Begin with unhappiness and end with tea: Pearls from The Woman in White

I recently finished The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins — a new favorite, without a doubt. It’s an intriguing mid-1800s mystery with witty writing, compelling characters, and a multiple-narrator structure that really enhances the suspense.

The 2018 BBC miniseries was fantastic, too. The benefits of watching an adaptation immediately after reading a book are twofold, beyond the pure enjoyment of it. One: I get to share the story with my husband (because watching five hour-long episodes is less of a commitment than reading a 700-page book). Two: It gives me another lens through which to view the source material, noticing where the adaptation improves upon it or falls short.

For example, the Laura Fairlie of the miniseries was a little more fleshed-out, more lively, more interesting. It was more obvious why Walter Hartright fell in love with her: It wasn’t just that she was pretty and sweet — the pair had shared passions and a similar way of seeing the world. Marian Halcombe was just as much of a badass as she was in the book, but without constantly reminding the audience that she was “mannish.” On the other hand, the characterization of and storylines surrounding the main villain were (understandably) condensed, making them less subtle and nuanced.

But overall, I’d have to say I preferred the book for one reason: A TV adaptation can’t really capture what I loved most about The Woman in White. Wilkie Collins’ writing style is a delight to read. It’s full of gems like “My hour for tea is half-past five, and my buttered toast waits for nobody.”

Here are some more of my favorites:

“Any woman who is sure of her own wits is a match at any time for a man who is not sure of his own temper.”

“The main body of the building is of the time of that highly-overrated woman, Queen Elizabeth. . . . It is an inexpressible relief to find that the nineteenth century has invaded this strange future home of mine, and has swept the dirty “good old times” out of the way of our daily life.”

“Louis, go away. What an ass you are.”

“I have asked Louis. He is not quite such an ass as I have hitherto supposed.”

“The best men are not consistent in good—why should the worst men be consistent in evil?”

“Being, however, nothing but a woman, condemned to patience, propriety, and petticoats for life, I must respect the house-keeper’s opinions, and try to compose myself in some feeble and feminine way.”

And as for the passage from which I took the title of this post: “Am I responsible for any of these vulgar fluctuations [in the feelings of young people], which begin with unhappiness and end with tea?” It’s a relatively insignificant line but delightful nonetheless. And (SPOILER ALERT) it’s kind of symbolic of the whole book: The characters feel a lot of feelings, but by the end most of the sorrow has given way to the kind of contentment you’d feel while enjoying a cup of tea.

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