Contemporary Reviews, Adaptations, and Imitations
The Woman in White
In a recent number of the “Cornhill Magazine,” Mr. Thackeray treated humorously the idea of an order of merit for literary men, and spoke of the bickerings and jealousies it would give rise to; and, indeed, in the department of novel-writing alone, there are so many grades, and such a variety of claims to consideration, as would put the constituted authorities at their wits’ end. There is a great genius, who bursts like a comet upon the literary world, and whose every new work is an “excitement,” impatiently awaited and seized with avidity; there is the author who has missed the first rank, but whose writings come to us like oases in the wild desert of modern literature; there is the writer who has not even talent, but who possesses a certain fluency of speech and redundancy of imagination, whose name is perpetually before the eyes of the reader, and who at length is endowed with the title of “popular author;” and there are all varying grades that Mr. Mudie’s walls enclose, from the merely “readable” authors down to the “Lady Evelina Fairstars” of society, who flood the libraries and bore the critics with their amorous toast-and-water maunderings.
Mr. Wilkie Collins, whose new work, “The Woman in White,” is now before us, belongs, we think, to the second of these ranks. His writings are always readable, generally interesting, and sometimes—witness the skipper’s story in the last Christmas number of “All the Year Round,” namely, “The Haunted House”—exceedingly powerful and impressive. He has his own ideas of the object of his profession, and they are sensible and not too lofty; he has rules of his own for the proper practice of his art, and it must be acknowledged that he carries them out well, and that to them are due the unusual curiosity and interest that his last tale has undoubtedly excited during its progress through the pages of “All the Year Round.” Mr. Collins places unusual importance on the strength of his plot. he has more than once expressed his opinion that the chief end of the novelist should be to amuse; and that to construct a story which shall excite the interest of the reader, and to keep his attention fixed from the first page to the last, is a feat worthy of the greatest praise. Those ideas he has worked out in all his writings, and the fame that he has gained will best decide whether he has been successful or not.
We have no intention of giving a detailed account of the plot of “The Woman in White;” it is so intricate, and turns so often upon such trivial points, that we should despair of rendering it correctly; besides that, it would be an injustice to the reader, for either he has read the book, in which case any further account o it here is unnecessary, or he is going to read it, and to give the plot of a book in which some o the plot is everything, would be to rob him of some very pleasant hours.
Of course, the book would not be Mr. Wilkie Collins’s that did not contain a Secret (written with a large S), the careful concealment of which until the proper moment for disclosure arrives, affords an opportunity for the display of his peculiar talent. The Secret in this instance is particularly well kept, though we must confess ourselves rather disppointed with it when known. When one has made up one’s mind for a murder, it is rather hard to be put off with a forgery; and the latter, together with the minor misdemeanours of incarcerating his wife in a mad-house and burning down the vestry containing the register which he has forged is the extent of Sir Percival Glyde’s delinquencies. In his anxiety to weave a chain of events which should excite the reader’s curiosity, Mr. Collins has overlooked the equally important point of creating interest and sympathy for his characters. There is scarcely one pleasing figure in the book, and perhaps the hero and heroine are the least interesting of all. A young artist, who, being engaged in a gentleman’s house, proceeds to fall in love with his employer’s niece and heiress, and, finding that she is affianced to a baronet, and is determined to fulfil her engagements although she loves the artist and hates the baronet, departs for the wilds of North America, is a character that can excite interest only in a romantic school-girl. The heroine, Lady Glyde, is simply a nonentity, and does not elicit a spark of sympathy. Moved by a feeling of duty, she marries a man whom she does not like, while she is secretly attached to somebody else, and afterwards finds that her husband has married her for her money. The marriage is certainly not a fortunate one, and when Lady Glyde refuses to make over her money to her husband, Sir Percival proceeds to extremes, and places her in a private asylum. Undoubtedly the cleverest character in the book is Count Fosco. Never exaggerated, always consistent, in the trivial as well as in the broader features of his character, is his love of intrigue, and his talent for carrying it out, he is the most defined figure of the story. No doubt, by some he will be taken as a representative character, and will encourage the idea that all foreigners, and Italians in particular, are social Marchiavellis,  and that treachery and intrigue are their daily study. intrigue is the master-passion of the Count, and he revels in it: he intercepts letters, overhears conversations, acts as a spy upon Lady Glyde, gladly accepts her half-sister and triumphs over her in with and invention. Nor does the Count stick at these small trials of his skill: his wife being related to Lady Glyde, he has an interest in her removal similar to that of his friend Sir Percival, and it is by him that she is placed in the asylum, and the strange circumstances brought about that give rise to the belief in her death. The chief features in the character of Sir Percival are his brutality and the fluctuations of temper caused by the fear of detection in his crimes. Mr. Fairlie is amusing, but neither very original nor very natural. Miss Halcombe is the most pleasing personage in the story, and her spirit and earnestness, and the certain amount of interest which is excited in her, render her the real heroine of the book. Nevertheless, the feeling with which we peruse the work is more one of curiosity than interest, just as we read the complicated evidence of a newspaper report, caring nothing about the persons, but anxious to know how the affair ends. And the manner in which the story is told, namely, in narratives written by the chief personages, serves to increase this feeling. Mr. Collins has overcome, as well as possible, the heaviness that this mode of treatment gives to a story; nevertheless, it does not read as naturally as if written in the usual manner, and the same treatment in the hands of a less talented writer would be clumsy and unnatural.
There are several improbabilities in the plot, and improbabilities in a work of this description are graver errors than in books where character is chiefly studied. For instance, the means by which Miss Halcombe is brought to overhear the private conversation between Sir Percival and Count Fosco are highly absurd. Sir Percival and the Count having arranged an interview to take place when everybody else is in bed, they go into the garden, and pass by Miss Halcombe’s window, ostensibly with the purpose of seeing whether her light is extinguished, their real purpose being apparently to inform her that they are going to have a private conversation, about which she is the very last person to know anything. Miss Halcombe is sitting at her window, overhears their impudent words, and of course determines to learn the subject of their interview, and learns it accordingly. This incident reminds us of the passage in Mr. Dickens’s “Barnaby Rudge,” in which the Gordon rioters advance upon the Maypole, and which describes the conduct upon that occasion of the cook and the housemade, “who ran screaming up stairs, shrieking dismally when they had done so, by way of rendering their place of refuge perfectly secret and secure.” “The Woman in White” is written throughout in the “effective” style—that style of which Mr. Charles Dickens is so great a master, and which is displayed particularly in the endings of the chapters; for instance—”the Woman in White is a living influence on our three lives. The end is appointed; the end is drawing on us; and Anne Catherick, dead in her grave, points the way to it still!” The following passage also is quite in Mr. Dickens’s style:—
“‘Can you identify him, sir?’
“My eyes dropped slowly. At first I saw nothing under them but a coarse canvas cloth, and there at the end, stark and grim, and black, in the yellow light—there was his dead face.
“So, for the first and last time, I saw him. So the visitation of God ruled it that he and I should meet.”
Nevertheless, successful as the “Woman in White” has been, we cannot but think that in subjecting the characters entirely to the plot, Mr. Wilkie Collins has carried his peculiar style to excess, and that it is likely to become wearisome. No one reading the book cares two straws for the hero and heroine—whether they are happy or unhappy, or whether they are united in the third volume; but every one becomes gradually interested in the ravelling and unravelling of the complications that arise in the story. And when these are known, what remains? Would the “Woman in White” repay a second perusal? We fear not. One cannot take it up again and again, as we do such novels as “Vanity Fair,” and “David Copperfield,” for the mere beauty of the writing, which is always fresh, although we know every incident by heart. To this it may be said that Mr. Wilkie Collins is neither a Thackeray nor a Dickens. True, but he is a very clever writer, with a style of his own, which, when not exaggerated, is a very agreeable one; and as exaggeration of style is always a sign of declining powers, we advise him to keep clear of it as much as possible.
Griest, Guinevere L. Mudie’s Select Library and the Victorian Novel. Indiana University Press, 1970. OCN: 16203315.
“The Woman in White.” The Literary Gazette: A Weekly Journal of Literature, Science, and the Fine Arts, No. 110 (2270), 4 August 1860, pp. 57-58. ProQuest: British Periodicals, accessed 22 April 2016. [Paywalled.]
- The "Mr. Thackeray" in question is William Makepeace Thackeray, a popular British author and the author of Vanity Fair. ↵
- Mr. Mudie was the entrepreneur behind Mudie's Circulating Library, an institution notable in part because its prices were accessible to a middle-class audience (Griest 17). ↵
- The writer is referring to Machiavelli here, albeit with a nonstandard spelling of that name. ↵
- To make it clear to readers that this is an extract from the novel, the periodical starts each new line of this segment with a double quotation mark (") but doesn't include a closing mark until the last line. ↵