View Full Version : First Response

10-26-2006, 03:44 AM
Walter Hartright's narrative

Hippolyta: This is the silliest stuff that ever I heard.
Theseus: The best in this kind are but shadows, and the worst are no worse, if imagination amend them.


Like Theseus, I am having to do a certain amount of 'amendment' to get enjoyment out of this novel.

I notice the OU in the UK are using this as an example of the 'sensational' in literature - and I do see their point - my overall impression is of a superficial emotional line, written 'loud'.

There are a number of ‘stock’ characters designed to be instantly identifiable – the poor madwoman, driven crazy, most likely, by some wicked man – certainly persecuted by him. Jane Eyre’s attic dweller at least went mad because of a genetic defect.

An impotent relation – uncle by preference - so self-absorbed as to become wraith-like, and possibly malevolent. Shady servant in the background too.

The young hero, spurned in love for lack of good timing – if only he had come sooner. We just know he is good-looking – though not handsome.

What I am not sure of is how ‘stock ’these characters were at the time of writing.

Melodrama (theatrical) thrived on the stockiness of its characters – and there is a great appeal in this instantaneous understanding – depth of emotion comes from the accompanying music – but the character tells you which emotion it is.

And there has to be a comic element – foreign or working class. We’ve already had the ‘silly little man’, and the stupid child – and the milkmaid.

Was it Tennyson who said we all need some melodrama in our lives?

As for its reputation as the first detective novel - well, the classification, 'Soap Opera' seems better fitting. But that is exactly what it was – originally published in parts, in need of a cliff hanger to drag the readership back.

There is the potential for an interesting rural/urban clash too: It is a long time since I read it and am dying to know . . .

:flare: Ahhhh, I’ve been trapped in the spiders web of a plot!

01-01-2007, 02:15 AM
Yes, there are stock characters in most of Wilkie Collins novels, but I don't read them for the the complex characterization. I read them for the convoluted machinations of his plots. OK, so he is not A. Conan Doyle, I agree, but he is a precursor of Doyle and one of the first pioneers of the modern mystery novel.

You have to put yourself in the time and place. Imagine a world without TV or radio, without cars or shower stalls or even electric light. Then imagine yourself as a servant in a large household or a clerk in a banking establishment. You work 10-14 hours a day, and "half" days on Saturday. When you are done working, the penny newspaper is your only entertainment, and Mr. Collins is spinning out this series about a mysterious but attractive young lady who wears only white. He takes you to places you've never been before and shows you a nicer life than you've known. In the meantime, the characters are recognizable caricatures of people you've known well, and perhaps work with in your present life.

Collins wasn't a genius by any stretch of the imagination, but he knew how to appeal to the middle and working class Brit of his time. He catered to a slightly different audience than his friend Dickens or his contemporary, Trollope. He knew how to use the cliffhanger advantage to the max -- probably better than anyone had done before him.

He is amusing to me, and when I am in the right mood I can while away many hours reading one of his novels. To a modern person, his mysteries are very predictable. You can always, always see what's coming around the corner, but I think two things about that:1) That he established certain patterns for mystery novels, and since several authors took from his style, that's why he's predictable, and 2) That's part of his charm. You can think yourself very clever when you guess his endings in advance.

I just counted and I have nine of his novels. I haven't had a look at the Woman in White in years, so it is probably time for a reread.

I admit he gets "muddled" at times in his plots.

I guess I can agree with everything you say, and yet I still like him and get absorbed in his weird works.

03-21-2008, 08:54 PM
Personally, I don't think it's hard to get absorbed in a Collins novel (specifically, Woman in White) if you just let yourself. Granted, I was once an arrant lover of John Grisham; it was only after two years of undergrad that I legitimately could no longer sustain interest in any of his novels. But regardless, my level of literary snobbery is duly high, and I think there's enough depth to justify a close and serious read of Collins if you just look around for the material. As the original poster pointed out, though, the societal and historical significance to be gleaned from Woman in White (the hypochondriac uncle, the psychotic girl, etc.) can be found in a LOT of Victorian/19th century lit.

If you're looking for a deep, poetic landmark in Western thought, there's always George Eliot. Collins was still significant in his own, slightly more accessible, way; for that I appreciate him greatly. :)