Late one moonlit night, Walter Hartright encounters a solitary and terrified woman dressed all in white. He saves her from capture by her pursuers, and determines to solve the mystery of her distress and terror. This gripping tale of murder, intrigue, madness and mistaken identity has never been out of print since its publication.
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Ian Holm is a wonderful actor and I believe it was his skillful and haunting interpretation of the various characters and complex story that made it so enjoyable to listen to. The restrictive conventions and mores of English society of the 19th century, with an appealingly strong female protagonist, made it of particular interest, as well.
In The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins combines classic Gothic ingredients -- the unknown woman escaped from an asylum, long-buried family secrets, switched and manufactured identities, expatriot Italians with shadowy intentions, hidden pasts, blackmail, scandal, and that most heinous of all villains, the well-to-do man of means who spends himself into bankruptcy and will stick at nothing to maintain himself in the manner to which he is accustomed -- into an effective Victorian mystery.
What sets the work of Collins apart is how sympathetically and skillfully he paints the perspectives of those who are not privileged in a given situation, in this case Walter, the young man without means, and the intelligent and capable single woman (also without means), Marian. What might be a simple sensation story in other hands becomes a dark exploration of how the society and law of the day renders helpless very capable and courageous individuals. Over and over again as the terrible secrets unfold, the refrain from various characters seems to be, and quite rightly, "Yes, but who will believe me?"
The special achievement of The Lady in White is the character of Marian, who climbs on rooftops to overhear nefarious plots, goes behinds the backs of her "betters" to verify the letter of the law, wins the admiration of ruthless adversaries, and cannot be undone by the worst intimidations of the villains. Only typhus can (temporarily) lay her low. She does not (as she supposes) disdain her sex: she only disdains the powerlessness forced upon it. The hero is less the main actor here than her sidekick, and Collins packs a lot of commentary into his depiction of both - and their partnership of equals, devoid of romance, built on respect.
As always, Ian Holm's narration is simply superb. He is one of the finest.