I didn’t managed to post anything last week due to the general stress of being in the middle of attempting to get to a point of exchange on my current house and the one I want to buy. No doubt I will continue to feel frazzled for many weeks to come unless things fall apart (which obviously I don’t want) so I decided I couldn’t continue to neglect my blog and must knuckle down. And I’ve been saving up the Woman in White for a few weeks now, so I thought it was time to write it up.

This really is a great page turned of a novel. It has it all, from the opening moments of Walter Hartright’s mysterious encounter with the woman in white herself, through love denied to love found and then onto the fantastical end, it keeps you gripped. Collins was writing for a weekly which accounts for the number of cliffhangers and moments of suspense, but they all add to the atmosphere. The plot itself is highly dubious but apparently was greatly feared in Victorian times (I won’t let the cat out of the bag for those of you who haven’t read it) and the resolution is a little strained, but the masterly writing allows you to forget all that as you are swept along.

As for the characters. Well, apparently Collins’s technique of letting each character ‘tell’ the part of the story they were most associated with was a novel innovation, but it works and allows the reader to get closer to the characters. Walter Hartright is still the central character, with his devoted love for Laura Fairlie. We see him develop as a character, tested in the jungles of South America until he develops the strength to tackle the mystery of the woman in white and fight for Laura’s love.  

But it is Marion Halcombe who steals the show. Marion who does not wear stays, who has a beautiful body below an ugly face and who sets every stereotype of Victorian womanhood flying (which is a good thing after they have been so carefully hung out to dry in Laura Fairlie, a flat character if ever I saw one). And it just goes to show that the Victorians weren’t as madonna/whore about their women as I was taught in school, because apparently when the novel was serialised Collins was flooded with enquiries from male readers requesting the identity of the woman Marion was based on so they could propose. It’s good to think the Victorians, or at least some, liked a strong woman and valued something above insipid femininity and languid eyes. 

A great read, still entertaining to this day. At times Walter can seem as if he ‘protesteth too much’ and the plot is a little strained, but it still is the original sensation novel and endearing with it.

This is an epic book, and not at all what I expected. When the blurb on the back tells you that it is about children growing up in the Edwardian era who will be ‘betrayed unintentionally by the adults who love them’ your mind, or mine at least, presumes that the book will have as a large part a focus on the First World War. And this is not so. The First World War does feature, but towards the end, and it an event played out on the world stage, and yes it is a betrayal. But in many ways it is just one more betrayal these young people have to face, and it is most definitely not the novel’s focus.

Instead it focuses on a set of bohemian, artistic families, who are determined to live by modern, humanistic values, and who see this as the most rational and productive way to raise the next generation. But it doesn’t always work that way. Discovered through the children’s glimpses, we see the distortions and misunderstandings that Humphry’s and Olive’s infidelity creates. Despite the magazine pictures of her as a successful children’s author, weaving tales for the charming children gathered at her knee, the reality is darker and more disturbing. The children are uncertain, unsure, who they belong to and how? And, in the age-old problem for maternity, Olive’s need to create, to be independent, drives a wedge between her and her children when their bond is needed most.

Meanwhile in the Fludd’s household Benedict’s creative genius as a potter must come first against all. This suits his protegé Philip, escaping his own demons, but the demands of genius destroy his family. His beautiful wife has given up and sits drugged amongst the dirt and ruin while Benedict sculpts obscene portrayals of his daughters.

In between, Russian anarchists and German artists flit across the pages with players from the developing museums sector and the arts and crafts movement with their children. And by each are the children betrayed, as creativity and adult needs are put first and the demands of children for stability, reason and safety ignored.

I can’t say I liked this book, but that would not be a criticism in itself if it had the power to move me, but I felt there was something lacking. Byatt knows her stuff, and it is clear that she is clever and knowledgeable. She places her characters on and in the sweep of history, describing the key elements of the time, and yet the historic sweep and lives of the characters themselves did not seem to marry together as they should. In the end I did not really care which of the characters lived or died or came through the Great War psychologically intact. Off the page they had no life for me, which is a shame because the potential for great things was there.

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