I first read Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White about 15 years ago. I had planned to read it again after finishing The Moonstone, to see how it measured up.
This review is going to be chock full of spoilers, so if you're at all interested in reading the book, you might want to skip this review.
To start with, I wasn't sure how to rate it. Given that the Victorian style is very different from what 21st century readers are accustomed to, I took that into major consideration.
Format -- 3 stars. Like The Moonstone, this book is constructed of various first-person narratives, with each relevant actor engaged to write his or her knowledge of the events. Such a device suggests to me, if not to anyone else, that this book would work much better in that Victorian setting, with the family gathered 'round Papa while he reads a number of pages aloud each evening. It's a bit less effective in 2015; but if kept in mind, it doesn't really detract from the story. The problem with this kind of structure, however, is that each of the narrators needs a believable motive for his or her testimony. In the case of The Woman in White, I felt those motives were sometimes insufficient. Both Mrs. Catherick and Count Fosco present their cases in letters -- hers voluntary, his not -- written to Walter and included as part of his history of the mystery; in The Moonstone, the structure was put forth up front as each character's requested contribution.
Plot -- 3 stars. Set in 1850, the story is that of a working class young man, Walter Hartright, who earns his living as a drawing master (private tutor), and then later as what we might call a commercial artist. He is employed by a well-to-do man, Frederick Fairlie, to teach drawing to his niece, Laura Fairlie, and Laura's half-sister Marian Halcombe. Walter falls in love with Laura, and she falls in love with him, but there is a prior understanding that commits Laura to wed another. The marriage goes horribly wrong, and Walter is at last called in to rescue Laura, which he does and they live happily ever after.
It seems like a fairly pedestrian 3-star plot, but what bumps it up a notch are the various complications and twists Collins provided. Unfortunately, what bumps it back down a notch are the contrivances and coincidences that eventually reach the point of eye-rollery.
Characters -- 4 stars. As the main first-person narrator, Walter was a bit of a drama llama, but again, that's part of the Victorian atmosphere. In fact, every character in the book was a drama llama!
What I found most interesting about the cast was that very over-the-toppishness of many of them. Frederick Fairlie, Sir Percival Glyde, and Count Fosco are beyond mere caricatures; they're almost cartoons. Whether Collins meant them to be a commentary on each other, I don't know.
The female characters are no less extreme, and again, they seemed to be drawn as comparisons to each other as well as to the male actors.
On my first reading of The Woman in White, I despised Laura Fairlie. She is the quintessential fair English beauty, blonde and blue-eyed and angelically lovely. She's also a pathetic spineless twit. She admits she loves Walter, but marries the man her dead father chose for her because she was devoted to her father. She's forever needing someone to take care of her, shield her from reality. For virtually all of her life that person has been her half-sister, Marian.
Marian is everything Laura isn't: She's dark and ugly and strong and bright and feisty and brave and utterly devoted to giving her entire life into the service of her beloved and beautiful little sister. Marian is never jealous, never longs for a life of her own. She adores Laura in that sickly sentimental Victorian way that, if they weren't sisters, might come across as sexual. Perhaps it is. Perhaps Collins wrote Marian that way, slightly mannish in her mental capacity and boldness, to grant approval and acceptance to those who don't have the desire for conventional romance. But I really don't think so.
Walter had to have a sidekick, a Watson to his Holmes. There was no way to put a male character into that role, a male who would in many instances be a stand-in for Laura. Another spineless wimp like Laura wouldn't do either. So there's Marian, the utterly noble, self-sacrificing "otherish" woman. "Otherish" not in the romantic triangle sense, but in the otherish sense of being not a romantic interest. She is dark -- but not exotic, because that would suggest sexuality -- to Laura's fairness. She is brave, to Laura's abject cowardice.
Marian's traits are admirable today, and both Walter and Laura appreciated -- and exploited -- her unflagging loyalty. But to make sure readers didn't get the idea Marian was a character to be emulated, she was also made the object of admiration by the arch-villain Count Fosco. If someone as evil as the Count found Marian admirable, well, that could only mean it wouldn't be a good idea for nice little English girls to aspire to be like Marian, unless, of course, they're prepared to devote their entire lives in service to someone pure and perfect . . . like Laura.
I really kept hoping Walter would come to his senses, ditch Laura, and run away with Marian.
The only thing that kept Laura from being totally despicable in her overwhelming fragile flower weakness was that her uncle, Frederick Fairlie, was even worse. Laura's behavior was expected of a Victorian heroine, but taken to an extreme in a male character, the folly became apparent. Laura frequently took to her bed with headaches and other complaints; the uncle played the total invalid, locked in his always-darkened room, attended by the slave-servant, demanding quiet and peace and no drama, even while he himself was nothing but drama.
And there is the woman in white herself, Anne Catherick. Although her chance encounter with Walter sort of sets the whole drama in motion, she's really not a major player in the events. She's more of a catalyst, and she's also a bit of a mystery.
Like Rosanna Spearman in The Moonstone, Anne is the expendable but innocent character who is blithely sacrificed so that her "betters" may have their happy ending. Where Rosanna was physically imperfect, Anne's affliction was mental. Was Anne truly insane, or merely inconvenient? Did Collins leave the ultimate determination of her mental health intentionally unresolved as a commentary on those who in his own day were often put away in private asylums for the convenience of someone more powerful? Though Anne's mother firmly declares to Walter that Anne was never in possession of "the secret," by that time Anne was already -- and conveniently -- beyond answering the question herself.
Complications and resolutions -- 5 stars. Again like The Moonstone (1868) The Woman in White (1859) relied on a lot of contrived coincidences. The earlier book, however, seemed to have much more suspense than the later. Solving the mystery of the theft of the moonstone is itself the complication that separates the lovers in that book. They themselves, however, are never really put at physical risk. In that respect, the later book contains the more mature plot. Laura is unhappily married in a time when divorce was almost impossible; how will that complication be resolved so Walter and Laura can have their HEA? Even when Laura is freed to marry Walter, there remains a serious impediment to their future happiness. How will Walter find the evidence to remove that obstacle? More important, how will the villains meet justice? In The Moonstone, the theft itself was the primary crime; in The Woman in White, people's lives were threatened and endangered.
I found the page-turner rating of The Woman in White much higher than The Moonstone and stayed up way too late way too many nights, until my eyes simply would not focus on the Kindle pages any more.
The Victorian sensibilities may have influenced other aspects of the story as well. Walter is brave enough and willing enough to confront, challenge, and do battle with his enemies, but ultimately those enemies are hoist with their own petards. This leaves the "hero" untainted by any sin and thus worthy of the equally innocent "heroine."
Collins' own middle class (and male) background may have been the reason for one of the minor, almost trivial, complaints I had with the book.
When Walter, Marian, and Laura set up housekeeping in London, they have very little money and rely on Walter's commercial art work for their income. Apparently this is not sufficient income to provide them with a servant, not even a housekeeper/maid-of-all-work. So then, who did the cooking? Laura is not physically well enough to do marketing and laundry, Marian has to watch over Laura all the time, and there's not even a mention of whether their lodgings had any kind of kitchen facilities. I think a woman would have written this very differently.
Recommended for those who aren't put off by Victorian literary devices and contrivances.