Book Review: The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Yet another of those ‘classic books’ sat on my shelf for a long period of time (decades, in fact) with the utmost intention to ‘read one day’. Finally, last year, I got around to it. This was helped along by the fact that the famous scene – where Walter Hartright, the main protagonist, meets the titular woman herself – has been used as an analysis extract for GCSE students and I have regularly taught from that particularly paper. It is always useful to know what actually comes next in such cases.

This is rather important with The Woman in White as that scene gives a very wrong impression of what the story is going to be about. It sets up as a ghost story. It turns out to be more of a Scooby Doo tale. The famous scene was apparently inspired by a true event which happened to Collins in Cumbria. Perhaps that is what makes it so vivid. Alas, for me anyway, the direction the novel takes after that doesn’t really live up to the same standard.

To be fair, this turns out to be what many consider the first detective novel. Furthermore, there’s no detective involved; merely amateur sleuths who all have a vested interest in the events and who all tell their part(s) of the tale. The main ideas of slowly uncovering the evidence and clues to unravel the mystery have remained the way to do it ever since (Colombo aside, of course). Likewise, there’d be no Famous Five or Miss Marple without such a story.

Collins was good friends with Dickens and, for a while, was more popular. That history has favoured his friend and relegated Collins to simply (and solely) the author of The Woman in White, might be seen as unfair. I do not agree. Collins isn’t half the writer that Dickens is, although you can see much of the same kind of style and flair. Still, this novel remains near the top of most Top 100 books. I’m not sure staying in the top 100 is unfair, but I would certainly place this down at the bottom of any such list.

As much as anything, there’s just too much coincidence. That Hartright just happens to be employed by a family that are connected to this strange woman he met by chance is borderline believable. That she happens to look exactly the same as one of the sisters he is to teach and that she is to marry a man whose history involves the strange woman is simply too far a stretch. All I can say is: the Victorians must have been very gullible readers.

Such criticisms aside, despite being a lengthy book, it is very readable. There’s no feeling of wading through endless descriptions such as you might find with Thomas Hardy. The plot pace is fairly swift and there’s enough excitement and danger to keep you, if not on the edge of your seat, definitely not leaning back and getting sleepy. If you like Dickens and want something light to enjoy – a literary equivalent of the ‘trashy novel’ perhaps? – then The Woman in White is for you.

Personally, I’d have preferred a damned good ghost story, as that opening scene so strongly suggests. Now Victorians were VERY good at their gothic tales…

Social Entrepreneur, educationalist, bestselling author and journalist, D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page. His third book is ‘Try not to Laugh’ and is a guide to memorising, revising and passing exams for students.

Both ‘The Old Man on the Beach’ and ‘Sonali’ are available on Amazon for kindle and paperback. Published by Shopno Sriti Media. The novel,’The Pukur’, was published by Histria Books in 2022.

D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at Alternatively, he is available for one-to-one mentoring and runs a course on the psychology of writing. Listen to his life story in interview with the BBC here.

Ken writes for a number of publications around the world. Past reviewer for Paste magazine, The Doughnut, E2D and United Airways and Lancashire Life magazine. Currently reviews for Northern Arts Review. His reviews have been read more than 5.5 million times.


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