Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

The Woman in White
by Wilkie Collins
originally published 1860

   Nothing says "budget literary classic" like a Dover Thrift Edition of a 19th century British Novel.  The funniest aspect of the entire "classic literature" concept is the way in which a piece of literature can be published and ignored and derided by critics of the time, only to emerge as a classic of it's particular genre decades later.  It's not like this phenomenon happens a whole lot, but when it does, the work in question is almost always something that is tremendously popular with the public, but not with critics.   The opposite phenmeneon: A work hailed by the critics but ignored by the public; happens a WHOLE lot less then critics of ANY age would care to admit.   And that's because critics like to pretend they are important in guiding popular taste, but in any age, the popular audience literally doesn't give a shit about the critics.

      A viable strategy  for modern critics is to look for popular works of art that are critically disfavored: Adam Sandler movies, and Dance Pop Singles are two modern examples, but you can go back in time and make an endless list:  comic books, science-fiction, early rock and roll 45s.  This experience is best exemplified by the 18th century Rise of the Novel.

    Wilkie Collins The Woman in White is an example of a popular novel that has both risen and declined in popular and critical acclaim since being published in 1860.  When it was published, it was a sensation- a huge success in serialized form.  By the turn of the 20th century it was being hailed as an important fore-runner to the detective novel (both Edgar Allen Poe and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote AFTER The Woman in White came out.)  At the beginning of the 21st century, it is what you would call a "minor classic" in that you can get yourself a Dover Giant Thrift Edition for a penny, but no one has ever adopted it into a major motion picture.

      However, for me the most interesting part of The Woman In White is Collins' well-known friendship with Charles Dickens.  Their relationship is the subject of swaths of Peter Ackroyd's magisterial biographical treatment of Charles Dickens.  According to Ackroyd, "Dickens turned to [Collins] for companionship in what he would describe as voluptuous or sybaritic jaunts."  Collins was a generation younger then Dickens and functioned as a kind of Dickensian alter-ego during their relationship.  Dickens obviously advised Collins on the writing of The Woman in White, while I was reading it I kept thinking to myself that Collins and Dickens must have been buddies.  Indeed, Colllins was Dickens protege.

  What does that mean in terms of my enjoyment of this novel?  Well, I'll tell you- there is no major novelist MORE out of touch with todays literary tastes then Dickens.  Dickens is verbose, his books are hundreds of pages long, boast dozens of characters and delight in the particularistic description of locations. In short, there couldn't be a LESS RELEVANT novelistic style for today.  If you want to put DICKENS at one end of the mid 19th century spectrum, and Flaubert at the other, I would be waaaaaaay over on Flaubert's side, just because I appreciate brevity and recognize that NOBODY has the patience for an 800 page novel unless it's about a fucking child wizard.

  So yeah, The Woman in White is cool if you are into detective novels, Edgar Allen Poe, Sherlock Holmes, etc. but unless you are a fan of the Dickens style 19th century sprawling character/plot/everything approach, you are NOT going to dig The Woman in White. Me?  I didn't really dig it either.  I can imagine a place & time when people got literary magazines in the (twice daily) mail and then would sit around at a coffee house and talk about the latest happenings, but I don't have the time.  I'll read any "classic" but I don't have to enjoy the experience.

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