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The Woman in White
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2012/13 Group Reads - Archives > The Woman in White - Part 4

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Sarah | 269 comments Here are some discussion topics which you might want to consider for this section:

Impressions of Mr. Fairlie?

What do you think about the interaction between Mr. Fairlie and Count Fosco? Did you find it amusing or ominous?

How would you assess Eliza Michelson’s character? Mrs. Rubelle’s?

Thoughts on the various short narratives offered?

(view spoiler)

(view spoiler)

Any ideas on what the Secret might be?


Sarah | 269 comments Comments/thoughts for Part 4:



This novel has become more and more intense and thrilling, definitely demonstrative of the sensationalist literature that derived from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Despite a formerly slow, steady approach, by the middle of the book the pace has become decidedly frantic in response to the characters’ narratives. This is one aspect that makes me appreciate the epistolary format—the reader is able to engage more thoroughly in the story and feel the characters’ emotions with them. Frederick Fairlie is a ridiculous character in his narcissism and extreme sensitivity, and he is obviously no help to Lady Glyde or Marian. The character of Fosco, however, is one that I find to be among the most interesting in the novel. He is so manipulative and bold, with an enormous extroverted presence, and he is able to relate to others in such a way as to work to his own advantage, yet at the same time one is unsure whether or not he has a true benign aspect to his nature. In my opinion, the same could be said of Mrs. Rubelle.

On the contrary, Eliza Michelson is almost comical in relating her narrative because, although it seems that she has a good heart, she is constantly asserting that she can’t or won’t say something but then she goes on to do so anyway. I personally find her to be rather pretentious. (view spoiler)

The revelations made by the several short narratives and continued by Walter Hartright indicate that the climax of the story has been reached. (view spoiler)

The theme of identity is certainly an interesting and pivotal one in this novel. Collins uses it to enhance the mystery which enshrouds the various narratives. Lady Glyde seems to represent the ideal woman (as defined by the Cult of True Womanhood, which existed between 1820 and 1850), while Marian displays qualities that are quite masculine, yet she is really more of a heroine than her sister. This interests me because it demonstrates a divergence from typical social roles. I would love to hear any thoughts that others might have on this.

As Walter takes up the narrative again, there is more mystery and tension than ever. (view spoiler)Marian’s character shows itself to be even more pronounced as she becomes the stabilizing force throughout the maelstrom of events which ensue. (view spoiler)


message 3: by Lily (last edited Dec 23, 2012 08:59PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Lily (joy1) | 2632 comments (view spoiler)


message 4: by Sarah (last edited Jan 21, 2013 03:57PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Sarah | 269 comments Lily wrote: "[spoilers removed]"

I understand your irritation with this aspect of the novel. The Secret was definitely played up to be the pivotal moment, and I was personally expecting it to be more serious an offense, really. However, perhaps at that time it would have been; class distinction is a prominent feature of nineteenth-century society, whether it is British, American, etc., so the fraud may have been more criminal then than we see it now. As for the characters, I think that maybe Collins did introduce so many in order to maintain an atmosphere of mystery, but I also feel that perhaps interspersing their narratives helped to maintain a traditional plot structure and chronological timeline for the story. If he had not separated some of the narratives, the story would not have been told in the order that the events occurred, and the mystery would have been solved much sooner. I’m sorry that reading the novel was a negative experience for you; hopefully some of the discussion makes it more interesting for you! Also, I too think it would be very interesting to talk about the role of private asylums both then and now; they have historically been a rather taboo topic, and I think that in many ways they still are.


Zulfiya (ztrotter) | 1596 comments I for one find different voices fascinating. We are approaching the culmination of the novel, so one character in charge of the narrative could be dull and monotonous. The choice of Count Fosco and Sir Percival would have been wrong because they would have been revealing; thus, the intrigue could not be sustained any longer. Collins is a sensational writer, and he knows his niche and does it with gusto and willingness.

On the other hand, Collins often relies on something, that is called elision (an omission of the most revealing facts, details, and actions in the account of the events). And again, it helps to sustain the intrigue, and it also gives a different perspective. If in the beginning of he novel we were all wondering why Laura does not have a voice in this story, now the answer is clear - her presence, especially in the view of the upcoming epiphanous events, would reveal too much. One can only wonder what letter Laura wrote and who is the addressee of this letter. It is obvious that this was the straw that saved her. Besides, the notes, written by Laura or Marian could have been too emotional and inconsistent to convey the sheer malice of the scheme. Eliza Michelson's narrative manages to create the necessary feeling of detachment and also gives a panoramic view of all the mishappenings. On the personal note, it was interesting to observe how my attitude towards Mrs. Michelson changes. She is definitely delusional about Count Fosco, and she stays delusional. Besides, all those allusions to her husband's sermons are indeed irritating, and we might be led to think that she is a self-righteous bigot without any spiritual or human insight and compassion, but then we understand that she has a heart in the right place; she is the one who stays with Marian to help her recuperate, and she is sincerely sorry about Laura and how she is treated by Sir Glyde, and she definitely is very vocal about the treatment of servants. So, I actually consider her a sympathetic character, gullible and pig-headed in her convictions about Count Fosco, but sympathetic.
I am also enjoying this novel because it contains very enlightening social messages about the position of women. Even the noble women could be vulnerable and could fall victims to their plotting and vile husbands.


message 6: by Lynnm (last edited Jan 21, 2013 04:12PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lynnm | 3027 comments I did not expect the ending. I should have. The clues were there. But I definitely wouldn't have made a good detective, because if I had been able to make the connections, as soon as they said Laura had a heart disease, I would have figured it out.

I do not find the Secret to be irritating. I find it to be a good "teaser" to keep the reader's attention.

And in this section, wondering what is happening with Marian, keeps the reader turning the pages. My only criticism is that unfortunate that we know that Marian is going to be a narrator again because there it is in the table of contents. Because if I didn't have that in the table of contents, I would be very worried about her fate.

As for Eliza Michelson, as Zulfiya said, she is delusion about Fosco, but definitely a sympathetic character. She really wants to help Laura, can see through Sir Percival, and when she is at the train station with Laura, you really can see the good side of her.

As for Percival, by running away, he shows that doesn't have it in him to actually do the deed. Fosco does. And the Countess does. But does that make Percival less evil than Fosco? I don't think so. He still lets Laura fall into Fosco's hands, and doesn't do anything to save her.

The entire time I was reading this section, I could see how Collins is considered to be such a genius of the mystery genre.


Sarah | 269 comments Zulfiya wrote: "I for one find different voices fascinating. We are approaching the culmination of the novel, so one character in charge of the narrative could be dull and monotonous. The choice of Count Fosco and..."

True, if either Percival or Count Fosco had been given a narrative, too much would have inevitably been revealed. I also suspect that doing so might have even created some sympathy for them, which we are obviously not supposed to have!

I had similar feelings toward Eliza Michelson. I felt that she was quite hypocritical in a way, but it seems that perhaps her faith has been, up to this point, something that was merely indoctrinated in her by her husband and thus something that didn’t take root. She previously could only parrot what she had been taught, but when caught up in a situation that forces her to act on her beliefs, she does do the right thing. True, she doesn’t see through Count Fosco, but she does care for Marian.


message 8: by Robin P, Moderator (new) - rated it 4 stars

Robin P | 2224 comments Mod
The gravesite scene certainly worked for me. I was listening to an audio and when I came to that I gasped out loud with surprise! I think the various narrators are cleverly done, in that we learn small parts of the story at a time and we have to piece them together.


Zulfiya (ztrotter) | 1596 comments Sarah, you mentioned the identity as a key theme in your opening thread, and I think that Collins was fascinated with this concept all his professional life. We can actually trace it in his other novels, No Name and Armadale


Sarah | 269 comments Robin wrote: "The gravesite scene certainly worked for me. I was listening to an audio and when I came to that I gasped out loud with surprise! I think the various narrators are cleverly done, in that we learn s..."

I did the same thing when I read it! I re-read it several times to make sure that's what it actually said!


Sarah | 269 comments Zulfiya wrote: "Sarah, you mentioned the identity as a key theme in your opening thread, and I think that Collins was fascinated with this concept all his professional life. We can actually trace it in his other n..."

Thanks for the heads-up! I recently purchased the complete works of Wilkie Collins for my Kindle, and hopefully I can delve into his other novels sometime! :-)


Casceil | 220 comments One of the interesting effects of the multiple narrators is that key parts of the story are being told by characters who do not know enough to understand the significance of what they know. They are giving a straight-forward account of what they saw and did. The reader, who knows more background, is forced to puzzle about what the events mean. It is a great use of "show, don't tell."


message 13: by Deborah, Moderator (new) - rated it 5 stars

Deborah (deborahkliegl) | 4492 comments Mod
It's been a bit crazy for me so I was behind until today. I love the use of different narrators and the additional,suspense it creates because they only know a small,portion of the story. I was so engrossed in the story that I had completely forgotten about the secret until it was mentioned again. Kudos to Collins for keeping all these intricacies in the plot without losing sight of any of them.

I almost expected Laura's death because of the financial gain of our villains. Loved the graveyard twist. I truly didn't see that coming, but as Lynn says should have. Also enjoying that Hartwright is back.

Collins quite often creates strong female characters and compares them to the weaker ideal woman. He also questions identity and its importance. Lastly I think he really does a great job in describing some of the challenges Victorian women faced.

I didn't have any problem with mrs. Michelson. First you have the class difference that would not allow her to question her betters. Then you have her piety. While modern readers may find it cloying, I think Victorian readers would just view her as a good Christian woman. That piety would preclude her to think well of others (think about the not judging others items in Bible). And as many have said here, she does follow her moral compass to the point of leaving a position without another. Remember she is female working class with most likely no reference. Therefore, she's possibly risking her own welfare by her decision.

Regarding asylums, it was very easy to put problem women away into an asylum by saying things like she is hysterical, oversexed, an unnatural woman, etc. This could definitely be the case in this story as it was a private asylum so money definitely changed hands. Even as late as the 1950's in the U.S. women could be institutionalized by their husbands. Collins has made what little we have seen of the asylum as something that was not horrific. However, I don't believe that was the case with more public institutions. I have only a cursory knowledge about the asylums, but think Lily is correct that we may want to delve into that further.


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The Readers Review: Literature from 1714 to 1910

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No Name (other topics)
Armadale (other topics)