Alex's Reviews > The Woman in White

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
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's review
Jul 27, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: 2011, reading-through-history, best-villains, top-100, rth-lifetime
Read from July 27 to August 01, 2011

I've never liked the term "butterface." I don't object to the objectification; I just don't like the sound of it. Nonetheless, it unavoidably popped into my head at my introduction from behind to Miss Halcombe, as Collins allows Hartright to ogle "the rare beauty of her form...[and] her waist, perfection to the eyes of a man, for it occupied its natural place...visibly and delightfully undeformed by stays*," before she turns and he's horrified by the revelation that "The lady is ugly!" (I.6)

Since I like pretentious literary allusions as much as I dislike the word "butterface," I propose to exchange that unpleasant word for the new term, "Halcombe." It's even gender-neutral: "That guy you went home with last night? Looks like he hits the gym plenty...but man, what a Halcombe." Much better, right? I've already put it on; go give it a thumbs up.

Collins, a polyamorous laudanum addict, invented a genre called the sensation novel with Woman in White. He took Gothic stories away from their ghost-filled castles and directly into what he called "the secret theatre of home": "Collins and his fellow sensationalists [Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Ellen Wood, Charles Reade and Rhoda Broughton] re-mapped the 'knowable communities' within which writers such as George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell and Margaret Oliphant plotted their fictions as territories that were unknowable, or at least dangerous to know" (Penguin Read Red intro). Unsurprisingly, this has been a big hit with generations of people who dislike their spouses.

And it's a terrific book. The titular woman shows up almost immediately to hook you in; after a brief slow-down to set the stage, around a third of the way in the tension ratchets up and never lets go again. It's incredibly gripping, and there are no plot holes. It features several brilliant characters: the aforementioned Halcombe, who makes the book basically feminist; the hypochondriac Fairlie; and, of course, the illimitable Fosco, one of the most memorable creations ever.

It's set up as an unusual epistolary: testimony from a number of sources, as if for a legal proceeding. The switching of narrators allows Collins to play a bunch of daring tricks: at one point a character suddenly intrudes in another's diary, confessing that he stole and read it, and commenting on her version of events.

And, of course, it lets Collins experiment extensively with the idea of the unreliable narrator. At least three passages are overtly untrustworthy (Fairlie, Mrs. Catherick and Fosco are also the most entertaining narrators); and since Collins obviously meant for us to understand that, might it not follow that the rest of the narrators are equally untrustworthy? Major spoilers: (view spoiler)

*Collins was wonderfully against corsets, and unapologetically an ass man: "I too think the back view of a finely formed woman the loveliest view." (Letters of Wilkie Collins, Vol. II, p. 534; ganked from an endnote in my edition)


Edition review: the Penguin Read Red edition is fantastic. Great intro and great endnotes. The Kindle version I bought did a superb job of linking to the endnotes (something often neglected in Kindle editions), and it's only $4.75.
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Reading Progress

9.0% "Well, this doesn't waste time getting to the good stuff."
57.0% "When you have once shown yourself too considerate to add a family of your own to an already overcrowded population, you are vindictively marked out by your married friends as the born friend of all their children."
62.0% "Just finished Epoch II; ha, what a series of blindsides. This book is great."
02/11/2016 marked as: read
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Comments (showing 1-27 of 27) (27 new)

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Alasse Yay!! Gothic soap opera FTW!!!

Jayme I guess I'm supposed to get cracking on some Dickens. It's going to have to replace roots for your task, Alex.

Alex That'll work. Maybe we can read a Victorian non-fiction together; I have lots of suggestions for that.

message 4: by El (new) - rated it 5 stars

El Good review. Will you be reading The Moonstone at some point? I really liked that one too.

Alex At some point, hopefully, but not soon.

message 6: by El (new) - rated it 5 stars

El How much longer are you going to be spending on your Victorian reading? There's just so much to choose from. Do you know yet what your plans are after Victoriana?

Alex I'm hoping to spend the rest of the year with the 19th century. I'm more than a little dubious about it though; I still have Count of Monte Cristo, Moby Dick, Brothers Karamazov and Vanity Fair, and that's just the really long ones. It might carry over a bit into 2012, unless I make some tough cuts in the reading list.

And then it's on to the 20th. I have no clear idea of how I'm going to handle that. There are a lot of minor works, like We, The Jungle and Invisible Man (Ellison), that I'm really excited for, but a lot of the major stuff - Faulkner, Steinbeck, Hemingway - I've already done, so will probably just revisit one each.

I've been vaguely hoping to finish this whole project around the end of 2012.

Alasse How did I miss this review? Woman in White is one of my personal favorites. Big thumbs up to "Halcombe".

Chinook Yes. I'd never heard butterface, but tip drill is just as bad.

Alasse I had never heard either, obviously. In Spain we call them shrimp, because you can use everything except for the head. It's slightly less terrible because it's gender neutral. Like Halcombe.

message 11: by Alex (last edited Aug 10, 2011 06:47AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex Well, I'd never heard "tip drill" either (because I'm old and not very cool) so I looked it up. Urban Dictionary (you again, my old friend!) says it actually means running a train, and includes this note:
If the nelly song is the first time u have heard this term try listening to the lyrics more carefully. Just cause they say " it must be your ass cause its not your face" doesnt mean a tip drill is a chick with a big botty and an ugly face."
I'm not saying we should take our slang definitions from someone who's clearly illiterate, but...actually, yeah, we probably should.

Shrimp is also a pretty clever term.

Chinook I'm fairly certain that the soldiers using the term were not referencing their train driving habits... However, it's possible.

message 13: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex Also possible that the soldiers themselves have not listened to Nelly with appropriate care.

Chinook That seems entirely likely. I think they listened to Nelly mostly at the club with care given over to finding a woman, Halcombe or otherwise.

Lianakay Great review, thanks! Will return for a read of the version with spoilers when I've read the book.

message 16: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex Thanks, Liana! Hope you dig it as much as I did.

Lindsay Probably my favorite book of all time. I don't think I've ever laughed out loud while reading a book review before. Thanks for that! You may have ruined me for all other reviewers, however. I'll be hard-pressed to find one as entertaining.

message 18: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex Thanks Lindsay!

Michelle Hillstrom hahaha butterface is what i thought too!

message 20: by Mikhai (new) - added it

Mikhai Butter face! I must confess I thought the same thing too! Damn rap music...

Cecily At the risk of distracting from an excellent review... "butterface"?! Is that a common term in your parts? (I have never heard it before.)

message 22: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex I'm afraid so, Cecily. I'm afraid so.

Cecily :(
And now I've had to look it up on Urban Dictionary.

Alison Murray Doing a 'Halcombe' - love it!

Jason Al Cracka! Ha ha ha ha. I gave "Halcombe" its 51st like, by the by. It's catching on! And I'll start dropping it down here in Dixie.

message 26: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex Jason wrote: "Al Cracka! "

That's an old Chris Rock reference.

Jason Oh yeah, I forgot about that. I haven't paid much attention to him since Bigger and Blacker and No Sex in the Champagne Room, but I remember the Al-Queda/Al-Cracka thing, ha ha.

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