(Warning contains some partial but not big spoilers!)
“Habits of literary composition are perfectly familiar to me. One of the rarest of all the intellectual accomplishments that man can possess is the grand faculty of arranging his ideas. Immense privilege! I possess it. Do you?”
So declares Count Fosco to the hero as he sits down to write his own explanation of his dastardly deeds near the end of the Woman In White. What reader under 30 these days can imagine the pace of a world in which the breathtaking action is painstakingly written up longhand just after it happened? It must have taken hours.
Finishing the book this morning for a BBC Front Row tackle-an-unread classic-in-a-week challenge, it struck me that:
1. Even for a Victorian novel involving women inevitably in corsets, there is a LOT of fainting; perhaps an indirect comment on their evil, as our hero is stunned by the “rare beauty” of a woman unconstrained:
2. Its form – entirely written in diary-style entries and post-event journals – is essentially a Storify project.
For younger readers, reluctant to attempt such a tome, I’d suggest imagining how differently the protagonists would handle the situation today. Walter Hartright would probably live tweet his first encounter with the Woman In White, inspiring lots of helpful suggestions from both conspiracy theorists and online Victorian trolls about hysterical women. Later on, instagram postings of subsequent encounters would help the reader make sense of the confusion of identities.
It’s also helpful to transpose the analogue writing culture of the age and the book to modern times. Hence Marian’s daily write ups of the action in her journal which she left in her unlocked desk and her habit of putting important letters in the communal postbag are equivalent to leaving her email open, not adjusting the privacy settings on Facebook and leaving the locations setting on her mobile phone set to public. Fool!
Got one big question: How did that happy marriage near the end happen if the lady’s identity couldn’t be proved? In a novel emphasizing the total power of authenticated legal documents, parish registers and birth certificates, surely it would have made it impossible to marry legally under her real name?
Favourite bit: When Walter pretends to sell his beloved’s “poor, faint, valueless sketches, of which I was the only purchaser” to give her the illusion that she’s at all useful.