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  • Katherine Dahl

The Woman In White: A Gothic Classic in Three Songs

Mystery Woman and Walter (The Woman in White 1948)

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, first published in serial form in 1859–60, ties in elements of mystery, horror, suspense, romance, and drama to culminate in what many critics call the first'sensation novel.’ It’s a beastly novel of 672 pages, but all 672 pages are filled with gothic awesomeness that is perfect for the Halloween season. The story essentially revolves around Walter Hartright, who spends much of the book attempting to unravel the mystery of the woman (in white, obviously) he encounters by chance and her involvement with the family he is employed under, the Fairlies. Walter falls in love with the beautiful Laura Fairlie, despite her engagement to aggressive and mercenary Sir Percival Glyde—among other things, this ill-fated love drives Walter’s investigation into Percival’s schemes and the woman in white’s background.

Grease movie poster (1978)

The novel opens with Walter’s employment in the Fairlie house as the ‘drawing master’ (AKA art teacher, in 1800s to 2023 translation) to Laura and her half-sister Marian. Of course, Laura immediately draws his attention, and he soon becomes enamored with her every action—she feels much the same, although she is forced to hide it because of her engagement. Walter is forced to leave the house after his affections become known, mostly because of the dire consequences to the family if Laura were to abandon Percival for Walter. Thus, as in the song “Hopelessly Devoted To You” by Oliva Newton-John (originally performed in Grease), he remains devoted to Laura even after he has left the entire country (and she has ignored his affections, for the most part).

Wheels Are Turnin' by REO Speedwagon (1984)

When Walter returns, he becomes more determined than ever to break up the relationship (now marriage) between Laura and Percival as he learns from Marian how Laura is treated in Percival’s house. Perhaps it is unethical that Percival wants to cheat Laura out of the fortune she is set to inherit, but Walter becomes determined to “break [Percival’s] spell” over Laura—the second song for this book is “Break His Spell” by REO Speedwagon. Walter makes significant efforts to bring Percival’s intentions to light and thus “take this relationship and send it straight to the well.” It doesn’t work out very easily—due to many strings and schemes—but Walter does his best. No spoilers (because I highly recommend this book to anyone who loves gothics), but eventually the dam breaks in one way or another.

CCR's Green River album (1969)

Besides the romance, much of the book is filled with a sense of foreboding and growing suspense—thus, the'sensation' part of 'sensation novel’ is born. It was a sensation when it was published due to the lack of knowing what would happen next while simultaneously knowing that it was probably not good. So, “Bad Moon Rising” by Creedence Clearwater Revival is the third song. Many of the lyrics are apocalyptic or filled with dread of a coming cataclysm, like “I know the end is comin’ soon” or “I hear the voice of rage and ruin,” which also invoke feelings of inevitability. In The Woman in White, Percival and his goons hold a control over the narrative that is difficult to unseat, and, for much of the book, there is a hopelessness to the futility of resisting. Despite all this, Walter and Marian never give up, and their strength of character is partially what makes the novel so entertaining.

Anyway, thanks for reading again. This book was picked specifically for Halloween week, mostly because it’s gothic, suspenseful, and perfect for autumn in general. If you’re looking for a book to dip your toes into classic gothic literature (and aren’t intimidated by the page count), I encourage you to check it out.

Runner-Ups: “I’ll Follow The Sun” by the Beatles, “Memphisto” by Depeche Mode.


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