Walter Hartright, artist and ultimate goody-two shoes, has finally been offered a position that promises some financial gratification. He has been requested to instruct two young ladies in a village in Cumberland in the art of . . . artistry, and dear Walter is only too happy to comply. One moonlit night, he goes out for a stroll to contemplate the depth of his gratitude when he runs into a wild-eyed woman dressed in white. Being on the run from someone, she asks our hero to point out the nearest spot where she can get a cab. Her pursuer, the woman informs our good man, is a decidedly cruel villain so Walter assists her in her escape. Minutes after sending the good lady off in a hansom Walter overhears two constables questioning another by-stander about a woman dressed entirely in white. The reason: she’s a madwoman, and has just escaped from an asylum.
So begins this nineteenth century sensationalist novel. It definitely lives up to the sensationalist name – it was quite addictive and I had to race through the pages to find out what exactly was going on. Because once Walter travels to Cumberland, he finds that that was also the destination of the woman in white; and what’s more, one of the sisters he must teach has more than a passing resemblance to the escaped woman in white (though they are, in fact, two different people). Then, our dear Walter decides that things aren’t complicated enough as it is and decides to fall for Laura – only to find out that her hand is already betrothed to another man, one Sir Percival Glyde (seriously, Walt, you didn’t see it coming? As if it wasn’t bad enough that a drawing instructor was having designs on one of his pupils.)
I felt as if I was reading the eighteenth century version of The Bold and the Beautiful or The Young and the Restless – there were enough turns and surprises to keep you on your toes. Having said that, it also felt as if there was a lot of talking, and thinking and considering, but no one actually seemed to do anything about the problems at hand for quite a length of time. And even when they finally did manage to accomplish something, it was only to discover that their enemies had guessed their moves all along and were actually one step ahead of them. I guess my frustration is evidence of the book’s success in regards to reeling the reader in. As a mystery, it’s an addictive read and I found myself ploughing through the chapters. However, I don’t think it’s something that I’ll be rereading – once you uncover the mystery all that hunger disappears, and neither the writing nor the characters are enough inducement for me to be flipping through the pages again. The mystery itself was solved in the slowest of paces imaginable. Not only that, but Walter and co. seemed quite blind to the most obvious of clues. Laura was just another delicate nineteenth century flower – which is another way of saying she was utterly useless – even when she resolves to act and help others she only manages to tangle everything up. Her half-sister Marian Halcombe, was better – she’s clever, pragmatic and resourceful, and manages to keep both of their heads above water during the more trying times. But, as I said, it was frustrating to watch both her and Walter untangle this huge knot by one painstaking inch at a time. I was quite exasperated with the lot of them by the end of the book – there was no elation or satisfaction that should usually be present with a good mystery, I was only happy that I wouldn’t have to put up with those characters anymore.
However, I did find the uncle of the two half sisters quite amusing. He’s a hypochondriac who’s utterly convinced that any drastic movements, raised voices and overly-complicated thinking will be the death of him – thus he relinquishes any form of responsibility and is actually quite useless as the only living relative of the two girls. But he did make me giggle a few times, which provided some relief to the long narratives – I kind of wish he’d had more ‘screen’ time.
Here he is being a tad melodramatic:
“It is the grand misfortune of my life that nobody will let me alone.
Why – I ask everybody – why worry me? Nobody answers that question; nobody lets me alone. Relatives, friends, and strangers all combine to annoy me. What have I done? I ask myself, I ask my servant, Louis, fifty times a day – what have I done? Neither of us can tell. Most extraordinary!”
“I am threatened, if I fail to exert myself in the manner required, with consequences which I cannot so much as think of, without perfect prostration.”
Yes, he’s a big baby.
2 out of 5 white muslin dresses.