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Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Wilkie Collins: The Ordeal of the Woman in White

Does reading a novel ever become an ordeal? Do you sometimes find yourself plugging through a book just to get through it? That proved my experience with The Woman In White by Wilkie Collins. This novel is the fifth written by Charles Dickens' friend and contemporary author, and considered the best written by Collins. It is said to be one of the first Mystery novels ever written, or at least a precursor to the later Mystery literary genre. The novel impressed fans and authors, including a young Agatha Christie. Yet I found the pace glacial, and the story largely uninteresting. How could this be?

Perhaps a little comparison is in order. Earlier this year, I read The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens. It was my first experience with Dickens (at least as an adult, and as best as I can remember). Dickens peppered his story with lots of characters, who each had interesting stories to tell. Many of the characters were quirky and amusing, and perhaps a little far fetched. I suppose the story was rather satirical. Yet the one thing that sticks in my mind was how much sheer story there was. Like The Woman in White, The Pickwick Papers was serialized in a magazine/newspaper. There was mini-adventure after misadventure. It was a lot of fun, and told me a lot about England during that era.

By contrast, Collins' novel was more focused, and the story simpler. When one character left the stage, the next person involved continued the linear narrative. There were complications, and a few interesting characters, but only one plot thread. So if you got bored with that story, there was nothing else to look forward to but more of the same. 

Most of Collins' characters left me flat. There were only three well developed characters, in my opinion. The rest seemed more like charicatures. Now that's fine in a humorous novel, but not so good in a serious narrative. The whole point about The Woman in White was that it was breaking new ground for its time. It was a Sensation novel, a fusion of the Romance and Gothic literary genres. It clearly spoke to contemporary readers and authors, even if many reviewers hated it. Even today, it is ranked as one of the most important English language novels ever written. Yet I slogged through it, and feel robbed of the enjoyment that others have derived from the reading experience.

Don't you hate it when you miss the party?

Dragon Dave

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