The Woman in White

9781400119424_p0_v5_s192x300     When one of my book clubs identified Wilkie Collins’ nineteenth century classic mystery The Woman in White for discussion, I looked for another way to reread the famous story and found the four hour BBC radio dramatization on Audible.  With rich British intonation, the dialogue kept me immersed in the plot, most of which I had forgotten since reading it for a college literature class.

A detective story with Gothic overtones, the story has an other worldly tone as the reader tries to discover the secret of the ghostly woman dressed in white. In her review, Camille Cauti cleverly summarized the plot without revealing too much for readers who want to thrill to its twists – either again or for the first time.

The story begins with an eerie midnight encounter between artist Walter Hartright and a ghostly woman dressed all in white who seems desperate to share a dark secret. The next day Hartright, engaged as a drawing master to the beautiful Laura Fairlie and her half sister, tells his pupils about the strange events of the previous evening. Determined to learn all they can about the mysterious woman in white, the three soon find themselves drawn into a chilling vortex of crime, poison, kidnapping, and international intrigue.

The father of the detective novel and a contemporary of Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins was the first to transform a sensational crime story into a tale with clues the reading audience could follow.  When it was first published in 1860, the book was serializedand according to mystery expert Charles Silet, readers enthusiastically started  a Woman-in-White craze “which gave rise to a popular song, a dramatization of the novel, and even prompted women to dress in white.”

I throughly enjoyed listening.  The music heightened the suspense, and the characters’ intonation made the complicated plot easy to follow.  I’ll look for another book performed by this talented group of British actors.


The Invention of Wings

9780670024780_p0_v3_s260x420By imagining the lives of a wealthy nineteenth-century family in Charleston and their house slaves, Sue Monk Kidd creates a realistic historical fiction in The Invention of Wings.  Using letters and publications as her source and inspiration, Kidd focuses on a real Southern belle,  Sarah Grimké, who became a Quaker and a zealous abolitionist, predating Lucretia Mott and Harriet Beecher Stowe in her advocacy for women’s rights and abolition.  Sarah’s slave, named Hetty by her white master, but called Handful by her mother, balances the story’s point of view.  Both young women are intelligent, resourceful, and determined, with Sarah hoping to break the bonds of restrictive society rules that relegate her to a secondary existence, and Handful yearning to be free.

The narrative alternates between Sarah and Handful, as they grow from children to young women.  After receiving Handful as a birthday present when she is eleven years old, Sarah unsuccessfully tries to free her.  Promising Handful’s mother that one day she will set her free, Sarah defies her parents and the law by teaching Handful to read and write, and later helps her to escape.

Handful’s mother, Charlotte, a talented seamstress, initiates small rebellions and, when punished, adroitly manages to create havoc for her mistress.  Charlotte’s actions become the catalyst for later resistance, and her quilts – modeled on the African appliqued quilts of Georgian slave Harriet Powers – reflect the history and voice of a now revered tradition.  Quilters will connect with the peace through industry that Charlotte has with the needle in her hand, and recognize familiar pieces in the construction.

Kidd does not shy away from actual tortures created by white slave owners to rein in their slaves: Charlotte’s terrible punishment for stealing a bolt of cloth, Handful’s disfigurement from an accident in the “work house,” the whippings and branding of slaves.   Sarah’s witnessing a slave being beaten leaves her with a lifetime stutter.

Following Grimké’s actual life, Kidd inserts romance and ambition into the mix, with younger sister Angelina eventually becoming her partner in the cause to free the slaves.  Names appear – contemporaries of the abolitionist ladies – Lucretia Mott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Greenleaf Whittier – who became more famous than the Grimké  sisters, and Kidd notes that Sarah Grimké’s  writings were the precursor and possible inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe as well as the seed for future women’s rights activists.

The story kept my attention and I was happy for Kidd’s notes at the end – saved me from looking up the sisters on google.  As I read, I had wondered how much was true, and the author graciously reveals not only her inspirations but also how much did stray from the facts.  Handful, who is the imagined character, is much more compelling to follow; her strong-willed defiance that often results in terrible consequences creates more adventure and suspense than Sarah’s real life.  Yet, once again, reading how women like Sarah survived and thrived under suffocating circumstances in those times is always a good reminder of a past often forgotten.

One of my favorite lines from the book, which Kidd notes Sarah actually said:

Sarah Grimké

Sarah Grimké

“All I ask of our brethren is that they will take their feet off our necks.”

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