Wow, y’all. It’s been a while! Work has been WILD; I just got back from a trip to DC that coincided with some epic tight deadlines.
Anyway, to get back in the swing of things, I’ve got an update for you about my serialized book club. Last August (has it been That Long???) I put out the call for people to join me in reading a novel that was originally published in serialized form. And since August is two months from Halloween, I was of course interested in a Gothic novel. Picking the brain of my reenactment friend, I selected The Woman in White, for potential mystery and suspense!
It was a slow start and we had to pause for the holidays while many of us got caught up, but things are really starting to take off now! We’re on Part 21 (HALFWAY!) and we’re now reading the parts on the day they were originally released, only 158 years ago. I have a secret source for the chapters, recreated in their original parts as seen in Harper’s Weekly and All the Year Round.
We have a Facebook group that we debrief in and talk about such exciting topics as Victorian sexual innuendo, the author’s preconceived notions about the general character of women, and the absurd illustrations of the villainous Count Fosco, who is morbidly obese and has a head so large he could eat a baby.
At first, we all seemed to attach immediately to one female character, Marian Holcombe. She is the “old-maid” sister of the romantic-interest character and when she is introduced, she’s basically described as a “but-her-face” (because Wilkie Collins is Basic.) She’s such a smart and sassy character, so naturally we all love her.
To my great surprise and pleasure, much of the book seems to be narrated by her! Once the narration turned to Miss Holcombe, many of us got back into the story! (I’ll admit, that was a primary motivating factor for me to catch up.)
I asked our book club to say a few words on the book and the experience reading the serialized version:
The thing that interests me most is how it sometimes plays to and sometimes subverts the stereotypes of the Gothic novel. In particular, the most recent chapter with Marian exploring Laura’s house is fascinating. The house is your standard decaying gothic manor, but we get this description from stout-hearted Marian–who explores in broad daylight– and not her more delicate sister who might be frightened out of bed in the middle of the night. On top of that, while the sisters are often isolated geographically in rural houses, they’re not isolated socially, as many Gothic heroines are. They have each other to start with, and a network of aunts and governesses and acquaintances and neighbors and servants to interact with. (I’m delighted by the number of named female characters and the variety of roles they have so far.) I also like that the author has spent some time developing that network so that we can feel its absence more acutely when it inevitably gets taken away.
In contrast, you have some of the more obvious devices: the slightly-elevated, verbose, fake-historical prose style, the orphan heroine, the White Knight character, the tiresome Casual Period Sexism, the INTERMINABLE pacing of those first five or six chapters….
I also like seeing what tropes and devices that we’ve kept in gothic and horror novels. The attention-grabbing prologue followed by several slow chapters of “world building” (in this case, more like stage-setting, but w/e) is alive and well, even if the current audience might want something a little more shocking. The thing that I’m most surprised to see is the Pet-as-Character-Judge and Pet in Danger tropes–not something I associated with 19th Century literature!
I am really appreciating the serialized format. It’s guaranteed to keep you thinking about it until the next chapter arrives. I can so imagine the conversations happening in parlors, all the speculation about the mysteries and reacting to the really villainous behavior from the villains. It’s not unlike the way we discuss television shows today, reacting to this week’s episode and speculating on what will happen next.
I. Love. Marian. She’s so sassy.
In December I found the book in its entirety at the bookstore.
Now, the most difficult part of this is forcing myself to wait for the next chapter. And after part 21… You guys. I’m DYING.