This book has been sitting on my shelf for years, and I decided this was the October it would get dusted off and read. And what a nearly perfect October book it was. Intrigue! Poison! Spies! Dark secrets that would ruin families and reputations! Missed opportunities for love! Eccentric characters! Mysterious people lurking EVERYWHERE!
It's not surprising to realize that this Gothic, melodramatic book was written by a man who was a contemporary of Dickens. It opens Gothic-ally enough with Walter Hartright, out for a late-night stroll, coming across a mysterious woman dressed all in white, who shows some signs of distress and fear. He assists her in getting to her destination safely, but later learns she may have been an escape from an asylum. Yet some of the things she said to him seem to indicate that she may not have been there for good reason.
This is followed by his becoming a drawing-master to two young ladies, one of whom he almost immediately falls in love with. Alas, she is engaged to another man, who, as it turns out, has a few secrets of his own--and they're related to the woman in white. They're also related to Count Fosco, an obese Italian count who has the chilling ability to remain calm while all about him is turmoil (chilling because you have to wonder what he's doing behind the scenes--and yes, that's a little bit of a spoiler, but you'd pick it up from the book anyway).
So there's much gallivanting here and there, much misleading of people, much despair over love not realized, much gallantry on the part of Walter Hartright (a kind of Victorian Dudley Do-Right), much evil conniving and acting by Fosco and Sir Percival Glyde (the man to whom Hartright's beloved is engaged).
The cast of characters is rather enormous, and many of them tell their own part of the story, for reasons that are made clear towards the end of the book. Collins uses this device to great effect, with the main characters often seem from the points of view of others, who have varying opinions of them. One of the most entertaining chapters is told from the POV of Mr. Fairlie, the guardian of the two women, who is one of the most annoying, irrational, self-involved people ever, and his chapter is downright hilarious--until it isn't. (In a good way.)
All that said, there are a few drawbacks. As I noted on my Goodreads review, Collins is a writer who never used just one word when fifteen could be used instead. There are sections of the book that drag on a bit too much. Yet I was never tempted to stop reading--he did make me want to see how it all played out.
The other annoyance is one I almost hate to mention. I try to read classic books with an eye to the period they were written in, and not judge them by current beliefs/politics. But it's hard not to think of Collins as something of a misogynist. He has women who are both good and bad in this book, but even the good women spend time sitting around denigrating womanhood in general. The best woman, Marian Halcombe, is assigned a most unfortunate physical appearance. It did make me frown a few times, even when reflecting on its time period.
I also had to wonder what Charles Dickens would have done with this material. I enjoyed it, yes--and I'll seek out The Moonstone next October--but it's not as good as a really ripping Dickens novel.