Contemporary Reviews, Adaptations, and Imitations

September 8, 1860 – The London Review

“The Woman in White”

“The Woman in White” is a republication from Mr. Dickens’s serial, “All the Year Round.” The tale was, as we understand from the preface to the present edition, received with a “warm welcome among English and American readers.” The author now appeals to three classes of persons, in the hope of obtaining their approval:— first, to those who know his story as it was weekly narrated; next, to those who will now read it for the first time in its entirety; and lastly, to the reviewers or critics, from whom he asks the favor of not “telling his story at second hand.”

We cannot venture to express an opinion as to what may be the feelings of persons who may undertake a second perusal of “The Woman in White.” Our duty is, whilst complying with the author’s request, of not telling, nor trying to tell his story for him, to give an honest and unbiased opinion as to a book which we have now read for the first time.

“The Woman in White” is, in our judgment, a very interesting book—not equal in all its parts; but still a novel which justly may claim a high rank amongst the light literature of the day.

The plan on which the work is constructed has the merit of novelty. “The story of the book is told throughout by the characters. They are all placed in different positions along the chain of events; and they all take the chain up in turn, and carry it on to the end.”

This is not only a new but a very good idea. It is much better than the old and now long-disused plan, of telling a story in a series of letters; and if it could have been carrying out, in perfect accordance with the characters of the several persons introduced, would be entitled to the highest praise. The author has not been able to act upon his own idea, because he wrote a tale to be published in a periodical; and one of the exigencies of that form of publication is, that every portion of it must be telling—that is, that there shall be no pause, nor rest in it—every particle must be glittering with points, or glaring with excitement. And so it is with “The Woman in White.” All the characters, by whom the story is supposed to be told, “must speak in passion,” and all of course “do it in King Cambyses’ vein.” The great power of Mr. Wilkie Collins as a narrator, is in his minute observation of the most trifling circumstances which can aid in the portraiture of an individual; and every one that he introduces as a narrator has the selfsame qualification. The attractions of the tale are intensified, because it is so told; but then what it gains in interest it loses in skillfulness as a picture drawn from nature. It is no more like what a real statement of facts would be if actually detailed by each of the persons introduced, than one of Doctor Samuel Johnson’s Pitt-and-Pulteny debates, as invented by him for an old magazine, was like a real parliamentary debate in the House of Commons between the same men when using their own language, and so giving expression to their own thoughts in their own words. The Johnson debates were far superior to the originals. They were entitled to admiration, and better worth reading than the most accomplished short-hand writer’s notes, but for all that they were not what they pretended to be. The learned doctor made orators of men who only made speeches. And so it is with Mr. Wilkie Collins’s characters. They all write too well, and they all write with the same skill, sharpness, and microscopic talent of observation; and it is often difficult to tell—especially in those portions ascribed to the hero, and to the sister of the heroine—which holds the pen, for the calligraphy is the same, and the capital letters are all finished off with the same ornamental flourishes.

This defect—the main, and we might even add, the only defect in the book—is more than compensated for by the manner in which the story is carried forward. The reader has little reason to complain of it, because he is repaid in the perusal by an untiring succession of incidents, which absorb his feelings, and keep his attention constantly on the alert.

As a specimen of the shrewdness of the author, and the manner in which he distributes his gift amongst his different characters, we present the following brief extracts:—

“Our words are giants when they do us an injury, and dwarfs when they do us a service.”—Vol. i., p.96[1]

“There are many varieties of sharp practitioners in this world, but I think the hardest of all to deal with are the men who overreach you under the disguise of inveterate good-humour. A fat, well-fed, smiling man of business is, of all parties to a bargain, the most hopeless to deal with.”—Vol. i., p. 245.[2]

“When two members of a family, or two intimate friends, are separated, and one goes abroad and one stays at home, the return of the relative or friend who has been travelling always seems to place the relative or friend who has been staying at home at a painful disadvantage, when the first two meet.”—Vol. ii., p. 26.[3]

“Most men show something of their dispositions in their own houses which they have concealed elsewhere; and Sir Percival has already displayed a mania for order and regularity which is quite a new revelation of him, so far as my previous knowledge of his character is concerned . . . . . . He picks up stray flower-blossoms from the carpet, and mutters to himself, as discontentedly as if they were hot cinders burning holes in it; and he storms at the servants if there is a crease in the table-cloth, or a knife missing from its place at the dinner-table, as fiercely as if they had personally insulted him. —Vol. ii., p. 33.[4]

“Women can resist a man’s love, a man’s fame, a man’s personal appearance, and a man’s money, but they cannot resist a man’s tongue, when he knows how to talk to them.” —Vol. ii., p. 108.[5]

“Men little know, when they say hard things to us, how well we remember them, and what harm they do to us.” — Vol. ii. p. 107.[6]

“Any woman who is sure of her own wits is a match, at any time, for a man who is not sure of his own temper.”—Vol. ii., p. 188.[7]

“When an English jury has to choose between a plain fact on the surface, and a long explanation under the surface, it always takes the fact in preference to the explanation.” —Vol. iii., p. 55.[8]

“The English intellect is sound, so far as it goes; but it has one grave defect—it is always cautious in the wrong place.”—Vol iii., p. 307.[9]

All these sharp remarks and pungent sayings are ascribed by the author to different individuals. Hero and heroine, the honest man and the villain are all equally clever. This is not in accordance with the Shakesperian maxim:—

“in framing artists, Art hath thus decreed,
To make some good, but others to exceed.”

And now come those considerations with which we have mainly to do. Is the book, taken as a whole, entitled to the same amount of commendation bestowed upon it when it was published piecemeal? What is to be said of Mr. Wilkie Collins as a writer of novels? Is the “Woman in White” entitled to a white or a black mark “cretâ an carbone” notata? We feel not the slightest hesitation in expressing an opinion on these points. “The Woman in White” is a most interesting book. It will richly repay perusal.


Works Cited

“The Woman in White.” The London Review, London, vol. 1, 4 September 1860, p. 233.

  1. Hartright's statement (No. 4).
  2. Mr. Gilmore's statement (No. 9).
  3. Marian Halcombe's statement (No. 13).
  4. Marian Halcombe again (No. 13 again).
  5. Marian Halcombe again (No. 16).
  6. Marian Halcombe again (No. 16 again).
  7. Marian Halcombe again (No. 20).
  8. Mr. Kyrle's statement (No. 29).
  9. Count Fosco's statement (No. 39).


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The Woman in White: Grangerized Edition Copyright © 2020 by The 19th-Century Open Pedagogy Project is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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