Wednesday, December 19, 2007

"Why Should I Read...?"

The Woman in White
Wilkie Collins, 1859

Regular visitors to ::Acquired Taste will by now have formed a good impression of my reading tastes. It will come as no surprise that I have chosen today to praise a ninetheenth century novel, a mystery playing tricks with unreliable narrators, a compelling charismatic anti-hero and a female character more clear-sighted and intelligent than any of the men. When we consider that this a story with an identity mystery at its heart, it's easy to understand that this book could have been written for me. It even has a fire at a key point in the plot.

The intricate plot follows the seemingly doomed romance between heiress Laura Fairlie and impoverished art teacher Walter Hartright. Hartright becomes embroiled in an attempt to rescue Laura from an enforced marriage with the villainous Sir Percival Glyde. He is assisted in his investigations by Laura's half-sister Marian, presented by Collins as plain but practical and intelligent. Sir Percival is a cardboard villain but behind the scenes he is being manipulated by Count Fosco, an eccentric, cultivated and thoroughly corrupt Italian aristocrat.

The novel proceeds to its happy resolution, recounted by a number of narrators, incluing, at the end, Fosco himself. The multiple narrator approach is successful in sustaining the mysteries of the plot, and overcomes the potential weakness that Hartright himself, although the nominal protagonist, is not a very interesting character: if he were the point of view for the entire story, matters would rapidly become tedious.

Most interesting of all is the relationship between Fosco and Marian, an unusually capable and dynamic for fiction of this type. Marian is set up as "plain" from the outset, so the reader knows that Hartright will never fall for her: but Fosco--he's eccentric, remember--develops a high regard for Marian, even though they are opponents. It might be overstated to describe Collins as an early feminist (Marian herself is hardly complimentary about female capacities) but it is unusual to find a "plain" female character so sympathetically portrayed in a novel of this type and period. The relationship is subtly nuanced and far richer than any other in the novel, including the textbook romance between Hartright and Laura around which the plot is structured. A carping critic might argue that Collins has let the minor characters take over, but the avid reader is unlikely to complain. This is nineteenth century 'sensation' fiction at its very best.

How has it influenced me?

The fiction I write is on the surface very different from Collins', but I am conscious of a lot of underlying similarities. The Zael Inheritance, in particular, is very much a 'sensation' novel, and the name of one of the main characters, Laura Glyde, deliberately draws from The Woman in White. Collins delights in identity puzzles, a motif I often employ, most centrally in The Zael Inheritance. It's no big thing in modern fiction to portray dynamic female characters (although it's overlooked surprisingly often, especially in fantasy) but Marian Halcombe remains one of the best examples for me, and an influence on Lady Catzendralle in Dragonchaser.

Lessons for the aspiring writer

Multiple narrators can be an effective device if handled well

Heroines need not be beautiful

Narrative pace can overcome dull protagonists

Sympathetic villains are a surprisingly under-used fictional device, but very effective


David Isaak said...

Let me just say how much I continue to enjoy this list--I never know what's around the next corner!

Tim Stretton said...

If nothing else I am using the blog to burnish my reputation for eclecticism.

I'm also aiming to show that:

1. Fantasy writers do read outside the genre (and indeed that they're probably not very good fantasy writers if they don't)

2. Genre novels have a place by right on a list of books that intelligent people can read with pleasure. Jane Austen need not be embarrassed to share list-space with Vance and Stark (although I'd understand her dismissing Doc Smith with an elegantly-turned barb...)

David Isaak said...

Indeed, indeed. In fact, I think people who turn up their noses at whole categories of writing are doing little more than showing their intellectual insecurity.

A while back I was lucky enough to meet Dorothy Allison ("Bastard Out of Carolina" and "Cavedweller")--the Queen of grit-lit-fic. She had just arrived back from a visit to Borders to buy the latest installment in George R.R. Martin's huge "Song of Fire and Ice". Stephen King is a fan of Tim ("The Things They Carried") O'Brien. Crime writer Lawrence Block used to be a huge science fiction fan.

And I think all writers read the occasional mystery...