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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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I love Dickens, I really do. Given this, my re-reading of this book at preparation for my Open University course was pure pleasure. And I think that this is one of Dickens’ greatest novels, a real blockbuster with an enormous scope and reach, yet immensely personal as well.

The novel is mainly about Florence, who is not the required son. Her father, Mr Dombey is a proud Victorian patriarch, the head of Dombey and Son, and cherishes dreams of his firm’s continued international expansion under the guidance of his son. But his son Paul is not strong, and even if he were he seemed unsuited to his father’s business. Paul shows the wisdom of his childish question, “What can money do?” as he gradually declines and dies, nursed by his sister Florence, despite all the medical care his father’s money can buy.

So Dombey is left son-less and gradually grows to hate Florence, who is strong and well and not a son, and who people warm to and care for. After the end of Mr Dombey’s disastrous second marriage Florence is forced to flee the house and throw herself on the care of her only friends.

And this set of characters, with a few peripheral others, make up the other main storyline. Sol Gills and his son Walter, Florence’s childhood friend, who ends up shipwrecked after being sent on a dangerous journey due to the displeasure of Mr Dombey make up the counterbalancing and interweaved storyline. And the remarkable Captain Cuttle, one of Dickens’ great caricatures, but a creature of great heart.  And here Florence eventually finds the comfort and love she never found at home, and is reconciled to her father, who eventually realises her worth and his fault, through his eventual downfall.

My brief précis above does not even begin to touch upon many of the other subplots of this novel, for example, the themes of social justice, and perversion of human nature through maltreatment and poor environment. But that is necessary, as with all of Dickens’ novels they spread themselves so wide and far, and have so many lessons to tell it would take a detailed study to explore them all.

The main criticism that is made of this book (as far as I know having not studied it closely yet) is the portrayal of  Florence. Florence appears so meek and mild to the point of self-effacement that she appears, at times, unbelievable. But, this is a criticism that could be made of many of Dickens’ ‘good’ female characters and one which I accept. Even though Florence is not one of the flat (in the sense of not having a fully rounded complete character, as none of Dickens’ characters could be called flat in the sense of blandness) characters, she is still there to tell a certain story and prove a certain point of morality, and at that she does, to my mind, do her job well.