Contemporary Reviews, Adaptations, and Imitations
August 25, 1860 – The Critic
The Woman in White
Mr. Wilkie Collins takes the critics by the forelock: he warns them in his preface to keep their hands off his property. Laudetur ab his, culpetur ab illis; let him be simply praised or blamed, but, in the name of justice towards himself and of consideration for the feelings of his possible readers, let there be no premature release of the cat from the bag. There is certainly much reason in his request. It is hard that the bantling, whose birth has cost so many throes, whose rearing and fattening has been the work of months, and whose ornamentation has been accomplished only by long days and nights of labour, should be stripped of all that makes it interesting, and its skeleton exhibited as ipsissimus. But there is no objection, we hope, to an occasional hint, a dark allusion, with our forefinger placed upon the side of our nose, to this mystery of mysteries, the Woman in White. We may be allowed, perhaps, to observe that the plot is in point of intricacy a masterpiece, and to defy Oedipus himself, after reading two volumes, to predict the end of Sir Percival Glyde. We may also say without offence that the story is one of “thrilling interest;” its elasticity is perfectly wonderful, and the elongation it suffers without much detriment is a caution even to india-rubber.
Mr. Collins remarks that he has made an experiment in his novel which had not hitherto been attempted (so far as he knows) in fiction. The several characters are placed in different positions along the chain of events, and all in turn take up this chain and carry it on to the end. We believe with Mr. Collins that this is a novelty; it has been tried before partially—in “Redgauntlet” after a fashion, and we think also in “Bleak House”—but never to our knowledge throughout. It has its advantages no doubt, for Mr. Collis says so, but it is not without disadvantages. Narratives in the first person, if long, become wearisome; the author’s mannerisms are apt to creep into all; and though you might bear Mr. Fairlie’s peevish selfishness, Mrs. Catherick’s self-complacent audacity, Mrs. Michaelson’s twaddle, and Count Fosco’s magnificent rascality, in regulated in tempered doses, you shrink from swallowing them pure and simple—your feelings are irritated, shocked, bored, and outraged. It certainly intensifies the sentiment of liking or dislike with which you may regard each character; and to that fact perhaps it is to be ascribed that Mr. Collins, during the progress of his tale in All the Year Round, received warnings, remonstrances, notices of bets, and metaphysical speculations from his readers, according as their natures were severally attracted. For our own part we present our compliments to Mrs. Catherick: we beg to express our admiration of her diabolical completeness and no-compromise; her utter want of maternal feeling, her revengeful spirit, her masculine determination, her shameless depravity, her pertinacious struggle into respectability, her acquisition of a sitting at church, and the bow thus wrung from the clergyman are, as Count Fosco would have said, sublime. She won our heart by her simple irony. “The dress of Virtue, in our parts, was cotton print. I had silk,” said she; and we loved her for her bare-faced impudence. Assuredly she is the paragon of she-devils; we should like to sit next to her at the “Wednesday Lectures on Justification by Faith.” We hope that she has joined the Dorcas Society, and receives a bow from the clergyman’s wife. We really think so masculine a woman should have been above the weakness of buttered toast. Count Fosco, Mr. Collins himself tells us, is a piece of patchwork. Several models sat for him, and he is the result of a contribution from each. Whether a natural character is likely to be so produced we leave to the general opinion. Of course there’s no reason why a writer of fiction shouldn’t have unnatural characters if he pleases, and if he thinks he can thereby the better amuse and excite his readers; but for us a character which is preposterously unnatural and utterly incomprehensible loses all interest; and a courageous coward, a double-chinned, fat-fingered, corpulent basilisk, a sentimental spy, fond of cockatoos and white mice, canary birds and pie-crust, presents to our minds an incongruity which amounts to absurdity; nad no gifts which he may otherwise possess—not even mesmeric power, which is darkly hinted at—can inspire us (at any rate, in a book) with awe of him. The heroism of Marian and the misfortunes of Laura will elicit admiration and some sympathy; but we hardly think sufficient stress is laid upon the life-long suffering of poor Anne Catherick: no one seems to pity her, not even the novelist! She plays the part of a simple “double;” and her only friend is Mrs. Clements. Indeed, this is not a novel which evokes the better feelings of human nature; it does not go home to you; you acknowledge its artistic construction, but you feel the want of nature; it rouses your curiosity, it thrills your nerves, it fills you with admiration, contempt, indignation, hatred, but your softer feelings are seldom played upon. We should think that very few women even were dissolved in tears over it; there is scarcely any tenderness or pathos; the feelings over excruciatingly worked up, but the flood-gates of human kindness are not opened; you are interested rather in the villain than the victim; you wish rather punish the heart-breaker than to comfort the broken-hearted. The most pathetic scene in the book is where Laura lays her head on the old lawyer’s shoulder and weeps; there is a touch of nature about that, and about old Gilmour’s [sic] remark that “even lawyers have hearts. There is a great deal said about God in the novel; but that God is a God of vengeance; the sins fo the father are visited upon the children, and man is thrice preserved from death that he may be the divine instrument for bringing to a horrible end an unrepentant fellow-creature. The story is proclaimed by the hero himself as “the story of what a woman’s patience can endure, and of what a man’s resolution can achieve.” This it certainly is, and the man would have made an excellent detective. We have heard objections made to the spinning out of the yarn, and to the minuteness in small details on the part of the author. That there is an inclination to over-minuteness we cannot deny, but pre-Raffaelitism is in the book ascendant. We were more struck by the general tendency of the book to sacrifice everything to the intensity of excitement. Much has been said also of the improbability of the incidents, but that is a very small objection; many, not to say most people, like it—they find it agreeable to sit with their mouths open. M. Dumas knows that, and to his knowledge he owes a fair share of his popularity. Still we must acknowledge that we felt some astonishment at the progress made in the affections of an engaged young lady by her drawing-master during the space of three months: it is certainly contrary to experience that a teacher of even so elegant an art as drawing should win the undying love of a beautiful girl, and the complete regard of her sister, within the space of ninety days; but we have no objection if it makes the story interesting—we congratulate him upon his success, and (between you and us) wish we were a drawing-master. And if a solicitor writes a very unsolicitor-like narrative, and makes remarks upon the man who asked him to write the narrative for his (the man’s) perusal (vide Vol. 1 p. 205), do we care, if the man doesn’t: we think it odd, but what of that? There are many odd things in this world. And though we would, from our slight knowledge of old ladies and our general acquaintance with station-masters at country stations, back Mrs. Vesy to have recollected perfectly the date of Laura’ letter, and the station-master to have known exactly when so considerable a lady (particularly as she was in ill health and required assistance) as Lady Glyde departed from Blackwater—If Mr. Hartright preferred taking extra trouble, we have no reason to grumble, for he lengthened his exciting narrative thereby, and made it, we are sure, one of the most fascinating tales which have recently enchanted the public. A book in which there is a Secret, if written as Mr. Collins writes, can hardly fail to be popular.
We should like to mention just one circumstance which would have proved, if proof had otherwise been wanting, Mr. Collins’s extreme attention to truth in minor details. Marian is always addressed at Blackwater Park, by the servants, as “Miss” alone. The housekeeper always says “Yes, Miss Halcombe,” “No, Miss Halcombe.” Any one who observes the manners and customs of people in different positions will allow the accuracy of this delicate distinction. It was in consequence, perhaps, of this excessive minuteness that we were a little disappointed at finding no explanation of Count Fosco’s terror when he discovered the drop of blood in the boat house. We expected a dénouement; but we’ll not do it again.
Andrews, E. A., editor. Harper’s Latin Dictionary: A New Latin Dictionary: Founded on the Translation of Freud’s German-Latin Lexicon, American Book Company, New York, 1907, p. 488. Google Books, https://books.google.com/books?id=CRjAjqZnnnYC&source=gbs_navlinks_s.
“The Woman in White.” The Critic, 25 Aug 1860, 21, 529, pp., 233-34. ProQuest: British Periodicals Database, accessed 6 April 2015.
- Harper's New Latin Dictionary (1906) uses the spelling "laudatur" instead of "laudetur" and identifies this as a quotation from Horace (Andrews 488). ↵