Wednesday, December 3, 2014

There in your hand is the paper that offers you perpetual choking mouthfuls of country breeze for four months' time: The Woman in White

I'm reading the 1950 Dolphin edition of Wilkie Collins' sensation novel The Woman in White. The paper in this edition is wonderful, really quite fine, but I come here to quote the sales copy on the back cover:
The curious narrative of The Woman in White is gradually unfolded through the diaries, letters and memoranda of several characters. Its plot was taken from a dilapidated volume of French criminal cases that Wilkie Collins found while browsing with Charles Dickens through a Paris bookstall.
Why, it's The Ring and the Book!

Well, maybe not quite. Browning's epic poem is a masterpiece; Collins' novel, while entertaining, is not a great book. A pretty good book and worth reading, yes, but not great. Like Dickens, Collins gives us instantly memorable minor characters but earnest and lifeless protagonists. I have no idea why these main characters are generally relegated to being story-telling devices rather than something more like humans, but that's the way of it. Man-shaped lenses, but not men, that's what Dickens and Collins wrote. Still and all, it's mostly delightful fluff and I'm pleased to finally be actually reading it.

30 comments:

  1. All accurate, except that I doubt it will take you four months to read the book.

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  2. Ah, the ups and downs of Victorian sensational novels . . .
    Well, I hope you enjoy reading Collins as much I have enjoyed his two major novels. "Enjoy" is the key word. HIs novels are unabashed entertainments rather than profound literature. And if you really want to enjoy it all even more, you must view the movie version with Sidney Greenstreet; some of the movie is -- well -- mediocre, but Greenstreet is always an entertainment.

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  3. Also try The Moonstone, another entertainment that is perhaps the first "detective" novel.

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  4. Parts of Woman in White are profound literature. When Fosco buys - anyway, parts, yes.

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  5. Mea culpa! I should be less careless about using certain vague terms: "profound literature." Well, since we have both used the term, I wonder what I meant, and I wonder what you mean. But perhaps we will let that issue evaporate into nothingness. Some issues are not worth further dissection.

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  6. Sidney Greenstreet is profound entertainment.

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  7. And this --
    http://beyondeastrod.blogspot.com/2014/12/50-crime-writers-to-read-before-you-die.html
    -- may be relevant to the discussion.

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  8. I do like The Woman in White and The Moonstone (love Gabriel Betteredge), and think they are more than simple "fluff." And some time I want to reread The Moonstone and think about the reading where Franklin Blake is much more unreliable and underhanded than he appears--that one where his entire motivation for putting together the accounts is suspect. It seems so congruent with the way that Wilkie Collins lived his adult life with a major secret--his bigamy--that would have destroyed his reputation, if widely known. Actually the opium addiction he knew well and used in The Moonstone might have also been scandalous, even in a laudanum-addicted age, as opium certainly contributed to the sensationalist aspect of the novel... Anyway, he was clearly a man who was very good at keeping huge secrets, and that's suggestive in regards to Franklin Blake. Another older sensational (or sensational-pastoral-historical-sentimental) book I have liked is Lorna Doone, with the stalwart John Ridd and its great setting in Exmoor. You can come up with a list of major writers who have loved all three of those books, and that's certainly a sign that they are something bigger than the once-popular books of their era. They still retain energy, and that's rare.

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    1. My goodness, Marly, I thought you had no interest in authors' lives. You've enhanced my reading of The Moonstone with your observations and speculations. And, yes, on two points: the novel has a few seductive, unresolved secrets; and Gabriel is a hoot (i.e. he makes me want to rush out and read Robinson Crusoe)!

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    2. It's true I'm not much interested in authors' lives... But those two points on Collins are hard to miss!

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  9. Well, Hartwright's initial narrative is fluffy, though there are great bits in it. Part of what makes it fluff to me is that I know--unlike Collins' first readers, I think--how to read these types of novels and I can see all the things the narrative flags, many of which have become cliches since 1860. Where things really get clever (by which I mean where Collins gets clever) is when the narrators begin to change up. The lawyer's section is really quite well done in two respects: he introduces instability into the narrative through the irony of misreading almost all of the behavior of the characters around him because he is blinkered by social convention, which is the second thing Collins does well in this: count all of the instances of the words "man" and "woman" and how they tie to expectations of behavior, "you can say this to a man, but never to a woman," or "a woman of course things so and so" and "we naturally took him at his word as a gentleman," etc. Really great, subtle enough because completely in the lawyer's character. So unsurprisingly this is turning into a better book than I'd originally seen it as.

    There are some weaknesses in Collins' technique that disappoint, especially where he summarizes important scenes that better writers would've dramatized. All of Hartwright's romance of Laura is given as narrative summary just before Hartwright leaves the estate. And the supposedly brilliant conversational abilities of Sir Percival are admired at a distance but never actually demonstrated. The old Russians would've given us those scenes, in detail.

    Still, a good book. I can't say anything intelligent about The Moonstone.

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    1. In fact this morning I was thinking that the lawyer's narrative in The Woman in White reads sort of like a Nabokov story: an educated man making claims about the nature of the people around him, buttressing the claims with evidence in a well-structured argument, and still being all wrong. Absolutely delicious.

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    2. Yes, that's clever... What do you think of Fosco, then?

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    3. Patience, please! I'm only about 1/3 of the way through. I will know better in a couple of days. I like this book more as I go along; it's more complex than I thought it would be.

      Collins is in a funny historical spot here. He's arguing against the position of women in society (that is, as having almost no legal rights) and using cliches about gender to make ironic points, but at the same time he has his characters act in stereotypical ways ("I answered not because I had something to say, but because I have a woman's mouth and must speak," etc.). I assume we're all in similar funny historical spots, blind to our own prejudices. I could write an amusing essay drawing similarities between Woman in White and What is to be Done?, though I'll spare everyone that since the amusement would be all mine and what's to be gained by mocking our forebears?

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    4. Though possibly Collins is demonstrating that his characters damage themselves by buying into these gender stereotypes. Marian condemns her anger as "womanly," instead of seeing how it legitimately rises from the situation she's in. I have no idea which it is, especially 164 years after Collins was writing.

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    5. When people say one thing and yet do something quite different, we tend to lend more credence to their acts. I haven't read the book in a good while, but memory says that Mariann moves boldly against her enemies, all in service to the great love of her life. And she has much of substance to say.

      Again, I think of Collins, outwardly one thing but living a quite different sort of life... Both Collins and Marian are more complicated and less congruent with their times than the masks they wear.

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    6. Yes, Marian reveals herself to be not who she thinks she is, not powerless at all. I like her more with every page. She's all that Esther in Bleak House could've been.

      Collins is much better at slowly revealing character than I thought he'd be. I admit that I was expecting to get the people all drawn up at once, with nothing hidden inside them, and for all the drama to be plot-driven rather than personality-driven. The why is so much more important than the what.

      Corvo is a great character.

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    7. "all that Esther"! Choke, wheeze! Fightin' words!

      Esther is a subtle creation.

      When I wrote about The Woman in White I asked my readers why Marian is such a favorite, and I got unconvincing answers. One line of the scene that introduces her seems to be a doing an awful lot of work.

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    8. I seem to be in the minority of readers, finding Esther to be shining brightly and alive only in relation to other Dickens protagonists, but not in relation to other writers' protagonists. In the end, it's not Dickens who pushes Esther around, but Jarndyce. She's still pretty passive, is what I mean. Marian would clean Esther's clock.

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    9. Esther Summerson is much better at clock-cleaning than Marian. She is the cleaningest character in Victorian literature. A cleaning neurotic. If there is any area where Summerson is all too active, it is cleaning.

      Summerson is a better writer, too, much better. She is almost as good as David Copperfield, and he's a professional novelist!

      Is "passive" describing her character - like a moral comment ("Esther would be a better person if she learned to sass back some") - or the character - an artistic judgment ("Bleak House would be a better novel is Esther sassed back some")?

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    10. Both. At some point (not so far along), Esther becomes another prop, describing herself as she is moved around the set by others.

      I like Bleak House, but I'm not prepared to call Esther a great narrator (Dickens is a better writer than Collins, surely) , nor am I prepared to say that all of Dickens' writerly tools were equally sharp.

      But yes, Esther with her basket of keys, letting Jarndyce pick out a house and husband for her. I am saying mostly that I dislike Esther as a character in a moral way. I also think that Esther the fictional character has no mystery--is essentially the same dull little dear woman--the entire novel. She learns facts about herself, but we readers don't learn about her character past her first chapter, because that's all there is.

      I am not prepared to accept "subtle" about Esther. "Pale," maybe. "Watery," even.

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    11. I think next week is Bleak House week, so perhaps some of this will return.

      Not the moral part, of course.

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  10. Wait, you weren't even at the lawyer when you wrote the post? Patience, patience!

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    1. You know I write as I go along, fueled by enthusiasm rather than anything useful like actual information. I write about the experience of reading, not so much about the contents of the books, I guess. By the time I know anything definite about the book, the mystery that fuels this blog has evaporated so I don't say anything at all. It's not a great way of crafting essays, but it's all I got. I don't have your patience to read a whole book before I start spouting off about it.

      Still, I was a good 100 pages into the book when I wrote this post. 100 pages seems to be a good initial point to stop and admire the lay of the land, yes?

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    2. I think the book-as-a-whole language tricked me. "pretty good book." And the protagonists never improve.

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    3. I am a sloppy critic/reviewer. Inaccurate and provisional, the same way I read.

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    4. That has not been my experience here.

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    5. My blogging got a whole lot better when I started reading Wuthering Expectations and a bunch of the blogs you link to. "Hey," I said. "These guys are coherent. I should try some of that." Just a touch, though.

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  11. Rx: See Bloom on Esther in The Western Canon.

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    1. Bloom is in love with Esther. I'm not convinced by him, either.

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