Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White

Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White is a Victorian novel filled with mystery, suspense, and secrets. Considered an influential forerunner to the modern mystery novel, The Woman in White has never gone out of print since its serial publication in 1869-70. Collins – as well as his readers – considered it his best work; inscribed on his tombstone is the epitaph “Wilkie Collins, author of The Woman in White and other works of fiction.”

Dickens, a close collaborator with Collins, launched his journal All the Year Round with A Tale of Two Cities first and The Woman in White second. Collins’s novel was, surprisingly enough, an even bigger success than Dickens’s. One of the most popular books of the entire Victorian period, and a novel that made Collins an overnight success, this mystery story inspired Woman in White perfumes, cloaks, bonnets, and other merchandise. The British Prime Minister, William Gladstone, even cancelled a theatre engagement to continue reading the book.

“The ingenuity of the plot alone,” claims Peterson, “would guarantee the popularity of The Woman in White” (1984, 40). The novel begins with the unexpected discovery, late one night, of a woman who has escaped from an insane asylum. Her mysterious identity and remarkable resemblance to the heroine of the novel (Laura Fairlie) haunts the drawing instructor who discovers her. The narrative then focuses on Laura Fairlie, a young woman who becomes the object of a devious criminal plot. The story involves family secrets, faked identities, Gothic mansions, Victorian wills, and false imprisonment. Collins is indeed the grand master of mysterious and suspenseful plots.

When first published, The Woman in White was identified as a “sensational novel,” a form of fiction that was highly popular in the 1850s and 60s. Works were labelled “sensational,” according to Nayder, on two grounds:
their scandalous revelations, which center on acts of adultery, bigamy, and domestic abuse; and the physiological effects these novels allegedly produced in readers, whose pulses were quickened, and whose nerves electrified with every new twist in the plotline. These effects were heightened, critics claimed, by the disturbing “proximity” of the stories, which domesticated and modernized the horror of Gothic fiction. (1997, 71)
By focusing on terrors within the home, sensational novels such as The Woman in White and The Moonstone (see my earlier post) anticipated modern psychological thrillers. Knight claims:
What the sensation novel did was bring Gothic sensibility and that popular energy into the domain of conventional respectable fiction – and so achieve a greater effect by suggesting that strange and terrible events could occur right within the respectable home – that shrine of Victorian values. (2004, 39)
The enclosed country mansion of Blackwater Park, the haunting isolation of the two half-sisters, the suggestion of unknown terrors, and hints of dark family secrets are all stock elements of the Gothic novel (see my post on the Gothic influence on the mystery novel). The villain of this Gothic narrative is larger than life. Count Fosco is a remarkable character, evil to the core yet utterly irresistible. Hartright the drawing instructor writes, “Sincerely as I loathed the man, the prodigious strength of his character, even in most trivial aspects, impressed me in spite of myself” (613). Other characters are inexplicably drawn to him even when they are deeply fearful of his villainy.

Like The Moonstone, The Woman in White is noteworthy for its masterful narrative technique. One of the narrators tells us,
I write these lines at the request of my friend, Mr Walter Hartright. The plan he has adopted for presenting the story to others, in the most truthful and the most vivid manner, requires that it should be told, at each successive stage in the march of events, by the persons who were most directly concerned in those events at the time of their occurrence. My appearance here, as narrator, is the necessary consequence of this arrangement. (150)
We see the story through the eyes of the drawing master, the heroine’s sister, the family lawyer, the housekeeper, even the villain himself. Each of these narrators presents a unique interpretation of events and a distinctive view of their fellow characters. The reader becomes the final arbitrator of events, a position that requires continual weighing and sifting of evidence. Peterson calls the narrative method “an ingenious innovation for controlling the information given to the reader” (1984, 42).

The Woman in White is remarkable for its gripping plot, charismatic characters, menacing atmosphere, and intriguing narrative technique.

Collins, Wilkie. The Woman in White. 1859-60. Middlesex, UK: Penguin, 1974.

Knight, Stephen. Crime Fiction 1800-2000: Detection, Death, Diversity. Houndmills, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Nayder, Lillian. Wilkie Collins. New York: Twayne, 1997.

Peterson, Audrey. Victorian Masters of Mystery: From Wilkie Collins to Conan Doyle. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1984.