You Must Read This! Vol. 1

While my earliest memory as a child was watching a movie, memories of holding a book occur almost immediately after.  I grew up surrounded by books, everywhere. Both my parents were huge bibliophiles. It was rare that either didn’t have a book in hand or at least close by. Additionally, Mom was a teacher and taught my brother and me to read by the age of three. She often told us, “I never want to hear you say I’m bored.” Pointing at one of our house’s numerous bookshelves, she’d continue, “There’s a wonderful world for you right there. You never have to be bored.” Her advice definitely took hold and we became a family that read together all the time.

My brother David went off into non-fiction land, at one point reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica straight through. Yes, he is that smart and no, you never ever ever want to play Trivial Pursuit with him. Talk about trivial pursuits (rim shot!) 

I loved fiction myself and was devouring books early. Yes, that was me carrying Gone With The Wind into elementary school at the age of 9 and no, the consequences were not pleasant. I’m a stubborn SOB, though and it did not deter me. Few things are better in life than a good book.

I believe a lot of people don’t like to read because they were handed long boring books at an early age, the desire to read being mutilated before it could begin. Not that we shouldn’t be challenged. But before being challenged, we need to fall in love. Show me someone who doesn’t love to read and I bet they were handed Beowulf or a Thomas Hardy novel way too young. Mom was pretty adept at handing me books that caused me to fall in love with reading. I daresay if most young boys, for instance, were handed something like The Black Stallion, most would turn into avid readers. The Black Stallion has it all: a shipwreck, a kid living alone on a deserted island, no adults to boss him around, while taming a wild stallion, eventually riding that stallion in an exciting race. What else could you want?? After a number of books like that (Danger, Dinosaurs! Wow!) I spent hours reading and never turned back. As a family, when we went on vacation, we often went somewhere where the four of us could just lay in the sun and read for a week. We’d each bring 5 or 6 books and life was good. It’s still my favorite way to spend a vacation.

The point of all this? Well, even though this is On Food And Film, occasionally I’ll throw out something about reading, or I’ll recommend a particular book. Reading is just as much a passion as food and film and anything I can do to get people to pick up books, the better. For the first of these posts, then, I wanted to recommend one of my favorite books of all time, Wilkie Collins’ The Woman In White.

Wilkie Collins (1824-1889) was one of the most popular writers of his time. He was also very prolific… 30 novels , over a dozen plays, numerous short stories and many articles. He was very close friends with Charles Dickens and published some of his most successful work in Dickens’ journal All The Year Round, including The Woman in White, which was serialized over a number of months. The novel caused such a sensation that lines would form, circling city blocks when the new chapter was about to be released. It has remained in publication ever since and is still worthy of the fervor it caused in its day.

One of my favorite english professors at The University of Texas, Carol Mackay, turned me onto the novel when I wrote a thesis under her entitled The Exploration of Evil in 19th Century Horror and Suspense Fiction. (Yeah, yeah, yeah, I was Diane Chambers in college, get over it.) I was a little wary at first. I’ve actually never been a huge Dickens fan, sacrilege I know. Don’t get me wrong, I do love and appreciate me some Great Expectations. And my dear friend Jan has been harassing me to read A Tale Of Two Cities. I know the ending so that is partly why I resist. But I’ve never warmed to Dickens as much as I apparently should. Given Collins and Dickens were friends and wrote together, etc, I had my doubts. Then I started the book.

I. Could. Not. Put. It. Down.

All else faded as I tore through this incredible novel. I even skipped a night of debauchery with my frat brothers in order to finish, the novel was so suspenseful and surprising. I return to it every couple of years and it gets better with each successive read.

The Woman in White is a gothic romance of sorts, what at the time was called a ‘sensation novel’. It’s a dense mystery with more twists and turns than you can imagine. Not even the best modern writers have anything on Collins when it comes to plot. But he rivals Dickens with the sheer brilliance of his writing. The WomanIn White is epistolary, told through the letters, diaries and depositions of a variety of characters involved in the mystery. Collins’ use of voice is incredible. Each character who becomes the narrator, from chambermaids to lawyers to baronets to counts, has his or her own distinct voice, true to his or her nature and class. It’s a remarkable achievement. The narrative, of course, uses this device brilliantly, switching from person to person at just the right time to keep the reader wanting more.

Along with all the other wonderful aspects of the novel, The Woman in White also has two of the greatest creations in fiction, the villainous Count Fosco and the heroic Marion Holcombe. Fosco is a fantastic character, as charming a villain as you will ever come to love to hate. Marion is such an amazing creation, such a strong and smart and resourceful woman that for years Collins had men write to him begging to know who she was in real life so they could find her. Her introduction is justifiably famous. Walter Hartwright, the hero of the novel, has arrived at Limmeridge House, where he is to work as drawing master. He enters the breakfast room and :

My first glance round me, as the man opened the door, disclosed a well-furnished breakfast-table, standing in the middle of a long room, with many windows in it. I looked from the table to the window farthest from me, and saw a lady standing at it, with her back turned towards me. The instant my eyes rested on her, I was struck by the rare beauty of her form, and by the unaffected grace of her attitude. Her figure was tall, yet not too tall; comely and well-developed, yet not fat; her head set on her shoulders with an easy, pliant firmness; her waist, perfection in the eyes of a man, for it occupied its natural place, it filled out its natural circle, it was visibly and delightfully undeformed by stays. She had not heard my entrance into the room; and I allowed myself the luxury of admiring her for a few moments, before I moved one of the chairs near me, as the least embarrassing means of attracting her attention. She turned towards me immediately. The easy elegance of every movement of her limbs and body as soon as she began to advance from the far end of the room, set me in a flutter of expectation to see her face clearly. She left the window—and I said to myself, The lady is dark. She moved forward a few steps—and I said to myself, The lady is young. She approached nearer—and I said to myself (with a sense of surprise which words fail me to express), The lady is ugly!

Collins’ reversal here is masterful and indicative of his expertise. The next paragraph details just how ugly Marion actually is, yet soon into the novel, the reader can see her only as strong and beautiful. We, and many of the men in the novel, fall for her hopelessly. Collins’ writing is constantly full of such wonderful surprise.

Perhaps because he wrote primarily in the mystery-thriller genre, Collins for years was not as critically acclaimed as his friend Charles Dickens. Yet I find him just as good. He is certainly more accessible, which may be part of the reason he was not as elevated. But in recent years, Collins has begun to receive the attention he deserves. The Woman in White is a masterwork. And the other novel for which is he most famous, The Moonstone, is also an incredible novel. It’s the first actual detective novel ever written. The best mystery/crime drama writers regard it as genius. Dorothy Sayers, for instance, wrote that The Moonstone was “the most perfectly conceived and written detective story of this time or any other.”

And the other great thing about Collins’ work? If you have a kindle, iPad, nook, etc, they are free! You can download these books and read to your heart’s content. If you are like me and love a hard copy, you can get one cheap! So take a chance and dive into the The Woman in White. I guarantee if you get 100 pages into this, you also will not be able to put it down.

12 thoughts on “You Must Read This! Vol. 1

  1. Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone is one of the first detective novels, I can thoroughly recommend it. I collect unusual and rare paperbacks, usually for research and occasionally purely for fun. I often come across them via the classic films of the forties and fifties. Lately, I’ve been revisiting the work of Nigel Balchin… The Small Back Room is a terrific book. The fun part is all about tracking them down. Second hand bookshops have pretty much the same effect on me as catnip does on my cat.

  2. Just “bought” it for my Kindle – free. Will begin it on the plane ride back to LA. Thanks for the tip, Tom!

    1. I recently downloaded The Moonstone to my Literati but haven’t started reading it yet. I look forward to it even more after reading this, and I’ll look for The Woman in White! (I LOVE Dickens, too! : ) )

      1. Any suggestions on website where more Wilkie Collins e-novels can be downloaded for free?

          1. Great! Just downloaded it and can’t wait to start reading. Thanks.

  3. I am loathe to admit I set off for the Montreal/Baltic trip without packing a book!!! I know: who DOES that? Anyway, have the iPad so will try downloading one. I have read Woman in White a number years ago, so must decide between a re-read of that or the Moonstone option. What do you think, Tom?

    1. It’s a wonderful reread, if you liked it before. But The Moonstone is pretty amazing, too. Also, the next book I write about will probably be The Passage, by Justin Cronin, amazing. And I just finished “The Art Of Fielding”, also a wonderful book. I think I had you read “This Is Where I Leave You?’ right?

Leave a Reply