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“Ah, you light-complexioned women are all sulky,” he said. “What do you want? Compliments and soft speeches? Well! I’m in good humour this morning. Consider the compliments paid, and the speeches said.” Men little know, when they say hard things to us, how well we remember them, and how much harm they do us.
According to Matthew Sweet’s introduction both William Thackeray and British Prime Minister William Gladstone read this book in a day. So it seems I am in good company. However, it appears I have been labouring under a misunderstanding about this book. I always assumed it was a ghost story, thanks to a little known film starring Lukas Haas with a similar title, whereas in fact it is a pseudo-gothic tale of family intrigue and fraud.
The book’s preface contains a note stating that this is a new kind of tale, one were the action is to be related to us by its own characters. Published in serial form by Charles Dickens in the 1860s, this was considered a unique feature at the time. Collins proves to be adept with this new narrative form. [The characters] are all placed in different positions along the chain of events; and they all take the chain up in turn and carry it on to the end. The reader is left to question the truth of the events as they unfold.
Shortly before assuming a well-paid position as a tutor at Limmeridge House, Cumberland, Walter Hartright has a startling encounter on a country road just outside of London. A woman dressed entirely in white seems to appear out of nowhere. She speaks in low darting sentences, seems confused and possessed by turbulent emotions. Muttering accusingly about a man of rank, a baron of some kind, she begs Walter’s assistance. He agrees to accompany her into the city environs, where she claims a close friend lives who will aid her in her distress. She forces him to promise not to detain her, or question her about her circumstances and just as suddenly as he had made her acquaintance, the mysterious woman in white departs, leaving him much bemused on the streets of London.
After arriving at Limmeridge, Walter assumes his post as tutor to the two young women of the house, Laura Fairlie and her half-sister Marian Halcombe. The head of the house is the louche dilettante Frederick Fairlie: art lover, insufferable snob and claiming to suffer from a multitude of ill-defined afflictions. As he memorably describes himself during a later passage in the novel, he is “nothing but a bundle of nerves dressed up to look like a man”.
Having introduced us to our nominal cast of characters, we then meet the villain of the piece – Sir Glyde. A man of good repute, whom Walter quickly notes, is a baron. Could this be the man the woman in white was babbling about? For Walter has fallen in love with Laura Fairlie and Sir Glyde has been promised her hand in marriage. Broken-hearted, the young hero leaves Limmeridge on an exploratory trip to Honduras. His part in the adventures that follow is not ended yet, though the telling of the tale passes from him.
Collins has both main actors and bit-part players address us during the proceedings. The story is told through the device of diary extracts, legal testimonies and signed confessions, an increasingly familiar device through the latter-half of the 19th century. Collins had a background in both art (hence Hartright’s role as an art teacher) and law, which explains the fraught legal dilemma that Laura quickly finds herself in. Strangely when Walter assumes the role of narrator, his heroic aspect transforms the two sisters into self-admonishing weak-willed women. Yet when Marian, distraught at the fraudulent marriage her sister becomes enmeshed in, steps to the fore, she is revealed to be a canny and determined heroine. She meets her match, however, in the conniving Italian Count, a friend to Sir Glyde, who uses charm and guile to entrap Laura’s estate.
Only the mysterious woman in white knows ‘The Secret’ to defeat the conspiracy that traps the sisters in their own homes, at the mercy of powerful men who with a word can strip them of their class and commit them to the asylum.
Madness and evasions of the word of the law haunt the proceedings, playing on fears of false incarceration. This is an effusively written, yet chilling, work of suspense.