Imagine the fattest man you’ve ever seen, make him exceedingly handsome, charming, clever and gallant, Italian, and a Count, add a wardrobe of brightly patterned waistcoats, and then pour in a healthy dose of Machiavellian cunning and manipulation. This gives you Fosco, one of literature’s more complex and vilely attractive villains.
He’s one of several characters that will invade your mind and distract you from your day job when you allow yourself to wander into the strange, secretive and dangerous world of The Woman in White. His sidekick is the deeply duplicitous Sir Percival Glyde – once handsome, now balding; nasty and brutish, but capable of the genteel politeness necessary to snare himself a very rich wife. The trio of infamy is completed by Madam Fosco, a dark presence constantly at her husband’s side, quietly rolling his cigarettes, watching his back, and doing his evil bidding.
Ranged against these mercenary fortune-hunters are half-sisters Laura Fairlie and Marian Holcombe, living a quiet but relatively happy life in their uncle’s manor house. Life gets a little complicated for them when their new drawing master, Mr Hartright, a lovely, unassuming chap, falls madly for Laura and simultaneously captures the young lady’s heart. This is awkward enough given that they come from different social classes (a big no-no in 1850s England). But the real spanner in the works is Laura’s engagement to Sir Percival. Mr Hartright retreats to London, heart-broken and ashamed at his presumption, leaving the path clear for Sir Percival to really turn things upside down. For a moment, Laura looks like she might think better of the marriage – there’s her broken heart to consider, and the ominous, anonymous letter warning her of Sir Percival’s true dastardliness. But the wedding goes ahead, and minutes into the honeymoon, Laura realises that the scandal of marrying down would have been far preferable to life with the malicious baronet and the sinister Count and Countess.
Luckily, she is able to keep Marian by her side – a far wiser and more courageous woman than Laura ever aspires to be. The ethereal presence of a third woman – in appearance rather like a haggard shade of Laura herself, dressed all in white – seems to promise a possible way out of their doom. This woman in white hints at a terrible secret, which will destroy Sir Percival and set the sisters free. But the Count pounces on the ghostly waif, and it is left to the sisters themselves, with the timely help of the beloved Mr Hartright, to extricate them from their doom, and bring the evil-doers to justice.
The Woman in White has been justifiably lauded as the forerunner of the modern suspense novel. It’s a gripping read from start to finish, which will have you longing to abandon your desk and return to its pages as you puzzle over hidden identities, murky motives, and that dreadfully elusive secret that has Sir Percival so worried.
The Woman in White is, above all, a great read. As it was originally written in serialised form, readers in 1850 had to wait one breathless week after each cliffhanging episode, rather in the style of a soap. For its 150th anniversary, Paul Lewis has recreated this suspense by publishing one section of the novel a week to the very day Victorian readers received their copy of All the Year Round and devoured the next instalment.
The Woman in White belongs to the genre of the sensation novel and sensational it is. It has everything: life, death, drama, comedy, the evil rich, the worthy poor, insanity, greed, kidnapping, honour and adventure. Trains race across the country carrying characters back and forth in various states of high agitation. Letters are written, sent, hidden, copied and stolen. Indeed, a part of the cleverness of the novel is that it is presented as a series of documents (epistolatory) which lends credence to the story. Sometimes a little repetitive, these letters, diary entries and statements nevertheless pull together a story in which nobody knows everything (including the reader) and there is always something to find out.
Collins wastes nobody. The Italian who appears as a figure of fun at the beginning of the story returns towards the end to rescue Walter from Fosco. The disagreeable Edward Fairlie appears and reappears as the indolent hypochondriac, too delicate to make a decision or become involved in life outside his comfort zone. He too gets his come-uppance when he is obliged to take action towards the end of the story.
The portraits of the women are intriguing and a little uncomfortable. Marian seems to the modern reader (this one anyway) to be the most attractive of the women. She is clever, quick and compassionate but, despite a great figure, she is described by Walter as ugly. Marian becomes a chum and they both spend a great deal of time sheltering the delicate, golden-haired Laura. While apparently approving the gentle qualities of Laura, the Countess Fosco is ridiculed as a woman who will do anything for her husband.
Even if you read it for nothing else, The Woman in White is worth the effort for one of the most colourful villains in fiction. Enormously fat, wicked and scheming, Fosco's days are largely spent singing to the canaries he keeps around him and conversing with a cage of white mice.
The Woman in White: the Musical
The shortest-running of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals, The Woman in White nevertheless seems to have been enjoyed by the public in London and New York. However, the storyline departs radically from the book. According to the Wilkie Collins Society:
"The packed house, the many overseas visitors, the frequent applause, a standing ovation at the end, seven nominations for Theatregoers Choice Awards 2005, and the plans to open the play in New York in November 2005 show that many people love it. Perhaps they are Lloyd Webber or Michael Crawford fans rather than readers of Wilkie Collins. In the seduction scene of Marian – I am not making this up – Fosco sings “I can get away with everything because I have no shame”. Mmmm." [Wilkie Collins Society, Newsletter, Winter 2004]