The Woman in White is a Victorian “Sensation Novel” written in 1859-1860 by Wilkie Collins. I discovered it more than 10 years ago, and since then it is one of my favorite novels. Why is it so appealing? What inspired it?
Most facts here come from John Sutherland’s notes and introduction to The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, Oxford World’s Classics.
I’ll accompany this article with paintings from Atkinson Grimshaw – more here – which can often be found on Victorian novels’ covers, such as the Oxford edition above. Featured Image: Autumn Morning, John Atkinson Grimshaw.
Warning: there might be spoilers!
In Love with The Woman in White – A Victorian Bestseller
A book to love
Walter Hartright, young art teacher, is taking a midnight stroll down Hampstead when he encounters a strange woman in white, Anne Catherick, who has just escaped from an asylum.
There, in the middle of the broad bright high-road—there, as if it had that moment sprung out of the earth or dropped from the heaven—stood the figure of a solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in white garments, her face bent in grave inquiry on mine, her hand pointing to the dark cloud over London, as I faced her.
Shaken, he goes to Cumberland to teach Laura Fairlie and her half-sister Marian Halcombe how to paint. Laura and him fall in love.
The young woman happens to look like Anne Catherick, but totally unlike her fascinating, brave half-sister Marian. Alas! Laura Fairlie is soon to be married to sir Percival Glyde, a most distasteful person which might be darkly plotting against her and Anne Catherick with his dangerous friend Count Fosco…
(Spoilers: They wish to swap Anne and Laura so that Laura would stay in an asylum as Anne, while the latter, very sick, would die as Laura and provide Percival with a nice inheritance…)
Marian Halcombe and Count Fosco are labeled by John Sutherland
“two of the finest creations in all Victorian fiction”
They clearly are very interesting to read about. Marian is the opposite of the cliche depiction of Victorian women in literature, as she proves brave, independant and resourceful. Count Fosco, while dangerous and clever, using his chemistry skills to no good, is strangely fascinating. The plot was said to be very “clever” by contemporaries. When I first read this book I couldn’t stay away from it.
The atmosphere is great too, which is why I like to reread it every now and then. Cloudy nights, pouring rain, big English estates… I’ve already written about the book’s Graveyard Scene in this article. The Blackwater Park House is a perfect gloomy setting for Glyde’s plots, which Marian tries to overhear while hiding in the rain.
They were silent once more. As their voices ceased Madame Fosco’s shadow darkened the blind again. Instead of passing this time, it remained, for a moment, quite still. I saw her fingers steal round the corner of the blind, and draw it on one side. The dim white outline of her face, looking out straight over me, appeared behind the window. I kept still, shrouded from head to foot in my black cloak. The rain, which was fast wetting me, dripped over the glass, blurred it, and prevented her from seeing anything. “More rain!” I heard her say to herself. She dropped the blind, and I breathed again freely.
Marian catches a sickness after her adventure. While she’s confined to bed, cunning Count Fosco reads her diary and falls in love with her, much to her distaste!
This novel is one of the first Mystery novels and Sensation Novels – a Victorian genre mixing criminal realism and gothic romance. Its success was overwhelming. Prince Albert gifted a copy to Baron Stockmar and Thackeray read it in a night. People bought Woman in White branded perfumes, cloaks and bonnets. Charles Dickens, one of Collins’s close friends, was proud of his protégé’s success.
Following Fosco’s footsteps, middle-aged men fell in love with Marian Halcombe, one of them even asked Wilkie Collins the name of the original so he could propose.
Asylums and Arsenic, Spies and Sexuality – the Roots of The Woman in White
Wilkie Collins’s love life
Wilkie Collins led an unconventional love life. He lived with Caroline Graves, with whom he was not married. Later, he met a young girl, Martha Rudd, and lived with her in another house. He divided his time between the two women. The end of the Woman in White, where Walter, Laura and Marian are living together, hints at a ménage à trois too.
The first description of Marian’s uncorseted waist – Collins’s fetish – by naughty Walter is nearly erotic:
The instant my eyes rested on her, I was struck by the rare beauty of her form, and by the unaffected grace of her attitude. Her figure was tall, yet not too tall; comely and well-developed, yet not fat; her head set on her shoulders with an easy, pliant firmness; her waist, perfection in the eyes of a man, for it occupied its natural place, it filled out its natural circle, it was visibly and delightfully undeformed by stays. She had not heard my entrance into the room; and I allowed myself the luxury of admiring her for a few moments, before I moved one of the chairs near me, as the least embarrassing means of attracting her attention.
A widespread myth tells Anne Catherick’s midnight apparition was inspired by Wilkie’s melodramatic first encounter with Caroline Graves. John Everett Millais’s son writes:
It was a beautiful moonlight night in the summer time, and as the three friends walked along chatting gaily together, they were suddenly arrested by a piercing scream coming from the garden of a villa close at hand. It was evidently the cry of a woman in distress; and while pausing to consider what they should do, the iron gate leading to the garden was dashed open, and from it came the figure of a young and very beautiful woman dressed in flowing white robes that shone in the moonlight. She seemed to float rather than to run in their direction, and, on coming up to the three young men, she paused for a moment in an attitude of supplication and terror. Then, seeming to recollect herself, she suddenly moved on and vanished in the shadows cast upon the road.
“What a lovely woman!” was all Millais could say. “I must see who she is and what’s the matter,” said Wilkie Collins as, with out another word, he dashed off after her. His two companions waited in vain for his return, and next day, when they met again, he seemed indisposed to talk of his adventure. They gathered from him, however, that he had come up with the lovely fugitive and had heard from her own lips the history of her life and the cause of her sudden flight. She was a young lady of good birth and position, who had accidentally fallen into the hands of a man living in a villa in Regent’s Park. There for many months he kept her prisoner under threats and mesmeric influence of so alarming a character that she dared not attempt to escape, until, in sheer desperation, she fled from the brute, who with a poker in his hand, threatened to dash her brains out. Her subsequent history, interesting as it is, is not for these pages.
However it is now thought to be a pure myth.
Forensics, weddings, spies and trials
Real life examples of such mistreatments existed which might have inspired Collins in creating Glyde and Fosco’s plot against Laura Fairlie and Anne Catherick.
At a Paris bookstall, in 1856, Collins had picked a copy of Recueil des Causes Célèbres by Méjean. One of them was pretty appalling:
The Marquise de Douhault had been wrongly dispossessed by her brother. She decided to go to Paris and try to recover part of the estate for her mother. As she stayed in Orleans, her hostess gave her some sniffing powder and the marquise woke up in a hospital, under another name. She then was declared dead and her property went to her brother and her nephew. She managed to get out but could never recover her property or her name – only her white dress (as if by chance…).
This is indeed Sensation Novel material! Since 1855, according to John Sutherland, had emerged in London a wave of sensationalist newspapers, and sensation novels were connected to this wave.
Wilkie Collins draws inspiration from Court testimonials to shape his novel. Each part of the novel is narrated by a different character, depending on whom had the most accute experience of the events at hand. This is now a very popular technique for mystery novels, for instance Sébastien Japrisot used a similar one in 1977 for One Deadly Summer.
Another lawcase – contemporary this time – might have been a reference for The Woman in White. Victorian asylums and false incarcerations are lasting Victorian features in people’s minds. In 1858, cases of “wrongous confinements” in asylums made newspapers’ headlines. More closely to Collins and Dickens circle , Edward Bulwer Lytton – author of The Last Days of Pompeii – was at war with his ex-wife Rosina. He even forbade her to visit their dying daughter. Rosina tried to expose him as a liar and a violent man, which proved true. He had her seized in London and confined to an asylum from which her friends managed to free her. Rosina later congratulated Collins on Sir Percival Glyde’s character – Edward said it was “vile trash”…
What would have motivated Glyde into such evil such plots was the disadvantageous position of married Victorian women. Collins later wrote Man and Wife about similar issues.
Other contemporary cases are poisonings. The 1856 trial of William Palmer, the Rugeley Poisoner, or Madeleine Smith, acquitted in 1857 for poisoning her lover with arsenic-laced chocolate, not to mention Dr Thomas Smethurst, acquitted of poisoning his wife in 1858. They might have inspired Count Fosco’s chemistry skills, which he uses on numerous occasions in the novel. His wife – Laura’s aunt – also seems strangely zombified…
Dubbed ” the Napoleon of Crime”, count Fosco is an alleged foreign spy. According to John Sutherland and Catherine Peters, London was full of French spies during the Great Exhibition, which were later replaced by Neapolitan ones. Italy also fascinated the UK as the newest European nation in 1860.
What Has The Woman in White become?
The novel was so successful that copycats even copied the name. There were Woman in Blacks, Woman in Reds, Woman in Greys and even a Woman in Purple Pajamas!
In 1871, the Woman in White was adapted on stage at the Olympic Theatre in London, and later in America.
Three silent films were produced in the 1910s and 20s.
Later, another film and some TV Series were made.
I also had the privilege to watch the Woman in White musical in London (2004), by Andrew Lloyd Webber.
While a lasting influence on all mystery fiction, Wilkie Collins is not that well-known outside the UK, especially in France. Which is a shame since he wrote other worthy novels such as the Moonstone or Armadale.