This is not the edition I read, but it's very lovely
Let me start simply: The Woman in White is one of the best books I've read all year and possibly of all time. I cannot believe I went this long in my life without reading this masterpiece of plotting. My Oxford World Classics of the book, which I bought a few years ago and finally finished, clocks in at about 650 pages; I read that shit in about four days it was so compulsive. A typical instance of reading involved me completely immersed in the plot so much so that when I looked up, I had demolished 60 or so pages without a sweat. Victorian novels don't normally read this fast. Even Lady Audley's Secret wasn't as compulsive as this (though I loved that novel, too).
There are some similarities between the novels, I should think, and even some generalities about Victorian literature/society that can be expressed in the microcosm with The Woman in White. Firstly, the anxiety. It's no stretch to claim that Victorians were very anxious—about a lot of things: class, race, Empire, women, labour, children, and motion. The Victorian era can probably be summed up fairly neatly as a society that moved very quickly—both figuratively and literally. The advent of the rail introduced or at least exacerbated pre-existing fears about the speed of motion. Earlier, geographic motion was slow, methodical, and precarious. One would need to plan weeks in advance. I'm reminded of sequences in Sandra Gulland's Josephine Bonaparte trilogy when even travelling by carriage can make one ill. Or consider the famous carriage bit in Madame Bovary. However, the Industrial Revolution provided the world with the train and incredibly rapid transit (comparatively). The Woman in White depicts and literalizes a bunch of these aforementioned anxieties, including an intersection of vectoring fears: women and the rail. The central moment that the entire conspiracy hinges upon is the determination of the day the heiress travels from the country estate to London—by train. The final third of the novel has the protagonist, everyman Walter, travelling to and from London by train to investigate and detect.
Consider that in the scholarship of detective fiction, a central conceit is paramount: the detective is the only character who moves geographically and through different classes. The detective is the outsider: the one not in place with any class or any space, thus imbued with the ability to move through them all. A detective story is almost always characterized by the detective's movement, either through the country estate (Poirot) or through the entire city (Holmes, Marlowe, etc). The Woman in White is often considered a proto-detective story in that the protagonist spends a good portion of the novel attempting to detect clues, to find the weak point in the ironclad conspiracy as to bring justice and balance back to the status quo. Movement is both what clinches the conspiracy (the switching of women would not have happened without carriages and trains) and what breaks the conspiracy (Walter's travels back and forth from London).
There's also some anxiety and pleasure to be had in the female protagonist's movement. Marian, the mannish, not beautiful, but incredibly intelligent and independent secondary protagonist, has a couple scenes in which her mobility is what enables the plot to move forward as well as for the protagonists to ascertain clues in the conspiracy. There's a tremendously indicative scene in which Marian sneaks to her bedroom, removes her traditional Victorian bulky garb that restricts motion, and then sneaks back out to listen to the villains conspire. Consider the sensation this would cause among contemporary readers: women! moving about! eavesdropping!
The Woman in White is quintessential Victorian scandal-making: there's lower class people fabricating their noble roots; adultery; unmarried sexual relations; asylums; people escaping from those asylums; contracts being broken; midnight meetings in cemeteries; and much more! The novel also features one of my most beloved and equally annoying tropes: the doctor and his primitive knowledge of medicine. For some reason, I find it almost intolerable to read about early medicine and the application of remedies, especially in the context of Victorians. But, like a witness to a car crash, I cannot bear to look away; I consume it greedily while grimacing and wincing. Victorians loved their medical discourse as it was a very popular topic of discussion. They adored speaking of their "complaints," the "bad air," the humours, etc.
Another popular topic was the Law and its application. The Victorians loved crime and justice. Newspapers were full of salacious murders and thefts. Judith Flanders, a popular historian of Victorian society, wrote about the culture's morbid and almost depraved obsession with crime in a book called The Invention of Murder. I won't bother quoting at length from it; I mention simply for interest's sake. The Law and its byzantine complications were of endless fascination and horror for the Victorians. Countless words were written and exchanged in the composition of contracts and laws. The Woman in White does not shy away from this aspect. In fact, Collins himself was quite interested in the law's unequal implementation when it came to women. These women, already marginalized by discourses of medicine and science (women were the lesser sex, "proven" by doctors), were further marginalized and deprived of basic rights by the Law. They could not vote. They could not be members of Parliament. The Law regarded women as objects, valuable only in their exchange. The Woman in White dramatizes this what with the titular woman being a pawn in a legal game as well as the heiress losing her money thanks to complicated contracts.
A woman in Victorian society had less agency than men, but not altogether no agency. It's a common misconception that Victorians were complete prudes or unable to engage in discourse around sex. But it was the Victorians that produced a tonne of pornography. It was the Victorians who invented a mechanical dildo. It was the Victorians who wrote countless guides to love and marriage, how to flirt (eg. wink the right eye), how to choose a partner (choose a woman with a Roman nose), and mentioned the importance of the female orgasm! Author Fern Riddell aggregated a wealth of material on the Victorians and sex in her book The Victorian Guide to Sex: Desire and deviance in the 19th century, which I mention again for interest's sake. Women could do things but there was always the inevitable Victorian hand-wringing. Remember that the bicycle is often credited as being crucial to the modern feminism movement, as women were finally able to move freely without the companionship of men. Their locomotion was independent and self-produced, both figuratively and literally.
The Woman in White alludes to all of this. Despite featuring a male protagonist, Collins' allegiance and sympathies seem to lie with the women, the victims of this conspiracy. Laura Glyde, the heiress switched with Anne Catherick, the woman in white, is a victim, a pawn in a game.
It's unfortunate, though, that Laura's characterization is so weak compared to the rest of the cast. Marian, Walter, Count Fosco, and Sir Percival seem to leap off the pages. They breathe, hope, dream, wish, desire, and anger. Laura seems to be even less of a real person than the woman in white herself, who only appears in three or four scenes. This sketchiness could be construed as purposeful—her pliability and her lack of character might be conducive to the conspiracy's success. Even if this might be true, her characterization pales in comparison with the main cast and especially Count Fosco and Marian, both of whom are incredibly vivid inventions.
Modern writers could learn a lot about the construction of villains from Collins; his Count Fosco is one of the most complex villains probably ever, I might suggest. Fosco is both horrendously villainous in that he's willing to murder to get his money (a paltry amount, really) but he's cognizant of his own villainy. He knows the morality of his situation and yet he continues. He's also fascinated and enthralled by Marian, so much so that he weakens his own plan just for her. Imagine that he's like Tom Hardy's Bane in The Dark Knight Rises: he's utterly hypnotizing any time he's "on screen" if you will (the essential difference of course is that the story surrounding Fosco isn't wet garbage).
I'm so pleased to write a positive review of something. I loved quite a bit about this novel: from the runaway train plotting to the clever use of false documents that comprise the narrative. The characters were mostly excellent, the conspiracy itself enjoyably intricate, so much so that I had trouble keeping the timeline straight in my head. Thank heavens the Oxford edition includes a timeline at the end of the book to help confused readers along. This was so good that I'm going to leap on other Collins novels and maybe even dip into his friend's work, Chuck Dickens himself—I've always meant to read Bleak House. Hopefully my revived energy with reading carries on.