Woman in White Podcast: Sensation Novel or Detective Story?
Welcome to the Woman in White podcast episode from Tea, Tonic & Toxin! In The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins tells the story of a woman locked away in an insane asylum. Well, sort of.
This 1860 thriller is considered to be among the first mystery novels (along with Bleak House, among others) and among the first and finest sensation novels. The story includes a ghostly woman, a secret society, switched identities, foreign agents, paranoia, bribery, blackmail, and conspiracies. Seriously, what’s not to love?
Read: Buy it on Amazon, buy it used, or read it for free, courtesy of Project Gutenberg. (Reading time: ~12 hours)
Yeah, we get it. Twelve hours is a lot of time. But guess what? It’s SO worth it. I mean, you’re reading a Victorian detective story for goodness’ sake. And two of the characters, Marian Halcombe and Count Fosco, are off the charts amazing.
Discuss: Check out our conversation starters and our blog.
Weigh In: We want to hear from you!
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What We're Talking About in the Woman in White Episode
Sarah Harrison 0:24
Welcome to Tea, Tonic, and Toxin, a book club and podcast for anyone who wants to explore the best mysteries and thrillers ever written. I’m your host Sarah Harrison,
Carolyn Daughters 0:36
and I’m your host Carolyn Daughters. Pour yourself a cup of tea, a gin and tonic,
Sarah Harrison 0:43
… but not a toxin …
Carolyn Daughters 0:47
and join us on a journey through 19th and 20th century mysteries and thrillers, every one of them a game changer.
Sarah Harrison 0:58
Carolyn, what are we talking about today?
Carolyn Daughters 1:01
We’re reading and talking about The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. It’s the first of two Wilkie Collins books that we’re doing. Next month we’re going to talk about The Moonstone. But this month, we’re doing a Woman in White podcast. I have to say I’m excited about this book.
Sarah Harrison 1:21
That’s cool. I’m excited too. I think we have a sponsor today.
Carolyn Daughters 1:28
Today’s sponsor is Linden Botanicals. And you’re even drinking out of a Linden Botanicals mug.
Sarah Harrison 1:33
Do you design these mugs so they face toward you or face outwards.
Carolyn Daughters 1:43
It’s so confusing. Yet we’re figuring it out live. Linden Botanicals sells the world’s healthiest herbal teas and extracts. They have teas and supplements that provide support for brain health, joint health, memory, and mood. The website is lindenbotanicals.com. Thank you for being our sponsor.
Sarah Harrison 2:20
Thank you. I actually really like their stuff. I got a humongous bag of Phyllanthus niruri.
Carolyn Daughters 2:28
Phyllanthus niruri herbal tea is the company’s flagship product.
Sarah Harrison 2:33
We just make a big pot in our percolator. It’s a very healthy, all-natural tea from Peru.
Carolyn Daughters 2:45
In today’s Woman in White podcast, we’ll summarize the plot, in case you haven’t read it, but you just really enjoy listening to Sarah and me.
Sarah Harrison 2:56
Why wouldn’t you?
Carolyn Daughters 2:57
I’m gonna go through a plot summary here. And it’s a big book. The last couple books have been pretty big, Bleak House and The Woman and White.
Sarah Harrison 3:04
We actually divided this Woman in White podcast into two parts. This is the first one. They’re not chronological. If you’re listening to the second, no big deal.
Carolyn Daughters 3:15
They’re standalone episodes. This first Woman in White podcast episode is gonna focus on general ideas from the book and also about the fact that it’s a sensation novel and a detective story. The second podcast will focus on two of our favorite characters. My two favorite characters, for sure.
Sarah Harrison 3:38
I’ll agree with most interesting.
Carolyn Daughters 3:40
Marian Halcombe and Count Fosco. All right, The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins is one of the first sensation novels and one of the first detective stories. The characters use many sleuthing techniques that have since become common in mysteries and thrillers. The book also uses multiple narrators and narratives. In the preamble, Collins writes, the story will be told by more than one pen as the story of an offense against the laws as told in court by more than one witness. The story begins like this. While walking home from Hampstead just outside London, a young drawing master named Walter Hartright meets a mysterious woman in distress. She’s dressed entirely in white. He helps her find her way but soon learns she has escaped from a mental asylum. The next day he travels north, where he has secured a position at the home of Frederick Fairlie, a wealthy hypochondriac. Mr. Fairlie has hired Hartright to tutor his lovely niece, Laura, and her devoted half-sister Marian Halcombe. Hartright quickly sees that Laura resembles the woman in white. Marian and Walter launch and informal investigation and discover that the name of the woman in white is Anne Catherick. Anne had lived in the area as a child and was devoted to Laura’s mothef, who first dressed her in white. Now, Anne sends a letter to Laura warning her about Laura’s fiancee Sir Percival Glyde and also convinces Hartright that Sir Percival was the guy who shut her in the asylum. Meanwhile, Hartright and Laura fall in love. However, Laura promised her late father she would marry Sir Percival, and she follows through. Broken hearted, Hartright joins an expedition to Honduras. After their honeymoon, Laura and Sir Percival return to his family estate, the aptly named Blackwater Park. They’re joined by Marian and Sir Percival’s friend Count Fosco, a cultured, heavyset Italian who’s married to Laura’s aunt. Marian learns that Sir Percival is in serious debt. Sir Percival tries to force Laura to sign a document that would allow him to use her large marriage settlement of 20,000 pounds. Marian is outraged and won’t allow Laura to sign. At the same time the woman in white, Anne Catherick, reappears promising to reveal a secret that will ruin Sir Percival. Marian takes a big risk, eavesdropping on Sir Percival and Fosco in the rain. Soon after, Marian collapses with a fever. While Marian is ill, Laura is tricked into traveling to Count Fosco’s house in London, where she dies. Except that Laura isn’t really dead. Instead the woman in white is the one who died, and Sir Percival and Count Fosco switched Laura’s and Anne’s identities to steal Laura’s money. Anne has been buried as Laura, while Laura has been drugged and placed in the asylum as Anne Catherick. While Marian finally recovers, she’s shocked to find Laura alive and locked away in the asylum. Marian helps Laura escape from the asylum just as Hartright returns from Honduras. Marian, Laura, and Hartright hide out in London. Hartright and Marian are determined to restore Laura’s identity, and Hartright finally discovers Sir Percival’s secret. See, later earlier, Sir Percival forged the marriage register at a local church to conceal his illegitimate birth. He’s not the rightful heir to his estate or his title. Sir Percival sets fire to the church to try to destroy the evidence, but he dies in the fire. Hartright also learns that the woman in white was Laura’s half sister, which accounts for their resemblance. Hartright enlist the help of his Italian friend Professor Pesca. Count Fosco sees Pesca and recognizes him as a fellow member of an Italian secret society. Hartright uses this knowledge to his advantage forcing Count Fosco to write a detailed confession of the conspiracy. Afterward, Fosco flees, but the secret society catches up with him and kills him in Paris. Meanwhile, Laura’s identity and fortune are restored soon thereafter. She and Hartright get married, and they, their baby, Little Walter, and Marian live happily together. Boy, that’s a big book to summarize.
Sarah Harrison 7:59
There’s a lot going on. A lot of plots and subplots. We’ll be discussing it all in this Woman in White podcast episode.
Carolyn Daughters 8:05
Sarah, let’s just start with basics. Tell me how you felt about this book.
Sarah Harrison 8:12
It was a tough read for me. I’ll be honest. I’ve read a lot of Victorian novels, and rarely have I struggled like this. What I see what I struggled with was the way so much of the novel is framed between the idea that is what a woman is like and this is what a man is like. Always masculine and feminine. And the way it was used to support the plot. But just the way the characters used it. I felt like it was really tough to me. I kept setting it aside, and I was like, I’ll come back to this. I’m struggling right now. Maybe this will stop. Maybe it’s only this one character’s beef. But it framed the whole novel. That tied with some of my own personal baggage around what is masculine and what is feminine. I just had a really hard time with it. The story’s interesting. This is what I felt like. I have a hard time with horror movies for several reasons, but one of the reasons is the stress. When you’re watching a horror movie, there’s always some character in the movie who keeps doing dumb stuff. Like, no! What! Why are you doing that? And then they keep doing it. That’s what a lot of this felt like to me. Not that there’s any horror in it. But I was just like, what? Are you crazy? I struggled there, but I think you had a really different perspective and take on it, right?
Carolyn Daughters 9:59
I loved it. It’s broken into three parts. And the second epoch, the second part, was amazing. Marian narrates it, and it felt well-paced. I kept turning the pages, I stayed up later than I had planned. It felt fresh and interesting and new to me. So much so that I talked you into a second Woman in White podcast. Now, I studied Victorian literature in graduate school and never read Wilkie Collins. I have no idea how I never read this book before.
Sarah Harrison 10:36
That’s funny. Is Wilkie Collins not considered like a prominent Victorian writer?
Carolyn Daughters 10:41
He was prominent. I just didn’t get to it. I don’t know why. It was an oversight.
Sarah Harrison 11:01
I thought was really cool. You told me just a few minutes ago that he was best friends with Charles Dickens.
Carolyn Daughters 11:06
During the middle parts of their lives, my understanding is that they were very close friends. They were both publishing in All the Year Round. And Dickens was a mentor to Wilkie Collins, he was several years his senior. Wilkie Collins was influenced greatly by Charles Dickens in particular by A Tale of Two Cities, which he thought was a perfect story. And there is, of course, a case of switched identities in A Tale of Two Cities, Carton and Darnay. Two guys who look stunningly similar who switch identities. We see that in The Woman in White. We can see maybe some influence there. I was blown away with it. There are parts of the book that I liked less than other parts for sure. Hartright’s narration left me a little bit cold at times.
Sarah Harrison 12:04
I feel a little torn as we talk about this book in this Woman in White podcast episode. Like there wasn’t a solid character I could get behind and root for, which I really like in a book or movie. I want to feel strongly on someone’s side instead of they’re always getting on your nerves. But as I was reading, I thought, well, I’m probably not appreciating this from a literary perspective. I know that I’m not. I wondered about your take on sensation novels. What are they?
Carolyn Daughters 12:45
If you haven’t read it yet and you’re just going on this Woman in White podcast, I strongly encourage you to read this book. It’s pretty amazing. There’s a ghostly woman, switched identities, paranoia, forged documents, mysterious and herbs and medicines and drugging, bribery, spying foreign agents, blackmail, conspiracy. There’s all this stuff going on. For me, it was a forbear to a lot of mystery and thriller crime novels that I’ve read in recent years. I think they owe a lot to Wilkie Collins. It’s definitely a sensation novel. Any listener who wants to weigh in, we want to hear from you. Visit our website, teatonicandtoxin.com. Or find us on Facebook and Instagram. So come in, correct me weigh in, share some thoughts. From what I’ve read, Wilkie Collins was writing weekly serials versus Dickens, who often wrote monthly serials. The way a weekly cereal works is you’ve got to have, I think, 40 sections or chapters ending with an “oh my god” moment. That fits right in with a sensation novel. If everybody’s behaving perfectly, if everybody’s using their heads rationally, if everybody is a smart cookie, we don’t get very far in this book. At the end of each section or chapter, we need the characters confused or scared …
Sarah Harrison 14:48
We need the subscribers to eagerly await the next issue. There are lots of twists and turns, lots of things going on, for sure. So are sensation novels a subset of Victorian novels?
Carolyn Daughters 15:12
I think they’re still written today. When I was in junior high, I was home sick. My mom had some novel, where the woman wakes up, and everybody starts calling her some name. And that’s not her name. And she’s confused. It’s this household-wide subterfuge. Everyone’s pretending that her name is, I don’t know, Jane. And she’s like, no, my name is Cindy. And she’s like, No, that’s not true. And because we’re hearing from her voice, and because the writer isn’t one of the best writers in the world, we get the sense the writer is not giving us an unreliable narrator. What we’re getting as a woman thrown into chaos by an entire household that’s trying to do something nefarious. I think this kind of book is common.
Sarah Harrison 16:26
It makes me think that maybe most novels today are sensation novels. Maybe it just expanded to how we write novels. I was actually thinking that Twilight sounds like a sensation novel. And maybe most romances, maybe a lot of fiction. Every few chapters, even if it’s pretty sophisticated fiction, that’s how you write. It makes it a page turner.
Carolyn Daughters 17:00
Where every chapter seems to end with “Oh, my God, what just happened?” I think he spawned an entire form, to be honest.
Sarah Harrison 17:10
That’s very cool. As you mentioned earlier in this Woman in White podcast, it’s also a detective story. Or in what way is it a detective story? I guess sensation novel and detective story aren’t synonymous.
Carolyn Daughters 17:24
It had these ghostly women and spying and forged documents, all of that big to do. But it’s also a detective story. At the end of the day, Hartright — I don’t know why that’s difficult to say — and Marian are trying to solve a conspiracy. What are your thoughts on the detective elements of this story?
Sarah Harrison 17:52
From a literary standpoint, I couldn’t say these are the elements of a detective novel. But certainly, I was struck at the end of the novel after Hartright puts all the pieces together. He actually takes a minute to explain, from his perspective. He explain why being poor helped him solve the mystery. But I saw it from the perspective of why the normal legal roots would not have solved the mystery. So that was pretty interesting. He’s definitely an amateur detective.
Carolyn Daughters 18:27
Why wouldn’t the normal legal roots have have aided here?
Sarah Harrison 18:33
I think that there are a couple of things involved, such as the mysterious foreign society that needed to be infiltrated in order to have the leverage to force a confession out of Count Fosco. Just going to court would not have procured such a confession. But because he was poor and desperate and in love, Hartright went beyond the typical legal route in order to obtain the necessary legal evidence. There were a couple I guess conversations around being poor and being rich that, honestly, I thought were irrelevant. I don’t know if he was on topic on that one, or correct on that one. I don’t think it’s because you were poor that that aided you unless you’re just a lazy rich person who wouldn’t have really sought it out.
Carolyn Daughters 19:33
There are three epochs, or three parts to this book. Along those lines, then, Hartright starts epoch one, and he is doing some cursory investigation, I would say pretty clumsy detective work. And then he comes back from Honduras at the end of the second epoch, and he narrates most of the third epoch. And he seems like a changed man, so poverty may be aided him, maybe it didn’t. But some other things did seem to make him savvier in some ways at the end. What did you think about the evolution of Hartright?
Sarah Harrison 20:11
I didn’t necessarily see an evolution. It was towards the end that I wrote the word “dummy” so much. By his name, I would write, “Dummy!” I thought Wilkie Collins must be trying to explain what his person isn’t doing very obvious things. Like, after I got there I it occurred to me maybe I should wear a disguise. And then he has some moral feeling about how he didn’t want to wear disguise. And there were several things that I’m like, what? You’re so stupid, why are you doing that? One was like, it didn’t occur to me that I would actually need the copy of the register certified. They won’t just take my word for it that he lied. I’m like, what?
Carolyn Daughters 21:08
Nobody took anybody’s word for anything.
Sarah Harrison 21:10
Wait, I just remembered another one. Before he walks into Mrs. Catherick’s house, he’s on a train ride to get over there. And he gets up to the door, and he’s like, I hadn’t thought about what I’d say when I walked in. What had he been thinking about on the train the whole way there?
Sarah Harrison 21:34
I missed the evolution of Hartright. What I thought is that his dedication increased. And he himself seemed to tie that to the increase in Laura’s ineptitude and brainlessness. That really bugged me.
Carolyn Daughters 21:53
She gets spacier and less functional as an adult woman.
Sarah Harrison 21:58
The amount of times he compared her to an actual child, and how condescending he was, and how cute it is when I’m lying to her about her income. She’s saving it up for something nice. I couldn’t take it. I was so irritated. That’s what I really wanted to talk about in this Woman in White podcast episode.
Carolyn Daughters 22:15
Yeah. Hartright and Laura, who he ends up marrying, and Marian, who is Laura’s sister, the three of them are hiding out in London in this apartment together. For a long time, he’s not married to Laura. This is a big deal, by the way. In 1860, what they’re doing is a big deal.
Sarah Harrison 22:33
He’s pretending to be their brother, I believe.
Carolyn Daughters 22:35
Something like that. In essence, he’s the father of the house, Marian’s the mother of the house, and Laura’s the child. It’s this really weird setup.
Sarah Harrison 22:48
They wouldn’t even let her clean a dish. She just did nothing.
Carolyn Daughters 22:53
She can’t be let in on any of the details. Hartright and Marian are full force investigating what’s going on, and Laura can even be made aware of what they’re doing.
Sarah Harrison 23:03
No, her brain is too fragile.
Carolyn Daughters 23:06
Poor Laura. To that end, Laura never narrates anything in this book.
Sarah Harrison 23:12
No, she doesn’t.
Carolyn Daughters 23:14
I wish Anne Catherick had narrated something. I would love to have a Woman in White podcast episode devoted to her. But we know so little about her.
Sarah Harrison 23:21
Although her brain was legit fragile. She seemed to have like some kind of learning disability and a lot of neglect in her childhood. I wanted to believe that she was fine and she was on target. But by the end they really spell it out that she was not correct in her thoughts. I guess I felt like okay, she didn’t narrate anything. She has some disabilities to contend with.
Carolyn Daughters 23:52
She doesn’t at any point seem spacier or less connected to reality than Laura. Or at least Laura from the middle of the book onward. I guess Laura is so traumatized. In the beginning of the book, Laura is described as a beautiful young woman, oh, so pretty. She goes through so much trauma at the hands of her husband, Sir Percival and Count Fosco that Hartright returns from Honduras and sees her and he’s like, oh my goodness. Her trauma ages her.
Sarah Harrison 24:31
Her own family stops recognizing her. Because they often said the woman in white looks like Laura if Laura had been through a lot. But is it a lot that Marian got sick? That’s where it killed me. Anne has actually been imprisoned in an asylum. She was neglected in her childhood. She has actual disabilities. Laura’s described as clever and smart and sweet. Like what actually happened? Marian got really sick, right? Laura was super worried. So she lost the ability to think about it.
Carolyn Daughters 25:00
This is the missing puzzle piece. This I feel is a loss for the book. Wilkie Collins, I’m talking to you. You heard it here in this Woman in White podcast.
Sarah Harrison 25:32
Listen up, Wilkie.
Carolyn Daughters 25:35
Laura is put in a mental or lunatic asylum as Anne Catherick. Sir Percival and Fosco have switched the identities. Anne, the woman in white, has died, and she’s buried as Laura. The real Laura, the living, breathing, is put in the asylum. And the asylum is told this is Anne Catherick. And I think that that helped this trauma along. We don’t ever hear from either Anne Cathrick or Laura and their experiences in the asylum. We never get any asylum info.
Sarah Harrison 26:16
Oh, that’s true.That would have been interesting to hear about.
Carolyn Daughters 26:20
Tell me about this asylum.
Sarah Harrison 26:20
What’s life like in a private asylum? Which is much better, apparently, than a pauper’s asylum. Mrs. Catherick makes that point.
Carolyn Daughters 26:31
The footnote in my book, The Oxford World’s Classics edition, says, the private asylums were potentially worse than the public.
Sarah Harrison 26:42
Why? How so?
Carolyn Daughters 26:43
Because the public ones had made a lot of advancements over the years, and the private ones were in name only. It was like, You got to hold your place in society by saying, Oh, I sent my child to this asylum where I pay. But you would just dump them there, and there would be no regulation or outside body checking to make sure that anything is happening the way it’s supposed to. If you want to hide somebody away, my limited understanding is that you’d hide them in a private asylum.
Sarah Harrison 27:22
That makes a lot of sense. Actually, Mrs. Catherick is congratulating herself that she did her duty as a mother, by saying, not a proper asylum put a private one where you pay.
Carolyn Daughters 27:38
Mrs. Catherick is all about show.
Sarah Harrison 27:40
She’s really about her place in society and who’s bowing to her. She was a strange character.
Carolyn Daughters 27:47
I feel like so much was made about these asylums and this swapping of identities, which was a major fear point for some women in 19th-century England.
Sarah Harrison 27:59
Apparently it was really easy to get shut away.
Carolyn Daughters 28:07
It’s playing on fears. It’s scandalous. It’s sensational. People want to read the story. I wanted to be at the asylum. I wanted to see why this was such a torturous, terrible place.
Sarah Harrison 28:22
That’s a really good point. Because Anne escaped it. And it degenerated Laura’s thinking. The identity thing was really interesting to me. How easy it was to, I don’t know if this is true or not, but how easy it was to put Laura in there. But then, the other time it really stuck out to me is when Hartright married Laura, and I was like, “Well, who did you marry? What name did you sign in the register? Did you sign Laura Glyde, who was supposed to be dead?” Or did you sign Anne Catherick? Who did you marry in your register?
Carolyn Daughters 28:59
Did you write down “Laura Fairlie”?
Sarah Harrison 29:01
Yeah, the church registry was apparently a bindable legal document. And Percival could have been hanged for forging it. So what on earth did he put in the register?
Carolyn Daughters 29:13
Forgery was a big deal, which I hadn’t really thought about until we read Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Purloined Letter”. [We covered “The Purloined Letter” in an episode before this Woman in White podcast episode.] I believe the last public hanging for forgery was maybe around 1837. So Hartright probably wasn’t going to get hung for the forgery. And yet it’s still a big deal. At the end of the book, maybe the last 50 to 100 pages, I felt a lot of stuff was thrown at you. It was harder to engage with it. So, the book is interesting. It has all these different voices in it. Different people tell different parts of the story, and Walter Hartright in the beginning of the book says the person most appropriate to tell that story will tell the story. He tells parts of it. The second of the three parts, Marian does most of the narrating. Hartright does most of the narrating in the third part. It goes person to person essentially. It’s interesting, the way the story evolves. The end of the book felt like Hartright dumped one thousand things at readers. It felt inchoate to me at the end.
Sarah Harrison 30:55
I guess I could see that. To be honest, I was also rushing through the end, I’d set it aside so much at the beginning, that I was pushing, pushing, pushing it through to the end. Other than gathering the facts, I may not have devoted enough attention to the presentation. But I could definitely see what you’re saying.
Carolyn Daughters 31:16
I loved Marian’s part in the second epoch. We’re going to talk more about that in our next Woman in White podcast episode. But I really felt engaged with her story and the detective work she was doing. Some of the voices I respond to maybe better than others. I little trouble with Hartright.
Sarah Harrison 31:40
Tell me about your trouble with Hartright. Because I know my troubles.
Carolyn Daughters 31:47
He is like the swashbuckling hero. He comes in to save the day. He’s the protagonist of this book. If you look online for a two sentence summary, it’s almost always, “Walter Hartright, a drawing master, meets a mysterious woman and then investigates a crime.” That’s the summary of the book. As if all this other stuff doesn’t happen. As if all these other characters aren’t in the book. The two characters that will stick with me are Marian and Count Fosco. Not Walter Hartright.
Sarah Harrison 32:30
They’re definitely the two most interesting characters in the book.
Carolyn Daughters 32:39
There’s different kinds of masculinity in this book. We have Hartright, Count Fosco, Sir Percival, who marries Laura. And then there’s Laura’s uncle, Frederick Fairlie. These are four very different men. What do you think about them?
Sarah Harrison 32:57
They were. I feel like from the perspective of the writer, similar to Dickens setting Esther up as the perfect woman [in Bleak House]. I feel like Walter Hartright is being set up as the perfect man. But I can’t agree. Then you have Frederick Fairlie, who was the hypochondriac, self-absorbed wimp. He’s everything that’s terrible to the point that he is s pretty comedic. I liked his narrative.
It was so funny.
It was the funniest one. And Sir Percival. This was the deal that I kinda felt about him. At the beginning, people would make these comments when he would act a certain way or do certain thing, “he wasn’t at all like a gentleman!” And then the part that killed me at the beginning — I had to set the book aside was — so this woman in white comes to Limmeridge and writes this mysterious letter. Walter has talked to her twice, and he’s like, she doesn’t seem insane. Somebody’s put her in this asylum. She said it was Sir Percival. And they’re like, we’ve got to ask Sir Percival what this is about. They ask him, and he’s like, “No, that’s not right. Let me tell you what happened. And then they’re just all like, well, it’s the word of a gentleman, so it must be true. Marian is thinking, “I don’t know, I just don’t understand why I just can’t get behind him. I’m just really doubting him. I don’t know why.” Because there’s a million reasons why. Marian, it’s very clear why you might question him. So they set it up to always say he’s not acting gentlemanly, and then at the end, you find out he’s not a real gentleman because his father wasn’t married to his mother. All the pieces come together. I felt like this was a false vindication of gentlemanliness.
Carolyn Daughters 35:17
I’m not a Sir Percival fan, but I think we need to address a few things in this Woman in White podcast. Let me ask you this. When we first meet Sir Percival, he’s a super smooth talker. And they ask him tons of questions, and he has the absolute perfect response for everything. And even Marian says, Well, it must be true. He’s weirdly persuasive. He comes back after he marries Laura, they come back from their honeymoon, and he’s a completely different person. Does this feel real to you, like, in your own life? To me, it was seemed very weird.
Sarah Harrison 35:53
No, not exactly. I feel like Wilkie Collins wrote that off in kind of a trivial way. They do this walking stick comparison, where he’s always getting a new walking stick. He’ll spend the whole walk carving the stick and then never use it again. He’s just a person that gets bored. Whereas you have the count, who never gets bored with being diabolical. He’s like, I am going to win everyone over, and everyone’s gonna be in my power for the rest of my life. He’s never bored with doing that. But Percival apparently gets bored with that. I know people that seem really amazing when you start a relationship, and then they will kind of flip a switch on you. That’s a real thing. But typically, I find that just haven’t been noticing at the beginning. Like, I haven’t been really tuned into their character traits. I’d say there’s some stuff there that I think is real and some stuff that feels a little bit unrealistic.
Carolyn Daughters 37:00
I’m in marketing, and I work with a lot of salespeople. A lot of them are fairly — I don’t the word — schmaltzy. When they’re greeting you or talking to you, it doesn’t feel real.
Sarah Harrison 37:17
It’s a little much.
Carolyn Daughters 37:19
It feels like they put on a costume or something. A verbal costume. And so I wonder, am I talking to a real person? I don’t have a perfect radar for it. But I have a gut feel. And I feel like everybody’s gut failed them with Sir Percival. Except for the dog.
Sarah Harrison 37:44
The dog knew! And I felt like there was a lot of denial of the gut. Marion’s gut was on target. She’s like, I just don’t feel like this is great, but I don’t have any reasons. I’m like, no, you have all the reasons. You have so many reasons. Your feeling makes total sense. Like the lawyer, Mr. Gilmore, I did not like that guy.
Carolyn Daughters 38:06
Sarah Harrison 38:07
Because he is terrible! He comes in at the beginning. He’s like, Laura, would you like to do with your money? She says, oh, I want to leave it all to Marian when I die. He says, okay, great. Well, if you get married, I’ll make sure that’s noted. Then when it comes time to write it up, Sir Percival says, “no, she must leave all the money to me.” Does he tell Laura that? No, he doesn’t. He goes to who he knows, is an idiot, Frederick Fairlie. And he’s like, “These are the terms. I wouldn’t let my own daughter get married under these terms. Oh, you want her to get married? I’ll never mentioned it to her. I’ll never give her the opportunity to decide I don’t want to get married under this gold digging diabolical contract.” And then, he’s out of the story. He got sick and couldn’t practice.
Carolyn Daughters 39:06
The theory behind his being out of the story is that he couldn’t be in the story any longer because he would have been able to vouch for Laura’s identity.
Sarah Harrison 39:13
Well, that makes sense. But couldn’t they go visit him? Come on.
Carolyn Daughters 39:20
He’s just in Paris.
Sarah Harrison 39:22
The whole deal where he acted like his hands were tied, but he never brought it up to Laura even though she’d be of legal age in six months. That to me seemed bogus.
Carolyn Daughters 39:33
My favorite part, though, in this conversation is how you threw your voice when you were … was it Marian or Laura?
Sarah Harrison 39:40
I don’t know. I do that automatically. Who was I imitating? Probably Marian because I was mad at her for doubting both instincts and facts because he’s a gentleman. We’ll discuss that more in our next Woman in White podcast episode, I know. I mean, Laura’s father had arranged the marriage, and he’s set up to be a hero. You could put him on this list of masculinity, too.
Carolyn Daughters 40:10
Sarah Harrison 40:11
Yes. He’s this basically good-looking playboy who is pretty cavalier with his relationships with women. He marries an ugly one. Which I thought was fantastic.
Carolyn Daughters 40:25
I don’t know that she was ugly. Mrs. Catherick says she’s ugly.
Sarah Harrison 40:29
They do say that Marian takes after her mother, and Hartright says Marian’s ugly. He just says “ugly.” He says “the woman is ugly!”
Carolyn Daughters 40:38
With an exclamation point.
Sarah Harrison 40:40
Marian has a mustache. He even details her mustache.
Carolyn Daughters 40:51
And a big, strong, masculine mouth.
Sarah Harrison 40:55
Like a good jawline is really coveted these days. And her frank, open face like a man. What? That threw me for a loop. I had to pause.
Carolyn Daughters 41:08
And when Hartright goes off on his investigation in the third epoch, Marian stays with Laura. For all intents and purposes, Marian is the man of the house, just taking care of the household. There is something else I wanted to talk about — shifting and narration. In the preface to the 1860 edition, Wilkie Collins says an experiment is attempted in this novel, which is not so far as I know, been hitherto tried in fiction. And that is that the story is told throughout by the book’s characters. It’s interesting, he says this has not been tried, because it had been in several books, including Wuthering Heights. Wuthering Heights was published in 1847. And it has multiple narrators, including Lockwood, Heathcliff, Nellie, and Isabella. Various people narrate this book.
Sarah Harrison 42:10
Bleak House had different narrators.
Carolyn Daughters 42:14
Bleak House follows The Woman in White. We said Dickens and Wilkie Collins were friends. So Dickens was probably in some ways influenced by this book and the experimentation Wilkie Collins did. But Wilkie Collins, at his core, was a storyteller. think this was just him saying, “Hey, look at me! Nobody has done this before.”
Sarah Harrison 42:41
Do you think he read Wuthering Heights?
Carolyn Daughters 42:44
He is a well-read man. He’s a good writer. I don’t for a second believe he wasn’t aware of other books.
Sarah Harrison 42:59
That’s so bizarre. That’s kind of a Count Fosco-y thing to do.
Carolyn Daughters 43:04
I’m going to start saying that. That’s very Count Fosco of you.
If you’ve not read this book, read it just just to see the interplay throughout many of the pages between Fosco and Marian.
Sarah Harrison 43:29
I think it’s enjoyable. Of all the characters, I probably like to Count Fosco. And Frederick Fairlie is entertaining when tells his story. When you have to read about him, he’s annoying.
Carolyn Daughters 43:47
Wilkie Collins is really funny when he wants to be. We’ll talk about that more in the next Woman in White podcast episode as well. There are all these places in the margins where I drew a smiley face. He could be very biting and very witty. I loved it. It had its moments where I was dragging near the end.
Sarah Harrison 44:11
How do you feel about him making like this false claim about his book knowingly, after setting Hartright up to be the perfect man of integrity. He’s definitely not.
Carolyn Daughters 44:23
I’m less interested in in Wilkie Collins as a person than I am on what is living on the page. I’m more interested in what he accomplished than who he was as an artist. I tend to be that way with even contemporary artists, writers, singers, actors. I’m more interested in what I’m seeing and hearing than the person behind the music or the art or the book. I think it’s interesting because he’s a storyteller at heart. And he told stories. He was known for telling stories about how he came up with this book. A lot of them have been since debunked.
Sarah Harrison 45:10
Really? That’s so funny. I know a lot of people who are storytellers. You can see when they get into a story that liberties are taken. Especially if you were there and know. It does make it more dramatic.
Carolyn Daughters 45:30
You’re like, I was there. It so did not happen that way.
Sarah Harrison 45:34
Once it was actually my story that someone told as their own story. That was funny.
Carolyn Daughters 45:42
Did you call them out on it?
Sarah Harrison 45:44
No, actually, I wasn’t there for the telling. They told me later. They said they took the story I told them and made it into a monologue. For a class. They do theater.
Sarah Harrison 45:55
Then it was a creative endeavor. It wasn’t like they were at a barbecue and they were like, listen to what happened to me …
Sarah Harrison 46:25
I didn’t read the preface. So I actually didn’t know that aspect about Wilkie Collins. That he told stories about himself as well.
Carolyn Daughters 46:34
As a writer, I’m familiar with everybody’s origin story for how they wrote their book. There all these stories about how Hemingway wrote The Sun Also Rises in six weeks while drinking and hanging out with friends. Origin stories are a big deal for a lot of storytellers. Oh, my gosh, The Sun Also Rises is one of the best books ever written, and he did it in six weeks. That’s incredible! Wilkie Collins is in a long line of writers who have their story about their story.
Sarah Harrison 47:35
Well, as a writer, do you ever do that? Do you embellish your origin stories?
Carolyn Daughters 47:40
I think everybody embellishes some of the time, and I would say I surely do. However, I feel like I have so few origin stories in my writing that most of it’s like, I’ve sent my manuscript to 400 agents, and they’ve all said, No. I don’t have an origin story, per se.
Sarah Harrison 48:17
Yeah, but you’ll get it though.
Carolyn Daughters 48:17
Sarah Harrison 48:42
As we wrap up this Woman in White podcast, I do want to say, we have a giveaway winner this week. We did a little social media giveaway for a sticker. The coveted Tea, Tonic and Toxin sticker of beauty. It’s very nice sticker. I like it a lot. I really do like it. I put it on our camping cooler where we keep all of our stickers. Our winner this week was Linden Botanicals, our sponsor. Yeah, so good job, Linden Botanicals. You’ll be getting a sticker.
Carolyn Daughters 49:52
Well, Sarah, we’ve had a good conversation about this book in this Woman in White podcast. Not a small one, but I think super worthwhile.
Sarah Harrison 50:01
When you’re a book and you elicit a lot of feelings, even conflicting feelings in folks, you’ve done an interesting job.
Carolyn Daughters 50:10
This book has never gone out of print. There’s a reason why. It’s a very interesting page turner.
Sarah Harrison 50:22
More next month on the most page turn-ery parts of this page turner.
Carolyn Daughters 50:27
We’re gonna talk more about Marian Halcombe and Count Fosco in our next Woman in White podcast. Also, next month, we’ll be reading The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. It’s a classic. Get started on The Woman in White and then jump right into The Moonstone.
Sarah Harrison 50:45
Yes, do it. Thank you, listeners.
Lord Peter Wimsey: Whose Body?
May 20, 2023
Introducing the irrepressible Lord Peter Wimsey, amateur detective extraordinaire. In this 1923 novel, Dorothy Sayers features a gentleman sleuth who will appear in many books to come. Sarah and Carolyn enjoyed this book immensely. (To be fair, Carolyn wasn't a fan, but Wimsey won her over by the end.) Tell us what YOU think!Listen →
The Mysterious Affair at Styles - Poirot and Hastings
April 13, 2023
Special guest Jill Carstens returns to continue discussing Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, where we meet Hercule Poirot for the first time. He’s a methodical marvel who’s nonplussed by the affairs, awkward proposals, loveless marriages, and privileged egotism of the various suspects. Poirot is delightful, much like Sarah, Carolyn, and Jill.Listen →
The Mysterious Affair at Styles
April 9, 2023
Sarah, Carolyn, and special guest Jill Carstens would like to spend some time at Styles Court. Strolls around the grounds, hours spent reading each day, afternoon tea, evening libations … An outlier among a cast of selfish characters, Hercule Poirot is sympathetic, smart, and, of course, THE foremost master of detection.Listen →