I tried to read this classic mystery once before, when I was a teenager, and stopped after about fifty pages. It seemed that the story was going nowhere and—worse—seemed overly bogged down with descriptive passages. I was just coming off of The Sound and the Fury and Portrait of a Lady both of which I loved, so thought I was up to the challenge of heavy-duty prose. I just couldn't get interested in the story.
However, I'm glad I picked it up again. What a great read! Pieces of the brilliantly puzzling plot are doled out at just the right time to sustain the suspense. And the suspense is not the sickening car-chase kind that makes your adrenaline sing. It is the quiet, persistent, growing suspense that develops organically from the story.
One evening in July 1859, a drawing master, Walter Hartright, was walking home to London from visiting his mother. Just after he crossed Hampstead Heath, he encountered a woman dressed all in white who was in some distress and begged him to help her reach London. As they walked along, he mentioned that he was about to take up a post in Cumberland. She told him of a happy time in her life when Mrs. Fairlie of Limmeridge House was particularly kind to her, much to his astonishment, since Limmeridge House was precisely where he was headed.
This meeting and circumstances around it raise questions in Hartright's mind, questions which multiply and take on new significance as the plot unfolds. The story is told in first person, moving from Hartright's narrative to the journal of a woman, to various depositions given by characters at the appropriate moment. These shifts in point of view are handled very well. Each is justified and explained by the story. Moreover, they are clearly labeled and the voice of each varied appropriately for the character speaking. And having the character himself or herself actually provide the information gives it an immediacy and authenticity which would be missing in a second-hand recounting.
Mystery writers would do well to study Collins' technique, not just the way he handles voice and shifting points of view, but the way his characters are presented and allowed to shift and change over time in ways that seem perfectly natural. And, of course, the means he employs to create and sustain the reader's interest.