Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Woman in White

I know that I recently waxed rhapsodic about a wonderful 19th century novel, and that I've previously discussed the intricate task that is choosing reading material for a trip. Acknowledging these two former posts, however, only underscores what I'm about to discuss here; namely, that I read an incredible, enrapturing, can't-think-about-anything-else book at the beginning of May, and while in Eugene no less. Ladies and Gentleman, the novel of which I speak--a novel which I exhort you to run out and purchase/borrow and sink into as soon as possible lest you wish to deny yourself an immensely gratifying reading experience--is none other than Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White.

I'm neither a Victorianist nor a Historian of the 19th century, but from the standpoint of pleasurable reading I do know that when an English novel of the 1800s is good it's really good, and The Woman in White is no exception. Since I can sense myself teetering on the edge of uninformative hyperbole, I'll backtrack a bit; the night before I flew to Eugene, with my suitcase packed and my alarm set, I stood before my bookshelves and considered the options before me. No one book stood out as an optimal choice, and so, mindful of a need for sleep before my 3:45am wake-up call, I simply picked the thickest novel that I hadn't read, threw it into my tote bag, and went to bed. I slept on the flight from New York to Salt Lake City, but once I'd boarded the prop plane for Eugene I was wide awake; thus, as we rose out of the clouds and into the sunlight over the Great Salt Lake, I opened Collins's text and began to read, "This is the story of what a Woman's patience can endure, and what a Man's resolution can achieve...".
And what a story it is! By the time the plane touched down among Oregon's verdant fields I was deeply absorbed by Cumberland, where "the distant coast of Scotland fringed the horizon with its lines of melting blue", by the love story of Walter Hartright and Laura Fairlie, and by the remarkable character of Marian Halcombe, of whose keen intellect even the cunning and malicious Count Fosco could not help but be enamored. Over the next few days, and whenever my brother, mother, and I needed a break from one another, I would dive back into Collins's novel, the result of which is that I cannot think about the text now without remembering the scent of fir trees and the taste of apple turnovers at Espresso Roma.
Of course, The Woman in White, like any great novel, is more than a sum of its parts, and even more than the smells, tastes, and experiences that attend its reading. Still, since I don't want to give too much away, I'll merely say that in addition to the narrative elements I mention above, this book possesses thrilling--nay, suspenseful and frightening--plot twists, intriguing shifts in narrative voice (the story is told from several perspectives), and character development and description that rivals the best I've ever read. At several points I found myself both terrified of and unable to resist discovering what happened next, and as I reached the last 100 pages of the book, I dreaded the thought of finishing it--I wanted The Woman in White never to end. Since it inevitably did, however, I'm left with only the following option: to preach the Collins gospel, and convince others to read it.
On that note, dear reader, I ask you to consider this Victorian door stopper on your next trip to the bookstore or library. As Marian Halcombe would pragmatically say--and did, actually, to Walter in the dining room at Limmeridge House--"I suppose we must come to it sooner or later--and why not sooner?"

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