Monday, August 18, 2008

The Woman in White

Wilkie Collins (1824-1889)

Count effing Fosco. He's the greatest character in any novel of all time. Suck on that Huck Finn. Fosco is the mastermind behind the great conspiracy at the center of The Woman in White, before we get to him and his scary awesomeness we need to check in on the story. 
Walter Hartright is just a guy who gives drawing lessons. He gets a gig in a big country house in mid 19th century England. His students are Laura Fairlie and Marian Halcombe. Laura is hot and Marian is not, but Marian is strong and self-reliant. Walter and Laura fall in love, but it turns out that she's already engaged to Sir Percival Glide. The thing is, he's a huge jerk. There's also the title character to deal with. Anne Catherick is a bit bonkers, but keeps popping up in the novel after escaping an asylum. She's got a secret about Sir Percy, and she doesn't want Laura to marry him. Did I mention that Laura and Anne look exactly alike?
This is essentially a mystery novel so I won't give away the coolness of the plot, but in the interests of introducing my buddy Count Fosco I need to explain a few things. Percy needs cash and needs to get rid of Anne Catherick and her secret. Count Fosco and his uber-obedient wife, Madame Fosco, live with Sir Percy and now Lady Glide (Laura). Fosco is an Italian gentleman of the highest aristocratic bearing. He's tall and phenomenally fat. He's about sixty but carries himself with the agility of a much younger man. He's dainty, a fantastic dresser, has a proclivity for small pets, mice, canaries and a cockatoo. He's a fine musician and an expert chemist. He's also a sociopath who cares more about his pet mice than any humanitarian urge a normal person might have. He is amazingly creepy, endearing, funny, and despicable. He is too smart for everyone he encounters in the novel, but his bravado and vanity cost him dearly. 
Let me also mention another great character, Uncle Fairlie. He's the patriarch of the family who is in charge of Limmerage House. He is also a colossal puss. His nerves are always on edge, to the point where any noise disturbs him. He can't make any decisions and pawns all his responsibilities onto others. His quavering, faux-invalid status is funny and vexing at the same time. 
A tip of the hat as well to Wilkie Collins. What a brilliant way to structure a novel. There are multiple narrators who are put to work by Walter Hartright who wants to document the whole affair to prove the conspiracy existed. So we hear from Marian, Walter, Count Fosco, servants, doctors, and more. It is fascinating to see how Collins reveals things from different perspectives, or gives a nugget of the plot which is only revealed through another character's eyes. 

Rating 10/10: This might be my favorite book I've ever read. It was written in 1859, yet kept my modern mind guessing the entire time. The characters and form are great and the narrative voice is something worthy of another look. I'll definitely be coming back to The Woman in White in the future. 

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