Monday, October 13, 2014

The Woman in White

My favorite category of literature is British novels of the 19th century. (I'm also extraordinarily fond of the music and poetry of the 19th century; perhaps I had a previous life in that time).  Having just finished another novel of the era, I've been pondering the common characteristics that link Austen, Dickens, Elliot, et al, in my mind, and so far I'm at a loss to account for it.

Could the common thread be the cadence of the language? The essential Britishness of the characters? The languid pacing? The rich descriptions? The precision of the prose? The wry wit? At least one contemporary writer has deciphered the commonality enough to successfully imitate it. Perhaps one day I will have the leisure to pursue a PhD in Literature and unravel the mystery for myself.

Until that day, I can delight in occasionally losing a weekend in the company of fictional Victorians. This past weekend, I was glued to the sofa with Wilkie Collins' magnificent thriller, The Woman in White.

The title character makes only cameo appearances, but the mystery surrounding her is central to the story. Her fate is intertwined with the six principal characters -- three of whom are virtuous in the extreme, and the other three of whom are villainous. Mr. Collins has not shaded his characters in hues of gray; his hero and heroines act only with the noblest of motives and seem to be immune even to common human failings. Of his three main villains, only one transcends a one-dimensional drawing of heartless, remorseless manipulator. The corpulent Italian aristocrat, Count Fosco, is a villain worthy of a comic book: flamboyant, cunning and controlling, he is always one step ahead of his adversaries and seems to require a hero with superpowers to outmaneuver him. Yet he has a soft spot for animals and intelligent women, notably his protagonist on the virtuous team, who, perhaps not coincidentally, is the only one of her side to have a flaw: an ugly face.

Were this novel released in our age, a modern critic would likely take issue with characters painted in such pure terms. Even Batman has to wrestle with his inner demons these days, and the Joker perhaps had a good reason for turning to crime. No contemporary novel could support a character such as Marian Holcombe, who lives in stunning devotion to her younger half-sister who inherited not only all of the family money but also the physical beauty. Poor, plain Marian never seems to experience even a twinge of jealousy towards her fortunate sister.

I'm grateful Mr. Collins had no need to concern himself with the opinions of our century. His one-dimensional characters draw in the reader (assuming the absence of modern perversities that cause some readers to root for the bad guys), who will know clearly which team to support in this struggle of good and evil. Plus, the plot is intricate and perfectly paced.

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