Sunday, November 6, 2011
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
This book will knock you out and leave you for dead in Mexico. Or at least, if you're rather flighty and nervous like me, it will keep you at the edge of your seat, with occasional heart palpitations. The Woman in White, written in 1859, is one of the first mystery novels and has earned its reputation as one of the best. I do have to say, at the risk of opening a can of feminism, that the plot is probably creepier to a woman reader, since it concerns the manipulation, threatening, drugging and forcible confinement of women by two plotting men. I'm sure a feminist critique would yield much about nineteenth century gender relations and power differentials. I'll get right on that...when I have a moment... Also interesting is a point brought up by Michael Chabon's essay "Fan Fictions: On Sherlock Holmes" in Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands, in which Chabon explores the changes in attitudes toward novel genres such as mysteries and science fiction. A hundred years ago, a novelist could write a mystery or science fiction novel and still be considered a serious writer of literature. This is not generally the case today. Chabon asks, if Conan Doyle had written A Study in Scarlet today, would it come to be considered a classic, or would it be buried in the "mysteries" corner at the bookstore, dismissed due to its genre label? That fate could have come to The Woman in White if it had been published a hundred years later. I'm glad it wasn't. But I plan to take a second look at the mystery or sci fi section in my library. Perhaps I will find an author who explores universal themes, or who writes incredible prose, or who makes characters come alive. Perhaps I'll find a book that shouldn't have been judged by its cover.