The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

A video version of this review can be watched here.

This is the story of what a Woman’s patience can endure, and what a Man’s resolution can achieve.

Wilkie Collins was born in London, the son of a landscape painter, and studied law briefly before going into writing full time. He met Charles Dickens in 1851 and thus began a great friendship and writing partnership. In fact, The Woman in White was serialized from 1859 to 1860 in Dickens’s literary magazine called All the Year Round.

Collins’s legacy includes his pioneering of the “sensation novel genre,” a sort of combination of romanticism and realism. He was also one of the first authors of detective fiction, most notably in his novel The Moonstone. The Woman in White falls into both genres. It was inspired by a letter Collins received requesting him to take up the cause of wrongful incarceration in mental asylums.

The story follows three young women—the aristocratic and gorgeous Laura Fairlie, her boyish half-sister Marian Halcombe, and a mysterious girl dressed all in white and aching under a terrible secret. Laura falls hard for her winsome painting instructor, Walter Hartwright, but she has already promised her late father she will marry Sir Percival Glyde, a baronet whose profuse politeness covers a dark heart. As her only close friends in the world, Walter and Marian strive to protect Laura from her fiance’s schemes, but their wits and loyalty are tested to the utmost when his friend (and their uncle by marriage) arrives on the scene: the suavely sinister Count Fosco.

Though the story takes you through many twists and turns, times and continents, what makes The Woman in White a masterpiece are its characters. Collins gives us a guide in the main narrator of Walter Hartwright, but the story changes hands many times and we get to see the perspective of other characters, both fair and foul. Their perceptions and prejudices are on full display, showing us how even people with the very best intentions can get things wrong, and sometimes the most dangerous thing in the world is believing that you have all the information about a situation.

In Walter, we see a somewhat shallow young man develop into a conscientious and mature narrator. He begins the book enamored with Laura, in the most predictable ways possible. But over time, and through much sacrifice, he begins to love her on deeper level and put her interests before his own. His regards for Marian Halcombe also dives deeper than the surface (where he critiques her looks) and discovers the beautiful soul underneath.

Marian Halcome is the poorer of the two half-sisters, in both wealth and in looks. There seems to be a tragic story behind her that we are never told, but which manifests itself in her mixed distrust of men, as well her resignation to the world they run and the power they hold. She writes:

Men! They are the enemies of our innocence and our peace—they drag us away from our parents’ love and our sisters’ friendship—they take us body and soul to themselves, and fasten our helpless lives to theirs as they chain up a dog to his kennel. And what does the best of them give us in return?

Just as Walter’s understanding of women deepens, so does Marian’s perception of men, in her sisterly relationship with Walter and in the terror of her arch-nemesis, Count Fosco.

Fosco, like Marian, is a villain who transcends Victorian stereotypes. Loquacious, flamboyant, and immensely large—with a penchant for pet mice and opera—the Count cannot be confined to the kind of two-dimensional portrayal of foreigners you may find in other 19th century literature. He is given serious treatment as a character, on par with the English ones. As Marian puts it, “There are times when it is almost impossible to detect by his accent that he is not a countryman of our own.” Though the character is delightfully humorous, Collins does not allow us to write Fosco off as a buffoon. He is, in fact, a very deadly antagonist, using his charm and levity to his own strategic advantage.

Cruel and charismatic, Count Fosco is described as bearing a strong physical resemblance to Napoleon Bonaparte. The French leader left a wide-reaching impression on the art and literature of the 19th century. Napoleon influenced such figures as Beethoven (in his Eroica Symphony), the Bronte family in their juvenile writings, and Lord Byron himself, who wrote several poems in the emperor’s honor. Though Fosco is an Italian, it seems to be no coincidence that Collins likens him to that conqueror—who was himself of Italian origin. Fosco holds a romantic fascination for Marian Halcombe, in spite of his schemes and coldbloodedness. Her mixed admiration and horror of him seem a fitting response to a Napoleonic villain.

Strangely enough, it is through this villain that the heart of the novel is revealed. In one of various conversations that take place when Count Fosco and his wife visit Sir Percival, the topic of crime and society arises. Miss Halcombe asserts that while the authorities in China are known for their killing of thousands of innocents, the English “abhor reckless bloodshed with all our hearts.” The Count, on the other hand, considers the English to be hypocritical on this front. In his words:

English Society, Miss Halcombe, is as often the accomplice as it is the enemy of crime… Crime is in this country what crime is in other countries—a good friend to a man and to those about him as often as it is an enemy.

He asks her if those who suffer in lawful living have fared better than those who resorted to crime to save themselves from poverty. He presents to her several examples, including workhouses versus prison—is one really better than the other? Miss Halcombe is unamused by the discussion. But through the Count’s little speech, Collins asks the reader whether the system does not in fact reward those who turn to crime, rather than reward those who live honestly.

We see this question manifest again in the actions of supporting characters, such as Laura Fairlie’s guardian, her lawyer, and Sir Percival’s housekeeper. How much they know and observe—and what their responsibilities are towards Laura, if any—are dilemmas that the reader must weigh.

Collins dedicated The Woman in White to Bryan Procter, a commissioner for Lunacy. The Lunacy commission came about after the 1845 Lunacy Act, which was intended to manage asylums in England and Wales. This Act tried to establish better oversight and regulation of both public and private institutions. However, abuses still occurred.

One notable example is that of Rosina Bulwer Lytton. She was the wife of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, once a very popular writer himself. Their relationship was an unhappy one, involving infidelity on Edward’s part, a split of the marriage, and forced separation from her children. Rosina made a public scene when Edward was running for office, at which point he had her committed to a mental asylum for several weeks.

Another contemporary account involved a middle-aged woman named Louisa Nottidge. Louisa and her sisters were very wealthy, and unfortunately they fell prey to a shady cult leader, Henry Prince. Prince’s cult, the “Lampeter Brethren,” was not particularly original… he was a defrocked clergyman claiming to be God and attracting wealthy women as his followers. Louisa’s mother, fearing the cult threatened her daughter’s soul and money, took action to have her abducted and placed into a private asylum. Louisa eventually escaped and, prior to being tracked down by the asylum, had time to tell the Brethren where she was being kept. Ultimately, Louisa’s freedom was granted by the Lunacy Commissioners, but her case fueled the debate on whether the mental asylum was intended to heal someone of their supposed insanity, or simply to protect the public.

One can only speculate what sort of novel Collins could have written if he had based his material more closely on the case of Louisa Nottidge. Though inspired by social issues of the day, it remains a simple tale of good versus evil, unselfish love, and unbreakable faith. Marian Halcombe and Count Fosco were creations of Collins’s mind, more than sketches of actual people. But in her brave determination, the one inspires us to confront the other, wherever we encounter Fosco in the real world.

Sources / further reading

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