The Thrilling Days of Yester-Year

One of the most interesting things about reading works on #theLIST is placing the work in a time in history. Wilkie Collins, close friends with Charles Dickens and considered to be the forerunner of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the detective novel, is an example of why knowing how a novel was written gives you a clue on how to read it.

The Woman in White is a massive novel – as far as Kindle locations go, it has over 9600 locations. That is roughly comparable to Stephen King’s The Shining. As an early Victorian piece of work, it contains all the hallmarks of that period – richly complex language that rolls in periods of exquisite detail. As much as you want to sit down and read it, start to finish, it is difficult.

As I struggled through it, with its multiple narrators, an archetypal hero, and a true rapscallion for a villain, I began to wonder why I struggled. So I stopped and did some research.

The Woman in White, like many novels of its time, was originally published in serial format. Therefore, an episode was written and the reader was left hanging on a cliff (multiple times) waiting for the next episode. It reminded me of cliff hanger finales on television shows – the whole “who shot JR Ewing” brouhaha comes to mind. So, I changed my reading style to locate the episodes and read them in a sitting and walk away (for a day, an hour, or, at the end, a minute). The work was much less of a struggle.

In The Princess Bride, the grandfather tells the grandson: “In my day, television was called books.” The Woman in White is a sterling example of this principle. In my mind’s eye, I can see the readers lining up to purchase the magazine that held the next thrilling installment, as Walter and Marian and Sir Percival and Count Fosco worked their way through a series of misfortunes that include love, heartbreak, marriages of convenience, voyages to the wilds of South America, kidnapping, wrongful imprisonment in an asylum, and all sorts of calamities. These calamities were regular and without an end in sight, orchestrated by a villain who trained canaries and white mice as if they were children. Throw in a secret society, an opera, and an unexpected death or two, and, by the end, the reader is breathless and satisfied.

If a reader as cynical as I can wholly commit to a villain with the improbable name of Count Fosco, then the suspension of disbelief is complete and I am swept away to another time and another place. The suspension of disbelief is so complete that I cared deeply about what happens to our hero and heroine, and, strangely enough, what happens to our villains, too.

A worthy read, indeed. The next time I’m reading about some prairie family who is thrilled to get a bundle of magazines because of the serial stories, or watch Jo March scribbling her thrillers in hopes of them being published in magazines and newspapers, I will remember The Woman in White. I now have an understanding that was not there before, and, quite possibly, a way to muddle my way through Dickens, one episode at a time.

8/10 Hearts. It was a worthy read and, by the end, a page turner that could not be set aside.