I'd heard of "The Woman in White" as one of those rediscovered 19th century novels, so I was drawn to a PBS miniseries based on the book.
When the first episode aired Sunday night, I was surprised at the British setting. A bit of Internet research revealed that I had confused Wilkie Collins, the author of "The Woman in White," with the American 19th century novelist and critic William Dean Howells.
I'd expected "The Woman in White" to take place in Boston or New York City. Instead, the show's mystery unfolds in a British coastal estate called Limmeridge.
Collins, who also wrote another rediscovered Victorian classic, "The Moonstone," was a close friend of Charles Dickens, and published his books as serials in Dickens' magazines "All the Year Round" and "Houshold Words." Like Dickens, Collins successfully toured the United States.
Howells was a close friend of America's counterpart to Dickens, Mark Twain. Like Collins in London, Howells built a sterling literary career in Boston, then at the center of America's publishing world.
As editor of The Atlantic Monthly from 1871-81, Howells championed Twain's work, along with that of Brett Hart, Stephen Crane and other writers. Like Collins, Howells gained fame as a novelist, with his best-known book "The Rise of Silas Lapham." Howells' novels have also received new recognition in recent years.
The Collins-Howells confusion opened a further American-British literary connection. T.S. Eliot considered "Moonstone" and "The Woman in White" the first true detective novels, removing the credit from Edgar Allan Poe.
As for "The Women in White" show, produced by BBC and originally shown on the British network as are many of PBS' dramatic offerings, I found it a bland, conventional Masterpiece Theater costume production. It had a melange of British trappings from Jane Austen to the Brontes, Dickens and Thackery. While derivative, the show sparkled with British wit, and the scenery was gorgeous.
Jessie Buckley gives the most compelling performance as the assertive, trouser-wearing, possibly Lesbian Marian Halcombe, half sister of of the ethereal Laura Fairlie, played by Olivia Vinall, who also portrays Anne, the spooky Woman in Whie.
Vinall's performance conforms too readily to a feminine Victorian stereotype, although in fairness, Collins created it along with Dickens and others.
I was amused when Laura tells her young art tutor/love interest Walter Hartwright that she's been reading "Paradise Lost." Hartwright, played with wholesome earnestness by Ben Hardy, responds that Coleridge and John Ruskin are his favorites. Nothing like a bit of 19th century book chat to stir me. Who knew that John Milton enthralled young Victorian ladies?
The script, written by Fiona Seres, examines themes of male dominance, sexual harassment and oppression of women. That effort at contemporary relevance seems predictable, and the story's Gothic mystery too conventional. The production sparked enough interest to keep me watching though.