This one is referred to as a classic, as it should be, but it's really not the kind of book one first thinks of when hearing that word. For one thing, it's in part a mystery, and these generally have a tough time gaining and maintaining critical acceptance; for another, it was initially described as a "sensationalist" novel, and although that term meant something entirely different 130 years ago, the description still applies and probably has something to do with this book not having achieved the status that it deserves.
Whatever, this is a truly terrific read, in every respect, with a great plot, superb characters, and a magnificent writing style. The plot, briefly, has to do with a youthful and somewhat naïve heiress, who, through the manipulations and connivances of alleged friends, is basely used and driven to the brink of despair. Although her situation seems hopeless, she nevertheless has two supporters: her cousin, the superbly portrayed Marian Halcombe; and her former drawing-master--and the primary narrator of the tale--Walter Hartright. Gliding in and out of their lives is the title character, the mysterious and tragic Woman in White. It would not be prudent for me to give away anything else, except to say that about a hundred pages into this novel the plot gallops along at a break-neck pace, with several mysteries, secrets and plot-twists to be unraveled, all of which are completely credible.
The characters are superbly and memorably drawn, particularly the indomitable Count Fosco. He is a large, loud, magnificently-dressed, sweet-talking and irresistible force, constantly playing with his little mice and birds, and disguising in every way the plots and schemes which roil through his brain. His is as vivid a character as one comes across in literature, comparable with the likes of Sir John Falstaff, or Long John Silver.
Marian Holcombe is no less memorable. The forward to the edition that I have just read indicates that following the publication of this novel, dozens of men inquired of Mr. Collins as to whether the character of Miss Holcombe was based on a real person, and if so, could they meet her! This is entirely believable. She is a sweet, fiercely loyal, and extraordinarily brave person. A gem of a character.
Beyond all the this, the novel is very literate, written in the polite, carefully-constructed, meticulously-paced Victorian style. It is a joy to savor and dwell over the many almost-melodious passages in this novel.
Yes, yes, it's escapist entertainment, but so what? Upon completion of a novel like this, one feels as if one has improved oneself in language, literacy, and in writing skill; indeed, in general intelligence. What else could one want from a classic?