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Woman in White (Barnes & Noble Classics Series), Page 2

Wilkie Collins

  1877 The Dead Secret appears at the Lyceum Theatre in London. The Moonstone is staged at the Olympic Theatre.

  1878 The Haunted Hotel is serialized. London’s first telephone service is implemented.

  1879 The Haunted Hotel is published in book form and Jezebel’s Daughter is serialized.

  1880 Jezebel’s Daughter is published in book form and The Black Robe is serialized.

  1881 The Black Robe is published in book form.

  1882 Heart and Science is serialized in the Manchester Weekly Times and Belgravia Magazine.

  1883 Heart and Science is published in book form.

  1884 Collins becomes a founding member of the Society of Authors. “I Say No” is serialized and published in book form.

  1885 The Evil Genius is serialized.

  1886 The Evil Genius is published in book form. British Prime Minister Gladstone introduces a bill for Irish Home Rule.

  1887 Little Novels, an anthology of short stories, is published. Arthur

  Conan Doyle publishes his first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet.

  1888 The Legacy of Cain is published in serial and book form. Jack the Ripper begins killing women in London.

  1889 After years of serious illness and laudanum addiction, Wilkie Collins suffers a stroke in June. He dies on September 23.

  1895 Caroline Graves dies and is buried alongside Collins.

  1919 Martha Rudd dies.

  1999 Collins’s first, previously rejected novel, Iólani, is published.


  The opening line of Wilkie Collins’s enormously popular novel The Woman in White is one of the more confrontational in narrative history: “This is the story of what a Woman’s patience can endure, and what a Man’s resolution can achieve.” It is a statement of mystery as well as a challenge. Pausing here, a reader is likely to wonder about what trials await this poor woman and to speculate on what constitutes her relationship to this resolute man. Is he the cause of her travails, or is he her rescuer? Why must she be forced to endure what one presumes can be only cruelties? And why must she so patiently withstand them at all, rather than fight back herself? Even beyond these contemplations, what are we to make of an author who begins his tale this way? Does he enjoy seeing women suffer, for example? And more important, to what sadistic ends will our own attention be put?

  A more famous set of lines preceded this opener on the same page of its first serial installment, and when one contrasts these sentences, Collins’s abruptness and somewhat harsh tone become even more unsettling. The Woman in White appeared first in serial form in Charles Dickens’s weekly publication All the Year Round, from November 26, 1859, to August 25, 1860 (and simultaneously in the United States in Harper’s Weekly, from November 25, 1859. to August 4, 1860). More interestingly, it commenced one column over from the conclusion of Dickens’s novel A Tale of Two Cities, and the juxtaposition of the inspirational final words of Dickens’s text with the chilling first words of Collins’s cannot fail to capture the reader’s attention. “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known,” Sydney Carton proclaims in the legendary last line from A Tale of Two Cities, as he goes to the guillotine in place of a better man than he so that this man may return to the woman Carton himself loves. He certainly demonstrates resolution, as well as enacting a personal redemption, in making the ultimate sacrifice, and for the contemporary reader—or today’s reader who wants to perform an interesting comparison—Collins’s hero, no matter who he turns out to be, obviously has a lot to live up to. Sydney Carton is a hard act to follow.

  But these brusque new lines of Collins’s signify a larger shift in temperament between the two novels, a move from Dickens’s brilliantly evolved characterizations, vast social sweep and scale, and stateliness of narrative to Collins’s heralding the advent of the pure sensation novel, of which The Woman in White represents an early and prime example. Collins is universally acknowledged as the master of the Victorian sensation novel, a wildly popular genre that managed to transmit the shocks and surprises familiar to readers of hair-raising Gothic novels but that contained no, or generally no, supernatural elements. Yet the usually domestic crimes described in sensation novels—whose authors prided themselves on their realism in opposition to outrageous Gothic conventions—were mainly of a lurid nature and many times were impossible to imagine happening in the real world. As an anonymous critic of the trend argued in the Dublin University Magazine (February 1861), “The spirit of modern realism has woven a tissue of scenes more wildly improbable than the fancy of an average idealist would have ventured to inflict on readers beyond their teens.” Sensation fiction was precursor of the mystery thriller and the detective novel, and it proved extremely attractive to a Victorian audience primed with an appetite for scandal and for shocks that could not be sated by the gruesome accounts of crimes readers devoured in the cheap daily newspapers.

  When The Woman in White was released in book form for the first time, in August 1860, the author requested that potential reviewers refrain from mentioning any plot details, because such revelations would spoil the enjoyment of the novel’s mysterious twists and turns for anyone who had somehow avoided reading or hearing about them in the previous year. So first, an important warning for the reader of the present introduction: Spoiler alert! Because of Collins’s desire to maintain such suspense, the reader who prefers to be kept completely in the dark about what happens in this novel may want to read this introduction as an afterword. Although it neither gives away the ending nor reveals certain pivotal secrets that the characters go to great lengths to protect, it does openly discuss aspects of some of the events and characterizations and, in so doing, discloses a few salient details.

  As we progress past the opening lines of The Woman in White and delve a bit further, we learn that the unfortunate, patient woman’s troubles are fundamentally of the legal variety (the law fails utterly as an effective recourse for her); that the resolute man is our present narrator, who adores and wants to help our heroine (who, frail and voiceless, is not fully realized enough as a character to be a true heroine; that role is reserved for her more assertive half-sister); and that a novel we may have thought, given its evocative, potentially spooky title, would be a Gothic tale of supernatural terrors and pale wraiths turns out to be a novel simply of sensational plotting, family treachery, and absolutely nothing paranormal. Even the title character herself is not a spirit; rather, she is a disturbed young woman who insists on wearing white only because someone she adored and respected once told her it suited her. The unexpected touch of her hand on his shoulder thrills the narrator who introduces her, and their first meeting is eerie given its surprise and isolated, moonlit setting; but such a touch is a familiar gesture and, here, not in the least supernatural.

  Collins instead has written a tense captivity narrative sans the phantoms, demons, and spiritual perverts that populate the Gothic novel. His villains may be cruel and preternaturally greedy, but avarice is a sin of the living. These scoundrels have clearly human and, as Collins has designed them, ultimately convenient incapacitating vulnerabilities: Sir Percival Glyde has a damning secret, while Count Fosco lives in fear of the betrayals he has perpetrated against certain dangerous parties. Just when the novel’s claustrophobic scope and set upon set of internal barriers to the heroine Laura Fairlie’s rescue and reinstatement seem insurmountable, hints of the villains’ weaknesses surface, providing a glimpse of hope. Collins set his sensational plots in what he called the “secret theater of home,” a breeding ground for “realistic,” behind-closed-doors stories he rendered as thrilling as the extraordinarily weird Gothic domestic sphere. The theory behind the fear haunted houses evoke is that places that should make us feel safe—that is, our homes and hearths, the comfortable family zone—are suddenly made surreally unsafe, removing from us any means of escape or reassurance. Collins augments this fear in The Woman in White b
y allowing a set of villains to haunt an otherwise respectable, aristocratic household—our reprobates here are a baronet and a count. In so doing, Collins makes the crimes hiding beneath the veneer of moneyed society that much more insidious.

  As American novelist Henry James noted in his 1865 review of another sensation novel (in The Nation, November 9), “To Mr. Collins belongs the credit of having introduced into fiction those most mysterious of mysteries, the mysteries which are at our own doors.” Collins’s novels, like those of his friend Dickens, also brought to his readers’ door the specters of various Victorian social ills. With The Woman in White, Collins attempted to call attention to both the legal nullification of married women’s rights and contemporary cases of false imprisonment in mental institutions, which had inspired the so-called “lunacy panics”—terrors of just such situations—that had swept Britain immediately before Collins began work on this novel. (Of course, he was also exploiting the public’s fear of such crimes in order to sell more copies of his book.) Laura’s swapped identity, misapplied diagnosis, and utter lack of legal recourse share characteristics with the typical case of its kind. One likely immediate source for the false-imprisonment plot of The Woman in White came from outside Britain. In 1856, while visiting Paris, Collins purchased Receuil des causes célèbre, by Maurice Méjan, an account of eighteenth-century French criminal cases, published in 1808. One case concerned the perfidious committal to a mental institution of a Madame de Douhault, a widow involved in an inheritance dispute with her brother, who had usurped most of their father’s estate. On her way to Paris to confront her sibling, she fell victim to a criminal conspiracy involving her friends and relatives. A family friend drugged Mme. de Douhault, who awoke days later in the Salpêtrière asylum, where she had been admitted under a false name. Her brother had spread the news of her death, and though she ultimately managed to effect her release, she never regained her estate or her rightful name, as her brother kept the case tied up in the courts for years.

  Another case of false imprisonment that proved inspirational for Collins touched his artistic circle directly and involved the novelist and baronet Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton and his estranged wife, Rosina. In the twenty years following their separation, Rosina subjected Edward to a number of very public attacks and humiliations, including writing disparaging letters about him to newspapers and penning accusatory, thinly veiled portraits of him in a series of novels. In 1858, after Rosina ferociously heckled Edward—charging him with adultery, murder, and abuse, among other things—while he gave a speech to his local electors, he paid two thugs to abduct her and had her committed to an asylum, where she was certified insane. Edward tried, but failed, to keep the affair private, and its details emerged in the press. The resulting scandal brought about a reexamination of Rosina’s faculties; this time she was determined to be of sound mind. Present during this hearing was a friend of Collins’s, Bryan Procter, a metropolitan Commissioner in Lunacy, who provided the author with information and was rewarded when Collins dedicated The Woman in White to him. Rosina loved the novel; Edward called it “great trash.”

  From the rather large number of tales about Collins and his work, it would seem that the author enjoyed exaggerating his own history as much as he enjoyed the exaggerated shocks of his novels. Although the title The Woman in White seems straightforward and appropriately chilling enough, Collins circulated an elaborate tale about the difficulty he had encountered in choosing it. According to this story, which critics later proved apocryphal (date discrepancies would plague Collins throughout his career; some of the first drafts he submitted to Dickens bore the final title), when the novel was approximately one-third written and Dickens was anxious to begin serial publication, it still lacked a final title. While walking along the cliffs one evening, near the resort where he had ensconced himself with his mistress to write the novel, Collins claimed to have smoked an entire case of cigars to no avail as he struggled mightily for a workable name. Flinging himself down upon the grass in confusion, he looked up and, addressing the lighthouse that loomed above him in the gloaming, he allegedly said, “You are ugly and stiff and awkward; you know you are: as stiff and as weird as my white woman. White woman!—woman in white! The title, by Jove!”

  Edmund Yates repeats this anecdote, quoting Collins, in a profile of the author that appeared in The World on December 26, 1877, as the latest installment in the series “Celebrities at Home.” Yates describes the author as “a short man, with stooping shoulders and tiny hands and feet, with [a] bright pleasant face looking out of a forest of light-grey, almost white, hair.” Collins asserted to Yates that he had developed his talent for storytelling as a schoolchild, when he earned protection from the ridicule and beatings of his hardier classmates by keeping a bigger boy entertained. “If, however,” Yates explains, “the young story-teller fell short at any time, and could not produce a story to order, his protector and tyrant had an infallible method for stimulating invention, being of opinion that a sound thrashing has an excellent effect in quickening the action of the brain.” Whether or not these beatings were more instructive than the metaphorical ones he endured from his critics is open to question, but Collins’s path to the international fame that The Woman in White generated was not blazed through an overnight success—this was his sixth published novel.

  His first short story had been printed sixteen years before the initial installment of The Woman in White appeared, and in the interim he attempted abortive careers as an artist, an apprentice tea merchant, and a fledgling lawyer (he was called to the bar but never practiced). Collins was well educated and had been raised to be a cultured, artistic young man. His family had known poverty, and the two Collins brothers were expected at least to maintain the family’s healthy middle-class status. Collins’s first book-length work to appear in print was a memoir of his father’s life, executed in filial duty and published in 1848, one year after his father’s death. William Collins was an established painter and member of the Royal Academy (his eldest son had been named for the Scottish painter David Wilkie). His socially admirable economic practicality as an artist who was able to support his family through the sale of his paintings manifested itself in what Collins came to view as a disturbing deference to his wealthy patrons. His deep misgivings about his father’s subservient position ultimately helped spur Collins to produce works of social commentary that would question the conventional class hierarchy and the legal status quo, yet it took him a while to find his pet theme: the social and legal injustice of marriage.

  The first novel Collins wrote, in 1844, Iólani; or, Tahiti as It Was, a Romance, was rejected by publishers and did not see print until 1999. but his first published novel, Antonina; or, the Fall of Rome (1850), a historical piece, brought him a small measure of success, which permitted his literary pursuits to become a full-time occupation. Collins met Dickens in 1851 and began contributing to his periodical Household Words. Collins and Dickens became close friends who shared an interest not only in literature but also in travel, amateur theatricals, and the opposite sex. Dickens’s theatrical company debuted Collins’s first original play, The Lighthouse, in 1855; Collins’s fortunes as a playwright did not rival his fame in fiction, however. With the exception of the mystery novel The Moonstone (1868), Collins’s novels published after The Woman in White did not meet with similar public acclaim; his last, more didactic, novels in particular foundered.

  Collins’s personal life was by all indications extremely successful, depending on how one defines success. At the age of thirty-five in January 1859. just a few months before beginning work on The Woman in White, Collins moved out of his mother’s house and into a residence with his girlfriend, Caroline Graves, a widow with a young daughter. One apocryphal tale of the novel’s inspiration actually names Graves as the source: J. G. Millais, the son of Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais, a friend of Collins’s, claimed Collins and Graves met under circumstances comparable to those described in the novel’s creepy
first encounter between Walter Hartright and Anne Catherick. As the legend went, Graves allegedly had been imprisoned by an evil mesmerist in a London villa that Collins happened to be standing near when, dressed in flowing white robes, Graves made a dramatic moonlit escape. There is no evidence to prove such a romantic fantasy. Collins and Graves never wed, primarily because he objected to marriage as an institution that trespassed on the natural rights of women. But in 1868 Collins set up a household with a second mistress, a younger country woman named Martha Rudd, who, to preserve some measure of propriety, lived under the name Mrs. Dawson; their relationship would eventually produce three children, who were given this alternative surname. Graves, perhaps understandably upset at her lover’s additional arrangement, married another man, and Collins even served as a legal witness to the marriage. Yet Graves and Collins were living together once again by 1871 and would continue to cohabit until his death in 1889. All but Collins’s closest friends thought that Graves was his housekeeper; decorum did not permit his “kept woman” to accompany him to either public events or private parties, and Collins largely seems to have accepted this restriction on his unorthodox relationships—a curious Victorian compromise, when a vocal rule flouter of Collins’s caliber should allow a smaller social prohibition to mask a much greater social sin.

  Collins endured poor health for much of his life, and the stresses associated with literary composition seem to have only exacerbated—and exaggerated—his illnesses. While Collins was writing The Woman in White, this connection became more apparent. His letters from the period convey a definite openness about his ailments, perhaps the openness of the indulged hypochondriac; to his bank manager, for example, he explained the details of one particularly personal medical problem he encountered while writing this novel: “I have been suffering torments with a boil between my legs and write these lines with the agreeable prospect of a doctor coming to lance it. I seem destined, God help me, never to be well.” Under such conditions was The Woman in White born. Collins also suffered from painful gout, which affected his eyesight and, he claimed, his brain, leaving his mind clear for thought yet subjecting him to fits of severe nervous misery and agitation. His throes of creativity could produce throes of agony that often left him nearly blind and incapable of writing on his own; on such occasions, as during work on The Moonstone, he hired a private secretary to transcribe the narratives he dictated, but not all of them could withstand his intermittent disquieting screams. His chronic pain led him to take increasingly larger doses of laudanum, or liquid opium, throughout the latter years of his life, until by the time of his death, as legend has it, he was imbibing enough in a single dose to kill a dinner party’s worth of people not used to the drug.