28.10.11

'I am a Literary Sensationalist!'

Or so it would seem: have you read 'The Woman in White'? Of course, you have, but I've only just got to it. Not to rave or anything, but I totally want to rave about it. It was like a shot in the arm - that plot arc! those coincidences! Marian's upper lip! Wow.

I approached this book as one (I) tends to approach the classics - appropriately dressed for all circumstances, head down, ready for the dense simile and slower-than-average-modern-book pace. I was excited though, as I love the meatiness of the classics and how you often need appropriate footwear and a gritty determination to get through to the end. They don't just give you everything straight away - you have to earn them. 'Very readable' was not a compliment then (but, saying that, considering the Booker Prize controversy, I'm not sure it is, or should be, now. Who want something flimsy enough to just drift through?)

Anyway, suffice to say, I was braced for some quality Victorian fiction, but what did I find? So much more. A plot, joy's that be, suspense, intrigue, humour and a whole lot of coincidences. But the best coincidences - the most winking of coincidences - that drove the story forward and gave way to tangent after tangent, weaving a rich and idiosyncratic web of intrigue. I read this Jon Lee article about a a day or two after finishing it, about the supposed lack of plotting in literary fiction, and sat there going 'Yes! I know what you mean by a plot and suspense, because 'The Woman in White' had them all!' It was a bit of a revelation, truth be told. Apparently, lots of people felt the same way at the time, going 'what is this? It's wonderful', so they deemed it 'literary sensationalism', which makes me, I think, a literary sensationalist.

Yes, some parts of it were a bit random - after reading this post on 'Wuthering Expectations' about the 'pliant firmness' of Marian's head, I couldn't help but snigger at some of the descriptions - and a few of the characters were outrageously larger than you'd find in regular life, but that made it colourful and memorable and delightly eccentric, in the greatest Victorian tradition. Count Fosco reminded me a little of Minguillo Fasan from 'The Book of Human Skin', with his skin-crawlingly-obese-white-mice-and-pudding-covered eccentricity, glee at human weakness, constant addressing of the reader and delicious exclamations of ME, ME, ME:

'In brief, Fosco, at this serious crisis, was untrue to himself. Deplorable and uncharacteristic fault! Behold the cause, in my heart - behold, in the image of Marain Halcombe, the first and last weakness of Fosco's life!
At the ripe age of sixty, I make this unparelleled confession. Youths! I invoke your sympathy. Maidens! I claim your tears. 
A word more, and the attention of the reader (concentrated breathlessly on myself) shall be released...'

Count Fosco's characterisation was a joy, as was Marian Halcombe's - oh, to be ugly in a novel if you get a character like that! 

She's strong, she's witty, she has a hairy upper lip; I can't decide if it's stereotypical to say that a clever woman must be a lot like a man, rather than a woman, or awesome to make her useful and dynamic, beyond being marriagable and a pawn in the games of men. I think it's both. Also, I feel much the same way about Fosco's secret love for her - does it redeem him a little? Does it suggest him as perverse to the degree that he might love an ugly woman? Or does it suggest that he plays these games in a desperate, if unconscious, search for an adversary who can keep up? That's a great endorsement of her, if it is. In any case, I loved it. Thanks God she didn't have to be pretty and boring, like Laura Fairlie and Walter Hartright.

I'd just like to quickly draw attention, on that point, to my review of Barry Unsworth's 'The Quality of Mercy' from a few weeks ago, and say that, if Wilkie Collins could come up with Marian Halcombe in 1860, why can't Barry Unsworth draw a full and complete female character, 150 years later, even if he is apeing an earlier period? 

Anyway, enjoy a quote from the most classic of scenes; I'm off to tell more people about it and increase my plotting ten-fold. Apparently this scene is based on the real-life story of how Wilkie Collins met his common-law wife cum mistress, Caroline Graves...

'I was far too seriously startled by the suddenness with which this extraordinary apparition stood before me, in the dead of night and in that lonely place, to ask what she wanted. The strange woman spoke first.

"Is that the road to London?" she said.

I looked attentively at her, as she put that singular question to me. It was then nearly one o'clock. All I could discern distinctly by the monnlight was a colourless, youthful face, meagre and sharp to look at about the cheeks and chin; large, grave, wistfully attention eyes; nervous, uncertain lips; and light hair of a pale, brownish-yellow hue. There was nothing wild, nothing immodest in her manner: it was quiet and self-controlled, a little melancholy and a little touched by suspicion; not exactly the manner of a lady, and, at the same time, not the manner of a woman in the humblest rank of life...

...She held a small bag in her hand: and her dress - bonnet, shawl, and gown all of white - was, so far as I could guess, certainly not composed of very delicate or very expensive materials. Her figure was slight, and rather above the average height - her gait and actions free from the slightest approach to extravagance. This was all I could observe of her in the dim light and under the perplexingly strange circumstances of our meeting. What sort of woman she was, and how she came to be out alone in the high-road, an hour after midnight, I altogether failed to guess. The one thing of which I felt certain was, that the grossest of mankind could not have misconstrued her motive in speaking, even at that suspiciously late hour and in that suspiciously lonely place.' 



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