The Woman in White has spurred or focused my puzzlement over the role of enjoyment in criticism because it is one of the most sheerly enjoyable Victorian novels. Stretches of prose are functionally ordinary (“Half an hour later I was speeding back to London by the express train,” that sort of thing), and the plot is, stepping back a bit, nonsense, but perfectly paced nonsense, thrilling nonsense. Collins attributes the success of the story not to its ingenuity but to the characters who drive it, to “their existence as recognizable realities” (Preface, longer quotation here). This sounds suspiciously like a version of Ruskin’s question: Is it so? Some – I do not think all, but some – of the characters in The Woman in White are “so,” wonderfully “so.”
Richard at La Caravana de Recuerdos has been reading an amazing book, a thousand-page diary of Adolfo Bioy Casares entirely about his friendship and conversations with Jorge Luis Borges. The book sounds as bookishly juicy as The Life of Johnson. In a passage Richard just posted (translation his), Borges and Bioy Casares assemble a list of “lifelike characters”:
Pinkerton from The Wrecker; the father from Douglas' The House with the Green Shutters… Cousin Basilio's heroine… Shylock; perhaps King Lear (not Macbeth)… Martín Fierro; Grandet and Eugénie… Jesus; Count Fosco and the paralytic uncle from The Lady in White [sic, English in original]; according to my father, Félicité from Flaubert's Un coeur simple and the woman that's in The Crime of Father Amaro.
I have heavily trimmed the list to emphasize my own recent and upcoming reading. If there was any doubt about why Borges is one of my guiding figures, I can see here how my entirely arbitrary and random matrix of tastes lines up so well with his. Not my point, though, which is more that several people are reading The Crime of Father Amaro soon and it is not too late to join in and meet “the woman.” No, that’s not my point either.
Count Fosco and Mr. Fairlie, the paralytic uncle, are just the characters I pick as the ones with the most vivid “existence,” the ones who Collins was able to infuse with “real” imaginative truth. Fosco is a villain who is observed and described in the heroine’s diary, and whose written confession is the imaginative climax of the novel; Fairlie is a peripheral plot device who only plumps up during his own firsthand testimony, which mostly consists of this sort of thing:
That is to say, I had the photographs of my pictures, and prints, and coins, and so forth, all about me, which I intend, one of these days, to present (the photographs, I mean, if the clumsy English language will let me mean anything) to present to the institution at Carlisle (horrid place!), with a view to improving the tastes of the members (Goths and Vandals to a man).
I was very unreasonable – I expected three days of quiet. Of course I didn’t get them.
I make no apologies for this extremely prosy paragraph. I have been ordered to write it.
He waved his horrid hand at me; he struck his infectious breast; he addressed me oratorically – as if I was laid up in the House of Commons.
That last “he” is Count Fosco, and much of Fairlie’s letter is his version of the encounter between the novel’s two best characters. Readers of Samuel Beckett’s novels might detect something familiar here. This is the Borgesian definition, and Ruskinian, and Amateur Readerian, of “lifelike.” Not that the character resembles an actual living creature, but that his creator truly saw the imaginary beast. Mr. Fairlie and Count Fosco are like Ruskin’s Lombardian griffin, imaginary but true.
I will leave Count Fosco’s extraordinary letter alone, except to give Collins more credit: the villain’s confession contains almost no information that a half-awake reader does not already know, so is functionally almost useless, except that it is the best thing in the book, all due to the character’s force of personality, to his language. “(Pass me, here, one exclamation in parenthesis. How interesting this is!)”
Most of the other characters are like Ruskin's Renaissance griffin. I have seen reviewers of the novel single out the heroine, Marian Halcombe, as a great character, but I have had trouble seeing how she is not more than a high-quality adventure novel heroine, one of those Strong Female Characters we are trained to praise. I ask her fans for a passage, or line, or action that pulled her out of the book, something that belongs just to her. Something not relative to novels of her time (where I see no shortage of plucky heroines, honestly), but to the timeless. Where does she feed the monkey, so to speak?