The Woman in White was the first great sensation novel. Roger Luckhurst considers how Wilkie Collins's intricately plotted novel borrows elements from realist and Gothic fiction, and combines suspense and stimulation.
Wilkie Collins’s novel, The Woman in White, was first serialised in Charles Dickens’s journal All The Year Round, starting in November 1859. It was a huge success, and the publication of the novel in 1860 made Collins an independently wealthy man, able to command up to £5000 advances for his novels. The Woman in White was the key book in establishing what became known as ‘sensation fiction’: breathless and deviously plotted novels that combined domestic Realism, the simple moral universe of theatre melodrama (virtuous women menaced by dastardly cads), and the thirst for gruesome and spectacular crimes that an ever-increasing newspaper readership lapped up with a mix of moral outrage and prurience. Sensation fiction thus fused the Gothic romance with the Realist novel, finding horrors not in some fantastical Medieval castle, but behind the doors of apparently normal suburban semi-detached houses, where secrets festered and multiplied.
Collins produced a stream of such fictions at his height of creativity in the 1860s, including most famously The Moonstone (1868), but the term ‘sensation fiction’ was embedded in the culture by allied works like the 1860 play by Dion Boucicault called The Colleen Bawn (Celtic for the ‘white girl’), a phenomenal West End success, Ellen Wood’s East Lynne (1861), and Mary Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1862).
Its roots in the ‘penny dreadfuls’ and ‘Newgate novels’, popular fictions that gleefully detailed notorious crimes and criminals, meant that sensation fiction was at best considered middlebrow entertainment, at worst a low exploitation genre that endangered public morals. The ‘sensation’ in question was not just the lurid crimes of bigamy, illegitimacy, murder and poisoning, all those cheap thrills of melodramatic plot. Sensation was also meant to signal fiction that played on the physiology of the reader’s nerves, and risked over-stimulation of the fragile and uneducated bodies that consumed it. This was an updated complaint long held against Gothic novels. Some concerned commentators worried at a ‘contagion’ of sensation fictions in the 1860s, an era in which the new sciences of psychology and neurology suspected that rapidly expanding urban environments were causing nervous exhaustion and collapse. The world was becoming debilitated by the shocks and collisions of modernity.
With these lowly associations, Collins’s work never reached the acceptance afforded to his close friend and collaborator Charles Dickens. Collins was always praised for the technical ingenuity of his plots, but in a famous and telling comment, the influential Saturday Review dismissed his ‘mechanical talent’ as similar to that of a gifted cabinet-maker: hugely skilful in craft, but never enough to rank as proper art. This class distinction is self-evident: Collins was a mere artisan.
The Woman in White is an intricately plotted story, organised as a chain of ‘witness’ statements from a wide diversity of characters designed to unravel a cunning conspiracy against innocent women by a duo of memorable aristocratic monsters, Sir Percival Glyde and his devilish companion, the Italian Count Fosco. It is, ultimately, about a degenerate aristocrat after a middle-class woman’s money that passes to him through their marriage if the woman is declared dead. He is a man prepared to plot actual murder to retain his hold on the cash and also to keep his own desperate secret secure. The intricacies of the plot, however, defy easy summary, each convolution and partial revelation driving the reader on to the next scene, and the next, disclosing the secret like a series of Russian dolls. It was said that the eminent politician William Gladstone once cancelled an evening appointment to finish a Collins novel. This is a common reader experience.
Everything develops from one of the most famous scenes in Victorian literature: the late-night encounter of Walter Hartright with a mysterious lone woman, near Hampstead Heath, after midnight, ‘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’ (ch. 4). He is entirely unable to locate her in class terms – she is neither a lady nor of the humble ranks – and although unchaperoned ‘at that suspiciously late hour’ she is also clearly not a prostitute. This is the enigmatic Anne Catherick, escaped from an asylum, who initially only serves to further the plot by acting as an uncanny double for Hartright’s beloved, Laura Fairlie, the main damsel in distress. Fairlie will be the target of Glyde and Fosco’s cunning plot. That Anne Catherick’s story is only unravelled in the margins of the central narrative somehow further guarantees her enigmatic hold on the imagination. She acts as a powerful cipher.
An illustration from The Woman in White
This depicts the scene where Walter Hartright first sees Anne Catherick (The woman in white).
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Gothic romance in modern dress
Collins used all the apparatus of the Gothic romance in modern dress. The castle becomes the oppressive country house Blackwater with its decaying wings and oppressive lake. The dungeon is transformed into a lunatic asylum or domestic servitude in marriage. The monstrous Machiavellian lord becomes the evil genius, Count Fosco. The old feudal law of droit de seigneur is transformed into cynical men manipulating modern laws about Married Women’s Property rights. Significantly, the dark forest outside the laws of civilisation becomes London, the bewildering, labyrinthine metropolis.
Collins also explores one of the key themes of Gothic fiction – that the world goes awry when paternal authority is weak, perverted or absent. Fathers and husbands – other than the aptly named Hartright – are conniving, irresponsible or dastardly in The Woman in White. The beloved, Laura Fairlie, is a rather insipid ideal, yet she and Hartright set up an intriguing and unconventional ménage with her sister Marion, a figure heavily coded as lesbian. Collins continues the Gothic’s sly subversion of the patriarch’s authority.
Collins took the central plot device of a woman falsely imprisoned in an asylum under an assumed name from an actual French case from 1776 which he read about in Maurice Méjan’s book Recueil des Causes Célèbres (c. 1808). But sensation fiction felt so modern because it picked up on very contemporary events and debates too. Collins was known to keep a cuttings book of newspaper reports that might inspire plots. So, for instance, Collins exploits debates about the rights of married women, fresh in the mind from the passage of the 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act, which allowed civil divorce in England for the first time. It was only in 1882 that women were finally allowed to have property under the law, rather than being passed as chattel between father and husband. Collins also exploited fears about the Lunacy Laws, which were open to exploitation by unscrupulous husbands and 'the mad doctors'. All of these elements had come together in the spectacular case of Lord and Lady Bulwer-Lytton in 1858, when Rosina Lytton had denounced her husband for his cruelties only to be confined in an asylum for several weeks before a public outcry ensured her release.
Collins attacked middle-class hypocrisy perhaps because he was himself so bohemian. He kept a respectable family home with his mother for many years, while setting up his mistress Catherine Groves in a house nearby. Groves was his long-term companion – one long-standing myth is that his first encounter with Catherine exactly repeated Hartright’s encounter with the woman in white. Collins eventually set up home with Groves, but only to have another mistress, the working-class Martha Rudd (with whom he had three children), in a house a few streets away. He happily referred to this as his morganatic marriage. Collins was an epicurean of wine and women. It was another reason why he was never quite accepted by Victorian society, but this double or even triple life also gave him a direct route into the heart of English Victorianism: sex, shame and secrets.
 Anonymous, Saturday Review, 25 August 1860, p. 249.