and the vulnerability of immigrants to see how easy it is to make someone disappear. Sadly, we don’t even have to look that far – women go missing every day – we often don’t hear anything about them, especially if they are women of color who don’t capture public attention.
There is a sinister feeling in The Woman in White that is gripping and moves the story along. I felt uneasy as I read the book and wanted to intervene. It’s a challenge to discuss mysteries without giving anything away … and I would rather people read the book rather than hear things from me. My view is that it is really a wonderful book that takes the reader on an interesting journey that will make you think and cringe and grasp at hope for a happy ending.