The Godfather: Peter Corris on The Woman in White – book and film
As I wrote in an earlier column, I read Wilkie Collins’s ‘sensational novels’ in my younger days and admired them as good yarns. More recently I read (when I could still read) Peter Ackroyd’s excellent 2012 biography of Collins. As I’ve also written about previously, when my only option became audiobooks, I took eagerly to Victorian and Edwardian novels, partly to relive my youth and partly because, being usually of some length, they provided long-term enjoyment.
Some details of the Ackroyd biography had slipped my memory and I listened to Collins’s two most famous books, The Woman in White (1860) and The Moonstone (1868), in the wrong order. I admired The Moonstone, as I’ve said, but The Woman in White is the better and more significant work.
For one thing it introduces the technique of narratives by different participants (later adopted in The Moonstone) to give an air of authenticity to the structure of the story. More importantly, where The Moonstone centres around the loss of a fabulous jewel, the earlier book derives its energy from more solid foundations – the English class system, the laws of inheritance and the question of identity. It also has the advantage of two formidable villains – Sir Percival Glyde and Count Fosco – providing the opportunity for the writer to discourse on the characteristics of different nationalities and temperaments.
It’s not my purpose here to outline the plot (I’d urge NRB readers who have not done so to read the book themselves), but to point out several additional features that distinguish The Woman in White. One concerns the character of Marion Halcombe and other is the element of humour.
Unlike many of the heroines in Victorian fiction, Marian Halcombe is forthright, resourceful and determined. She is also noticeably ugly, with mannish features, dark hair on her upper lip and large, although well-shaped, hands and feet. Both Walter Hartwright, the hero of the story, and Count Fosco, the villain, admire her without the faintest trace of sexual attraction. She emerges as the most interesting character in the book. A modern reader cannot help but suspect a Sapphic attraction between her and her fey, vapourish half-sister Laura Fairlie.
The depiction of Frederick Fairlie, Laura’s selfish, hypochondriac uncle, is a comic masterpiece as he almost faints away at the least sign of difficulty.
Given the strength of the story, it’s not surprising that the book has been adapted for the stage, film and television from the silent days until quite recently. The 1948 version (the only one I’ve seen) gave Sydney Greenstreet one of the roles of his life as corpulent Count Fosco, and character actor John Abbott captured Frederick Fairlie’s vapid posturing perfectly. Of course the film telescoped the events in the book severely and the far from ill-favoured Alexis Smith was cast as Marian Halcombe, thus robbing the story of one of its most intriguing elements. But that’s Hollywood for you.