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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.

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This was my little treat to myself post exam. I think this is the last P.D. James I had to read, except for The Children of Men, which I never fancied given that science fiction isn’t really a genre I’ve ever enjoyed. I put off reading this one as it is a Cordelia Gray mystery rather than a Dalgliesh one, and I normally prefer my crime fiction to be headed up by a brooding detective rather than an amateur (except of course for when I am reading the great queen of crime fiction, Agatha Christie’s, works).

However, I had no need to have any concerns on that front as, as ever, James produced a neat gem, harking back to the Golden Age of detective fiction. I think that’s why she does it for me, I’ve never enjoyed the Cornwall esq crime fiction, all blood and guts and post mortems, and brutal realism. Instead I prefer the closed circle of suspects, usually isolated in some romantic spot, each with their motive and a resolution that is surprising whilst not being unbelievable.

And here James delivers. The actress Clarissa Lisle has had her nerve shaken by a succession of poison pen letters: literary quotes about death from plays she has acted in. She has one last chance to revive her career in a one-off performance in the refurbished Victorian theatre of Courcy castle, isolated on an island two miles from shore. Clarissa’s husband hires Cordelia, who is relieved to get a well-paying job that may help to keep her struggling detective agency afloat, to ‘mind’ his wife, keep any further notes away from her and discover who is sending them.

But soon the glittering romance of Courcy castle turns sinister, with the theft of a marble sculpture of the arm of one of Queen Victoria’s children as a baby, and the realisation that the play may not be able to go ahead after all…

P.D. James does it again. A carefully crafted plot, modern yet timeless, and believable characters. I think this is perhaps my most important reason for liking her. Whilst there are many mystery novels out there, set in English villages and trying to recapture the magic of the Golden Age, they often fall short. Their characterisation is trite and unbelievable, unexpected and unrealistic things are revealed about characters at the end as a way of reaching resolution, and whilst they are easy to trot through (and I often do) they are ultimately unsatisfactory.

But not P.D. James. Her characters are real and the ends, whilst obviously part of the detective fiction genre, are not strained or discordant. Given that her last novel The Private Patient showed no signs of her powers waning, despite her writing it in her late eighties, I for one wish her many further happy years of life and hope that they continue to be productive ones.