There are exciting times ahead at The Bulb, with plans underway to relaunch it as a more focused and accessible online publication. So while we are busy brainstorming new designs and content ideas we will be cutting back our posts to once a week instead of two. This will ensure we have the time and energy to create while also doing the brainwork on a great, new publication!
We will of course keep you posted on our progress and would love to hear from you on how The Bulb can become even better.
Anyway, on to today’s post.
Writing a novel that stands the test of time is a feat that many budding or seasoned scribes aspire to. While I admit to holding this long-term dream myself – very much as an aspiring novelist – at this stage I am content to be a reader of novels that have stood the test of time. A recent inspiration in this department has been The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins.
Penned in 1859, The Woman in White weaves intrigue, love, tragedy, cunning, blackmail, good-hearted heroes and treacherous villains into an epistolary novel set in Victorian England. It begins with the appointment of young drawing master Walter Hartright as tutor to two sisters in Cumberland, and his chance encounter with a mysterious woman in white. These two events open the reader to a plot that twists to unexpected places and events.
What captured me most about The Woman in White, and why I think it has stood the test of time, are the characters. Despite the huge social, political and religious differences between today’s world and that of Victorian England, most of Collins’ characters live on the page. They are multi-dimensional and surprising.
While the romantic leads Walter Hartright and Laura Fairlie are suitably virtuous and therefore a bit bland, it is Laura’s determined but “ugly” half-sister Marian Halcombe and her nemesis, the chilling genius Count Fosco, who light up the page. Both start on the sidelines of the novel but develop wonderfully as characters in their own right and as rivals in a game of intellectual endurance and wit.
Collins’ introduction of Marian in itself is memorable; a description recorded in the diary of Walter Hartright.
“She left the window—and I said to myself, The lady is dark. She moved forward a few steps—and I said to myself, The lady is young. She approached nearer—and I said to myself (with a sense of surprise which words fail me to express), The lady is ugly!”
What Marian lacks in beauty she makes up for in intelligence, pragmatism, resilience, adventurous spirit and even a touch of early feminism. (Don’t we all want a few of those characteristics?) While Laura faints at her husband’s harsh and drunken behaviour and becomes ill, Marian creeps out on to a veranda at midnight in the torrential rain wearing nothing but her nightgown to eavesdrop on the conversation of the two men who hold the fate of her beloved half-sister in their hands.
Just as I cheered and hooted for Marian, I jeered, booed and I think even at one point gave the evil eye to Count Fosco, one of the creepiest villains I’ve ever read. His evil lies in the way he destroys lives with charm and perfect planning.
Despite the brilliance of the characters, readers do have to remember that the prose is typically heavy, but also richly, Victorian. The novel was originally written in about 40 instalments, each with its own mini cliff-hanger, so be prepared for an abundance of sometimes unnecessary suspense.
The Woman in White was a sensation when it was first published in Charles Dickens’s weekly magazine All Year Round in 1860. It is considered to be among the first mystery novels and the first “sensation novel” – in which dramatic events were set in familiar or domestic settings. Despite disliking the “ponderosity” of the work, contemporary novelist Henry James acknowledged that the book had “introduced into fiction those most mysterious of mysteries, the mysteries which are at our own doors”. It’s inspired many stage and screen adaptations and even an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.
I read The Woman in White on a 24-hour plane journey after buying it the airport by chance when getting rid of loose change. While that was less than a year ago, the characters are luring me to another read shortly because they, like the novel, stand the test of time.
Which books, and characters, have stayed with you?
(Written by Laura)
*Images from Lulu’s Bookshelf, A Book Review for You, andrewlloydwebber.com