Dr David Grylls is a University Lecturer in Literature at Oxford University's Department for Continuing Education, and Director of Studies of the Department's literature and creative writing programmes. He is also the Director of the Oxford/Duke Summer School, a six-week programme for undergraduates from Duke University in Durham, NC, held annually at New College, Oxford. In addition to numerous articles in academic and popular journals, he is the author of Guardians and Angels: Parents and Children in Nineteenth-Century Literature, The Paradox of Gissing, and What the Dickens: A Guide to Martin Chuzzlewit and Hard Times - the last written to accompany two television serializations. David regularly reviews new fiction for The Sunday Times, for which he has co-authored The Sunday Times/Faber Literary Quiz. In this post, he discusses Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White.
David Grylls on The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
First published in book form in 1860, The Woman in White is normally regarded as the first mystery and suspense novel in English. Serialized in Dickens's All the Year Round, it created a sensation, and in fact gave rise to a new sub-genre – the Sensation Novel. Applauded, denounced and parodied, the book became a best-seller, and soon there were Woman in White cloaks and bonnets, Woman in White waltzes and quadrilles. At the core of the novel's plot - which Collins took from an old case-book of French crimes - is the story of how a wealthy heiress is captured, drugged and incarcerated in an asylum, her property stolen, her identity erased. Around this core Collins builds a sinister structure that might, at first sight, seem purely melodramatic, a heap of clichés from Gothic fiction. The novel overflows with mislaid letters, midnight meetings and portentous dreams. It contains domestic spies and murderous foreign agents, a gloomy mansion with hidden apartments, a Secret with a capital 'S'. Above all, it enacts a clash between Good and Evil, as the virtuous young drawing-master Walter Hartright - locked in combat with the formidable Count Fosco, a veritable Napoleon of Crime – struggles to restore the heroine's identity.
Pure hokum, potentially – yet in Collins's hands these stale ingredients are subtly transformed. For a start, the traditional Gothic elements are lifted from their exotic locations (castles in the Apennines, ruined cities in Arabia) to a solid, respectable, middle-class England teeming with contemporary detail. The Sensation Novel specialized, as Henry James put it, in 'the mysteries... at our own doors', mysteries 'infinitely the more terrible'. In placid country houses and crowded streets, nameless terrors assail the protagonists. Hartright finds himself employing jungle stratagems 'in the heart of civilized London!'
Nor, on inspection, do the exponents of good and evil turn out to be mere stereotypes. It gets difficult, in fact, to be quite sure what good and evil are. The book's greatest character, Count Fosco, is both ruthlessly evil and irresistibly attractive. Immensely fat, with a smooth face and mellifluous voice, he is nearly sixty but moves like a cat, and can subdue any animal at a glance. Any human too, apparently: his wife invariably quails before him despite his caressing manner. Among creatures he has tamed are a vicious-looking cockatoo which 'claws its way up his great big body' and a family of white mice which crawl over his shoulders. Cultured and cosmopolitan, Fosco is a fearless speculator (his various inventions include a 'means of petrifying the body after death') who derides the moralizing 'claptrap' of the English and talks of 'wise' and 'foolish' murders. Despite his cruelty and deviousness, Collins patently admires him. So have thousands of the novel's readers. 'No villain of the century,' declared Collins's fellow-novelist Mrs Oliphant, 'comes within a hundred miles of him'.
Collins's treatment of the book's heroines is further evidence of his originality. There are two, and they form a classic contrast. Laura Fairlie, the heiress, is a blue-eyed doll, hapless, headachy, simperingly feminine, who is plucked from her 'pretty little white bed' by the predatory clutches of a plotting husband. Her half-sister, Marian Halcombe, is a swarthy-skinned, resolute proto-feminist. Though Marian's figure is 'comely and well-developed', her big jaw and incipient moustache shock Hartright. When he first claps eyes on her, he reflects in horror: 'The lady is ugly!' Ugly heroines were not acceptable to the majority of Victorians (nor to us: in TV versions of the novel, Diana Quick and Tara Fitzgerald have been cast as Marian). But as the book goes on, the resourceful Marian rapidly eclipses the wilting Laura. Even Fosco falls in love with her.
Realistic settings and convincing characters are part of what makes The Woman in White the most compelling mystery novel in English, but its essential power resides in its plot, an intricate masterpiece of menace and suspense of which Collins was justly proud. Here too he showed his originality, for the narrative method was startlingly fresh. Collins pioneered the technique of multiple narration by different characters, who testify as in a court case. Fosco, Hartright, Marian - all have their revealing say, as do minor characters like Laura's uncle, a grotesquely spiteful aesthetic poseur (though not, interestingly, Laura herself: perhaps she was too colourless to deserve a narration, or perhaps Collins wished to evade the matter of her post-marital experiences). The result is a wonderfully ingenious mosaic and a virtually unputdownable book. Thackeray read it 'from morning till sunset', Gladstone missed a theatre engagement to finish it. Modern readers coming to it for the first time should be warned to clear the weekend.
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