Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White

Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White hinges on identity, forgery and rank suspicion, suspicion that gets the better of us and makes us rash instead of rational.

The Woman in White

The Woman in White · Wilkie Collins · 1860
Penguin, 2009 · 672 pages, hardcover

The Woman in White is both a sensationalist thriller and a social commentary. Collins takes his shots at the marriage laws and rules of inheritance of 1850s England, and he provides a creeping horror alongside it, the same kind of horror where you realize how very trapped you are and how powerless you are to get out. A close marriage, the words invalid and invalidate.

That pernicious horror doesn’t confine itself to money, nor even to love, but asserts itself as an erasure of recognition, and this erasure necessitates a different kind of forgery – that of reclamation and the forging of a new life.

Walter Hartright stops in the night at a light tap to his shoulder. A woman dressed all in white has materialized seemingly from nowhere and is anxious for him to help her to London. Hartright learns only after assisting her flight that she has come from the madhouse. The remembrance of this eerie apparition pursues Hartright to Cumberland where he’s taken a post as drawing-master to the beautiful Laura Fairly. As Collins’ novel progresses, the supernatural slowly solidifies into equally unsettling reality.

The Woman in White is, as Collins tells us from the beginning, a “story of what a Woman’s patience can endure, and what a Man’s resolution can achieve.” This is, in fact, the marrow of it, but more than this hint and the suggestion of identity and forgery would leave this mystery prematurely solved for those who’ve yet to read its pages.

A contemporary of Charles Dickens (Collins’ work ran serially in Dickens’ publication, All the Year Round), Collins betrays this close influence in The Woman in White. Frederick Fairly would have been more than match for Dickens’ Miss Havisham had she cast off her morbid fancies and remarried. The Dickens name game, too, plays out in Collins’ novel: Percival, rich and sly, is phonetically similar to the words “purse” and “evil,” while Mr. Hartright, opponent to Percival in his pursuit of the fair Laura Fairly, divides his name neatly between its two syllables: Mr. Heart-Right.

But it’s Count Fosco who is Collins’ real achievement in character, and he’s a man even Dickens couldn’t have dreamt up for he’s a perfect dump of so much good that’s gotten overripe and so…has turned. There’s something perverted in this despotic man selecting the most treacley tarts to pass those fleshy, moist lips…his sweetness is swallowed up with the sugar water he drinks, and the affection that he lavishes on his crawling white mice and helpless, tittering pet canaries is only indicative of  his power to tame. His wife is submissive and controlled by his caprice. Sir Percival he so easily cows inside the man’s own drawing room. He’s a spider in his web with his black widow wife.

The Woman in White has all the tropes of good Victorian gothic – secrets, anxiety of identity and insanity and settings that tease the emotional aesthetic, and Collins twisted them all into a sturdy novel that tugs us onward through each chapter. Shelley’s romanticism lingers in Mr. Hartright, Collins’ poor man hero. The eaves of gothic chiaroscuro tuck away truths and give permanence to lies. Collins mined all of this, all of the Victorian and the romantic and the gothic, all of the Dickens and Shelley, mined (and minded) it all, and these influences only gain in force for their being tied up together in one novel.

Victorian stuffiness and flouncy petticoats don’t hamper us (NB: Miss Halcombe absolutely refuses the constraints of a corset). Collins’ mystery pulls and pulls, every dropped hint a lash to spur us on, and we’re reading long after the last candle has burned through its wick.

The Woman in White · Wilkie Collins · 1860
Penguin, 2009 · 672 pages, hardcover

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