Rating: 4 Stars
Wilkie Collins is considered by many to be the first author of detective fiction. Trained in the law, the sleuthing techniques used in his work paved the way for Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Collins’s 1859 novel, ‘The Woman in White’ is written in the epistolary style reflecting multiple viewpoints, with some portions seeming like outright witness statements.
Walter Hartright, a young art teacher is employed at Limmeridge House by Mr. Fairlie to restore his art-work and to teach his niece Laura Fairlie, and her half-sister Marian Halcombe. In no time at all, Walter falls in love with Laura, but takes the honorable recourse of removing his impecunious self from the scene, so that she may marry her titled fiancé. Alas, much tragedy lies in wait for Laura, a young woman exasperatingly incapable of taking any decisions on her own behalf. She leaves that to the intrepid Marian.
Danger hems in the sisters from all sides, and the key to the mystery lies with an eerie young woman whom Walter had met by chance. Damsels in distress; a noble-minded hero guided by the highest principles; unscrupulous villains; and, a plot with many twists and turns - the book is a true Victorian pot-boiler.
It is not free of the maudlin sentimentality that hounds even the best works of this period, and at times betrays an overwrought imagination that could have been dispensed with. But to the question does it work – the answer is yes. Collins keeps the threads of the narrative firmly in his possession, and the work has a contemporary charm in its sudden quirks of humor, and astute characterization, except in the case of Laura Fairlie who is presumably the Victorian ideal of a delicate-minded lady. It has the watermark of the successful mystery – it keeps you engrossed till the last page.