The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
The Woman in White (1859-1860)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
The Woman in White was written by Wilkie Collins and first appeared in All The Year Round (Nov. 26, 1859-Aug. 25, 1860). Collins (1824-1889), an English novelist and opium addict, wrote mysteries and sensation novels. Unlike most mid-level novelists of his era, Collins is still well-thought-of and read today.
Walter Hartright, a drawing master, gains a job teaching drawing to Marian Halcombe and Laura Fairlie, the nieces of the wealthy but difficult Frederick Fairlie. On his way to Limmeridge House, the home of the Fairlies, Walter runs into a woman, dressed in white, wandering around the countryside and talking peculiarly. Walter helps her get to London, and she tells him various things, mentioning that she had once gone to school with Laura Fairlie. The woman leaves, and soon after two men arrive looking for the woman, who has escaped from an asylum. Walter does not help them find her and makes his way to Limmeridge House. He meets Marian, who though ugly in appearance is witty and charming. Walter meets Laura, who is beautiful, the physical double of the woman in white, and the heiress of Limmeridge House. And Walter meets Mr. Fairlie, who is hugely selfish and irritable. Walter and Marian become friends, and when he tells her about his encounter with the woman in white she does some research and discovers that the woman in white must have been Anne Catherick, who Mrs. Fairlie helped for a time because of Anne’s resemblance to Laura.
Walter, Marian and Laura have a fine time for several months, but Walter eventually falls in love with Laura, which both Laura and Marian see. Marian takes Walter aside and tells him he must leave; he has acted the perfect gentleman, but she is engaged to someone else, and his presence is endangering that engagement. Laura’s father, on his deathbed, had asked her to marry Sir Percival Glyde, and she agreed, and now Walter is putting that arrangement in peril, because she is falling in love with him. Walter agrees and departs, but not before running into Anne Catherick, the woman in white, again. She is cleaning Mrs. Fairlie’s grave and admits that she wants to stop Laura’s marriage to Sir Percival. Marian is intrigued by this and says that she will demand an explanation from Sir Percival. Walter leaves and Sir Percival arrives. He says that Anne Catherick was the daughter of a woman in his family’s service and that Anne had been in need of medical attention, which her mother had agreed to. A follow up letter supports this, so Sir Percival presses his suit. Marian does not take to him, and but she can’t delay the wedding, and once Mr. Fairlie has agreed to Sir Percival’s demands for a prenuptial agreement promising Sir Percival all of Laura’s money if Laura dies first Laura and Sir Percival marry and leave for Italy. When they return, six months later, Laura is unhappy, and Sir Percival is not much happier. Marian moves in with them, as does Count Fosco, a huge, self-assured Italian who is Sir Percival’s friend, and the Count’s wife, who is Laura’s aunt. Marian distrusts the Foscos and deeply distrusts and dislikes Sir Percival, and she discovers that Count Fosco and Sir Percival are plotting to take Laura’s money away from her.
Laura meets Anne Catherick one day and learns that Sir Percival has a secret involving Anne Catherick and her mother. But Count Fosco chases Anne away before she can say what it is, and when Sir Percival hears that Anne is in the neighborhood he becomes alarmed and tries to find her. He tries to lock Marian and Laura in their rooms, and he plots with Count Fosco about killing Laura and taking her money. Marian overhears them plotting, but she exposes herself to the rain in doing so and catches a fever. Laura also takes ill. When Laura recovers she is told that Marian has left for London. When Laura goes to London she is met by Count Fosco. Laura is given drugs, declared insane, dressed in Anne Catherick’s old clothes, and put into the same asylum from which Anne Catherick had escaped. Sir Percival finds Anne Catherick and plans to kill her, because she is the physical double of Laura and can be buried under Laura’s name. Anne is ill anyhow and dies of natural causes; when she dies it is announced that Laura has died. Marian, who was not moved to London but only to another room in the house, recovers from her long illness and is told that Laura is dead.
From that point forward Marian, Laura, and Walter have a long and difficult struggle to find each other, survive the machinations of Count Fosco, and prove that Laura is not dead and is entitled to her money. Eventually good triumphs over evil; Sir Percival dies in a fire of his own making, Count Fosco is revealed to the secret society he betrayed, which forces him to flee to Paris, where he is murdered, and Walter and Laura marry and have a child, and Marian stays with them as their dear friend.
The Woman in White is the novel which began the sensation novel genre. Indeed, it has been called “the archetype of the genre.”1 Like nearly all sensation novels–and like most of Collins’ novels–The Woman in White focuses on–and critiques–“marriage and the hierarchical, patriarchal, nuclear family (often in a deviant or disrupted form), together with the social, psychological, moral and legal institutions that sustain these cornerstones of respectable Victorian society.”2 The Woman in White was also what Jerome Meckier argues was Collins’ attempt to outdo Dickens “at the kind of melodramatic social realism his mentor regarded as his prerogative,”3 part of a decade-long competition between Collins, George Eliot, Mrs. Gaskell and others at
pushing the preeminent Dickens aside. At the same time but from the opposite flank, Wilkie Collins tried a different form of revaluation: he strove to outdo Dickens at the kind of novel Dickens thought he did best, the kind his other rivals tried to cancel, tone down, or repair. Dickens replied to all of his rivals by redoing them as spiritedly as they had reused his characters and situations to make their own statements and discredit his.4
The Woman in White has also been described as “the greatest mystery novel of the nineteenth century.” The accuracy of this assessment depends on the definition of “mystery novel.” Purely as a mystery, The Woman in White is good but not excellent. Collins’ presentation of the crime and exploration of how and why the crime is solved is inferior to work by, among others, Edgar Allan Poe (see: The C. Auguste Dupin Mysteries) and Arthur Conan Doyle (see: The Sherlock Holmes Mysteries). But as a novel with a mystery The Woman in White is excellent, behind only The Moonstone as the best of the nineteenth century. (Dickens’ Bleak House is not a mystery). Most mysteries written in the nineteenth century sacrifice depth of characterization for exploration of the circumstances of the crime, and sacrifice the author’s take on contemporary (and non-mystery) issues for a concentration on the criminal, the detective/crime solver, and the victims of the crime. And those who attempt to make their mysteries into proper novels usually lack the ambition to address contemporary issues and lack the talent to carry it off in good fashion. Bulwer Lytton, in Night and Morning, may have tried to write more than just a mystery, but he lacked the talent to make it as readable as The Woman in White.
Collins’ concerns in The Woman in White are clearly greater than the mere writing of a mystery. He effectively demonstrates how helpless Laura is, once she has married the scoundrel Percival, and equally effectively shows how much of an impediment the law could be to those seeking justice. The Woman in White is as much a criticism of the strictures of marriage and the law as it is a mystery.
The first thirty pages of The Woman in White are tedious and long-winded, with the appearance of the titular character melodramatic rather than dramatic and betraying concerns that will strike the modern reader as extremely dated. The idea that the Woman in White has escaped from an asylum does not fill the modern reader with nearly the horror that it would have Collins’ contemporary readers. But once Marian Halcombe is introduced, the pace of the novel picks up, and once the plot of Walter’s frustrated love for Laura begins in earnest, the novel reaches a high pitch of entertainment and readability. Walter and Laura are not particularly interesting as the hero and heroine; Walter is well meaning but ordinary, and Laura is a depressingly colorless milquetoast of a character. (Collins may have meant Walter and Laura to be satires of the traditional romantic leads; if so, he played up the uninteresting aspects of such characters without making his satires particularly biting or amusing). But Collins does succeed in giving their dilemma some emotional weight. More importantly, Collins’ secondary characters are as vivid and interesting as Walter and Laura are dull and uninteresting. Walter’s dwarf friend Professor Pesca is amusing, Mr. Fairlie is memorably crotchety, self-centered, and neurasthenic, Count Fosco is hugely amusing, and Marian Halcombe is extremely appealing. Marian is a good woman and has all the vitality, personality, and charm which Laura lacks. It is not ridiculous, in fact, to say that Marian is far too alive for The Woman in White and deserves better than to remain a spinster aunt to Walter and Laura’s children. But many of the other characters are as alive as Marian, and it is clear that Collins’ real affection was for Marian and for Fosco, and that Walter and Laura were the hero and heroine because the form demanded they be. By the novel’s end the reader can only echo Fosco’s admiration for Marian’s capabilities, and regret that Marian was Fosco’s opponent rather than his partner.
Collins has a great skill at establishing characterization through dialogue and monologue. His physical descriptions are equally as vivid, and while little of the dialogue and descriptions in The Woman in White are quotable, they work marvelously in the context of the novel. The plot is suitably complex, even if some of the mysteries (why Laura looks so much like Anne Catherick, for example) are not difficult to solve. Fosco’s plotting is suitably devious, and the modern reader is likely to be struck by the Victorian manners at play in Walter’s early interactions with Laura and Marian. Some Victorian novels have characters who could, with little adjustment, appear in a modern novel. Collins’ characters read as if they were created one hundred and fifty years ago–which they were. Collins uses a variety of narrations, from Marian’s diary entries to Walter’s accounts to the testimony of Count Fosco’s cook, which hearkens back to the Gothic novel and anticipates the shifting perspectives in modern mystery stories. Collins also provides a brilliant and even unnerving violation when Marian’s narration, in her diary, ends, and Count Fosco writes his own entry in Marian’s diary. The reader has become so used to reading Marian’s private thoughts that the appearance of Count Fosco’s words in Marian’s diary is almost as shocking to the reader as they were to Marian herself when she later read Fosco’s words.
Fosco’s identity as an Italian is due to Collins’ thought that “the crime is too ingenious for an English villain.”5 Collins was also, consciously or not, making use of the tradition in English popular culture, often seen in the Gothics, to make villains into extra-cultural Others, often Italian (see: The Yellow Peril). Fosco’s Italianness is not the only Gothic element in The Woman in White. The novel has a number of Gothic attributes, from the confinement of women in a country house to male marital tyranny to the multiple narrators to the threatened woman to the family secrets haunting the present to the resourceful heroine. In many ways The Woman in White is an updated and much better written Gothic.
Count Isidor Ottavio Baldassare Fosco is a marvelously wicked Falstaffian character. Physically he is fat, with a graceful physicality despite his immense size, the face of Napoleon, a generally benevolent expression, and glittering grey eyes. The character trait most often remembered about him is his pet mice, which he keeps in a wire pagoda of his own design and which he lets run in and out of his waistcoat. His written narration, like his dialogue, is an endless stream of charming and amusing banter filled with great good humor and wit as well as sharp irony. He admires Marian as much as the reader does, seeing in her a worthy opponent for himself and an estimable woman in her own right.
He is also the villain of The Woman in White. He is a spy, sent to England in 1850 and “charged with a delicate political mission from abroad.”6 He is even a traitor to an Italian secret society. He is both intelligent and canny, manipulative, a subtle plotter, suitably ruthless (except when his esteem and respect for Marian lead him to treat her too softly rather than with the mercilessness which is required to defeat her), and capable of murder if necessary. He is the first major obese villain in suspense/crime fiction, a body type later to become common.
Interestingly, Collins chose to make Fosco’s relationship with his wife not the stereotypical one of the heartless brute and the saintly, long-suffering victim, but rather of partners and equals. Fosco says that his wife’s marriage obligations are “unreservedly to love, honour, and obey” her husband, and that is what his wife has done. It is clear, though, that Countess Fosco was a willing partner and co-plotter with Fosco not because it was her marital duty but because she wanted to and enjoyed it. It is equally clear that Count Fosco valued her and respected her, which is a canny move on Collins’ part and one that adds to the readers’ enjoyment of The Woman in White.
The Woman in White was enormously successful with the public on publication and remains one of the best reads of its time.
Print: Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White. New York: Penguin Classics, 2003.
1 Winifred Hughes, The Maniac in the Cellar: The Sensation Novel of the 1860s (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980), 138.
2 Lyn Pykett, The Nineteenth-Century Sensation Novel, second edition (Tavistock, UK: Northcote House Publishers, 2011), 32.
3 Jerome Meckier, Hidden Rivalries in Victorian Fiction: Dickens, Realism, and Revaluation (Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 1987), 4.
4 Meckier, Hidden Rivalries, 3.
5 Kenneth Robinson, Wilkie Collins, a Biography (New York: Macmillan, 1952), 139.
6 Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White, volume three (London: S. Low, Son & Co., 1860), 319.