Haunted by the Woman in White

I’ve just finished watching this cracker of a BBC adaptation – it’s not too late for catch up if you want to binge watch from the safety of the sofa.

WWhite1I first encountered Wilkie Collins when my family sat glued to a BBC adaptation of The Moonstone (another came in 2016). TV companies, desperate to repeat the success of The Forsyte Saga, had found a contender. They rolled him out again with The Woman in White  in 1982. I read my parents’ old Everyman edition, which I’m rereading now. At university, Collins figured in lectures on Dickens, Balzac and Henry James, but The Moonstone is now more usually regarded as the first full length crime novel. The Woman in White has no detective as such and even the BBC’s enquiring “scrivener” Emmanuel Nash doesn’t appear in the book, but it too involves solving crimes and elucidating mysteries.

Collins works well on TV, with its tried and tested pot boiler ingredients, as effective now as in the days of steam trains and port for gentlemen in the library. Candle lit interiors of red velvet and brocade film well, and The Woman in White has not one but two isolated stately homes – Limmeridge – bright, airy, a short walk from the sea, and Blackwater, closed in around a courtyard, with neglected ancient wings and a stagnant murky lake, “just the place for a murder” as Sir Percival Glyde asserts. The word “dastardly” was made for Glyde, although it must be said that his birth is the source of all his wrongdoing and 21st century readers may glimpse sympathy from Collins for a flaw that, nowadays, isn’t one.

Collins’ characters are rounded, with varying motives, vacillations, points when their  choices blur. As Walter Hartright, the artist turned amateur detective, says: “the best men are not consistent in good- why should the worst men be consistent in evil?” Walter is young, open hearted, romantic, generous – but also indecisive, naive and impulsive. The otherwise admirable Marion makes a crucial mistake in banishing him before Laura’s marriage. Foul Mrs Catherick, to a less moralising era, seems unpleasant rather than cruel, shipwrecked by unwanted pregnancy.  Housekeepers and valets are not just goodies or baddies, but confused, conflicted, put upon characters whose economic dependence gives them little space for manoeuvre, compassionately observed by Collins. Most servants are trustworthy, whereas aristocrats Count and Countess Fosco and Philip and Frederick Fairlie behave unforgivably and social values help them get away with it. Fosco was more elegant on screen than in the book, where his white mice, his “low, oily smile”, his age and obesity make him less appealing. The BBC emphasized the sexual frisson between him and active, intelligent Marion Halcombe which the acting was good enough to make convincing, but it’s less reciprocated by Marion in the book. Fosco’s admiration for Marion, and his expressed sympathy for his own wife, forced to “love, honour and obey” him while watching his infatuation, redeem him slightly.

 

Mothers in The Woman in White are either dead or betray their daughters – Hartright’s mother, though, is steadfast and sensible. He’s the poor but honest artist, in love with fey piano playing Laura Fairlie, whose doppelganger is a madwoman escaped from yet another isolated building, a “private asylum” (and is she really mad?). To complete the gothic picture there are inheritances, sinister marriages, debt, alcoholism, a powder that sends tea drinkers to sleep, a tumbledown boathouse, lodgings in a London slum, anonymous letters, a locked church in a near abandoned village, a graveyard, jewelled keepsakes…At Limmeridge dresses swish, and Hartright observes women’s bodies moving in freedom: “…her waist, perfection in the eyes of a man, for it occupied its natural place, it filled out its natural circle, it was visibly and delightfully undeformed by stays.” But at Blackwater corsets are laced ever tighter, and I lost count of the rooms Laura, Anne, Marion, Fanny and possibly others were locked away in. In the end locks and keys turn against at least one gaoler though, because this is a novel of justice and reparation.

Collins, states my edition’s 1963 introduction, “was a radical feminist”. Possibly not quite one we’d recognise, since his female characters miss no opportunity to denigrate their own sex. Marion, is energetic, intelligent, graceful and ugly, and in her first speech of introduction she blames her own  stupid behaviour/attitudes/beliefs on being a woman at least six times, adding “no woman does think much of her own sex, though few of them confess it as freely as I do.” However, the broader premise on which the book is based unambiguously protests against the lack of opportunities and legal status of women and wives in Collins’ day. All Laura’s assets will be signed over when she marries Sir Percival, the family solicitors objections waved aside, although it puts her husband in a position to benefit more from her death than her life. Her father chose the husband for her, and the BBC version gave Mrs Catherick lines similar to “To men like that, character and reputation mean more than anyone’s feelings or well being” although I couldn’t find them in the book. Collins highlights how women were subjected to coercion, violence and emotional abuse, how men fathered children and walked away, how easy it was to portray women as mad or unreliable, and how the a gentleman’s word carried more weight than someone of lower social standing. The legal position regarding the property of married women may have changed (although as late as the 1970s Carmen Callil remembers the header on her tax return: “If you have a husband, this form is addressed to him.”) but, sadly, the other types of abuse are as familiar as they were when The Woman in White was published in 1859.

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Marion (Jessie Buckley) and Laura (Olivia Vinall) in the BBC’s The Woman in White

Skimming the book again, I’ve the impression of a faithful adaptation, with some aspects emphasised as they couldn’t be in Collins’ time. His discussion of dreams, memory loss, post traumatic stress prefigured Freud by forty years and give the BBC cast some wonderful acting opportunities. The emphasis on dependency is there, and also the hints of lesbianism and erotica. Says Marian: “The simple illusions of her girlhood are gone, and my hand has stripped them off. Better mine than his – that is all my consolation – better mine than his.” Marian and Laura, who are half sisters through their mother, frequently share a bed. They touch, stroke and caress; their language about each other is romantic. The BBC even has Marion wearing wide legged trousers. In Anne Catherick’s case, there’s confusion between her mental health and learning difficulties, as in the book. There’s clear economic delineation. We know who is wealthy, who only appears so, who can aspire to be self sufficient, who is respectable and who is precariously surviving, down to the last sextons too debilitated to tend the graves in their charge. And here are public institutions: impoverished half derelict churches whose small congregations graffitti their doors, free village schools for urchins as opposed to foreign boarding schools for aristocrats. (Not a huge amount changed there, then either.)

 

Many characters and devices in The Woman in White were based on a real case, the Douhault conspiracy in France. Anyone interested in Victorians solving real life crime, and the influence this had on fiction, should read Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher”. Another contemporary writer with a debt to Collins is Philip Pullman in his Sally Lockhart series – if you’re looking for a strong female lead with full Victorian trimmings, you can’t do better. Meanwhile, if this was your teenage children’s introduction to The Woman in White, do reassure them there’ll probably be another one along in a couple of decades. She’s one literary ghost who will never fade away.

©Jessica Norrie 2018

For Eggheads in search of answers…

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Oh dear! People said my Easter Eggheads Book Quiz was too hard! I didn’t mean to scramble anyone’s brains. Here are the answers, so you can pretend you knew them all along and pass on the pain to your friends:

  1. Who printed a story in which a “good wyf” from Southern England thought a merchant from the North was speaking French, because he asked for eggys which she knew as eyren?  The clue was in the verb, to print. The printer was William Caxton in 1490, and he tells the story to illustrate the (unchanged) difficulties of a proofreader and typesetter, in his prologue to the Eneydes (Virgil’s Aenid). This had already been translated from Latin to French and he was now printing an English version. Actually I found the reference on a post about Shrove Tuesday, here.
  2. 41kgazntxvl-_sx307_bo1204203200_Who shouted “What, you egg! […] Young fry of treachery!” and what is he doing to whom as he shouts it? […] is the moment in Act 4, scene 2 of Macbeth when the first murderer stabs Lady MacDuff’s son. The murderer calls the young boy “you egg” to show he represents the next generation.
  3. Which Shakespearean hero shares his name with a famous egg dish? This is Benedict (aka Benedick), from Much Ado About Nothing. Eggs Benedict is an American dish invented by a Wall Street broker, and has absolutely nothing ado with Shakespeare. 
  4. Who rode westward on Good Friday 1613? Good Friday, 1613. Riding westward is a poem by the metaphysical poet John Donne. It begins: Let mans Soule be a Spheare… I didn’t know this poem either until I found the reference in an excellent Guardian article about Easter in Literature.
  5. 406373Who met Mephistopheles during an Easter walk with his friend Wagner? Goethe’s hero Faust was out walking at Easter with his friend Wagner, when they met a poodle who followed them home and turned out to be the devil in disguise. Faust then made a famous pact with him. Faust was first published in 1808, so if you were thinking of a more famous Wagner, the composer Richard, I’m afraid that was a red herring – he wasn’t born until 1813. But the moral of the story is, take care around poodles.
  6. At the beginning of which children’s story from 1854 is the King of Paflagonia so absorbed in a letter from the King of Crim Tartary “that he allows his eggs to get cold, and leaves his august muffins untasted“? This is the delightful The Rose and the Ring: a Fireside pantomime, by W M Thackeray. Politically incorrect fun still, as old Countess Gruffanuff falls for young Prince Giglio. Thackeray’s illustrations are very funny too.  612b231allql-_sl500_sx319_bo1204203200_
  7. Which Victorian artist was described by his friend Charles Dickens as “sweet-tempered, humorous, conscientious, thoroughly good, and thoroughly beloved“? Who other than the pre-Raphaelite painter Augustus Leopold Egg, whose name I had wrongly remembered as a character in a Dickens novel.
  8. What was the name of Raffles’ sidekick? Bunny” Manders is Watson to Raffle’s Holmes in the series of novels by Victorian writer E W Hornung. No, I haven’t read them either.
  9. Who told Alice in Wonderland “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean“? Humpty Dumpty, when she met him sitting on a wall, in Alice through the Looking Glass. They argue about it and he cracks first.83346
  10. Which decadent hero lived in West Egg? Jay Gatsby, from Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. West (and East) Egg are fictional settlements of nouveaux riches and old money, based on similar places in Long Island. 
  11. Which seminal moment in Irish history forms the subject matter for Sean O’Casey’s play The Plough and the StarsThe Easter Uprising against the British took place in Dublin in April 1916. 15 Irish nationalists identified as leaders were afterwards executed at Kilmainham Jail. Whether they are described as traitors or heroes depends very much which historical or literary account you read.
  12. 18076Who “came down to breakfast one morning, lifted the first cover he saw, said ‘Eggs! Eggs! Eggs! Damn all eggs!’ in an overwrought sort of voice, and instantly legged it for France, never to return to the bosom of his family?” This was Lord Worplesdon, described in Jeeves Takes Charge by P G  Wodehouse. You could read it, or watch the BBC series where Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie acted Jeeves and Wooster just spiffingly.
  13. In which novel by Agatha Christie is there a character called Egg? Hermione Lytton Gore is nicknamed and always referred to as “Egg” in Three Act Tragedy, a Christie novel of 1934. There’s always another Christie novel you haven’t read…
  14. 4025Who liked “a speckled brown egg from a French Marans hen, boiled for exactly three and a third minutes” for breakfast? This is James Bond, described in From Russia with Love. My source was another Guardian article, on breakfasts in literature
  15. Which very sad black comedy originally starred Albert Finney and has been revived since with Clive Owen, Eddie Izzard and Miriam Margolyes among others in its cast? The original play was A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, by Peter Nichols in 1967, about the daily routines of parents with a very severely disabled daughter.
  16. When could you next hope to see the Oberammergau Passion Play? It’s only performed every ten years, and the next one will be in 2020.
  17. What colour were Sam-I-am’s eggs? Green! Read Green Eggs and Ham by Dr Seuss to find out if Sam-I-Am ever does persuade the child to eat them.51n595qwkol-_sx360_bo1204203200_
  18. Who wrote the original story and script for “The Long Good Friday”? This 1980 gangster movie was scripted from his own screenplay by Barrie Keefe.
  19. What hatched at the beginning of a story from an egg lying on a moonlit leaf? Eric Carle’s Very Hungry Caterpillar, going strong since 1969.  I couldn’t quote the first page exactly as it would be too high a percentage of the entire text to pass without copyright infringement, but most parents and teachers should have recognised this. The first bedtime story I ever read to my babies, I’ve also taught it at evening classes for adults in French and Spanish. They tell me it did wonders for their fruit shopping vocabulary.4948
  20. Who made the assorted sweets from which if you were very unlucky, you might pick out a rotten egg flavoured one? This was one of the less sought after flavours of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans, which you could buy in  sweet shops frequented by Harry Potter and his fellow Hogwartians.

A question some of you may have found easier: Which Bennet sister visited Rosings on “Easter-day” and was told by Lady Catherine de Burgh that she would never play the piano really well?

A question I completely forgot to ask, which would have brought my quiz more up to date: Which depressed egg is a Japanese cartoon Superhero?

Do let me know if you can think of any more. The deadline’s a week before Easter 2018, whenever that is.

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Here’s another egg quote, from the Arden Dictionary of Shakespeare Quotations, compiled by jane Armstrong

©Jessica Norrie 2017