Contemporary Reviews, Adaptations, and Imitations

August 1860 – Preface to the 3-Volume Edition of The Woman in White



AN experiment is attempted in this novel, which has not (so far as I know) been hitherto tried in fiction. The story of the book is told throughout by the characters of the book. 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. 

If the execution of this idea had led to nothing more than the attainment of mere novelty of form, I should not have claimed a moment’s attention for it in this place. But the substance of the book, as well as the form, has profited by it. It has forced me to keep the story constantly moving forward; and it has afforded my characters a new opportunity of expressing themselves, though the medium of the written contributions which they are supposed to make to the progress of the narrative.

In writing these prefatory lines, I cannot prevail on myself to pass over in silence the warm welcome which my story has met with, in its periodical form, among English and American readers. In the first place, that welcome has, I hope, justified me for having accepted the serious literary responsibility of appearing in the columns of ‘All The Year Round,” immediately after Mr. Charles Dickens had occupied them with the most perfect work of constructive art that has ever proceeded from his pen. In the second place, by frankly acknowledging the recognition that I have obtained thus far, I provide for myself an opportunity of thanking many correspondents, (to whom I am personally unknown) for the hearty encouragement I received from them while my work was in progress. Now, while the visionary men and women, among whom I have been living so long, are all leaving me, I remember very gratefully that ‘Marian’ and ‘Laura’ made such warm friends in many quarters, that I was preemptorily cautioned at a serious crisis in the story, to be careful how I treated them—that Mr. Fairlie found sympathetic fellow-sufferers, who remonstrated with me for not making Christian allowance for the state of his nerves—that Sir Percival’s ‘secret’ became sufficiently exasperating, in course of time, to be made the subject of bets (all of which I hereby declare to be ‘off’)—and that Count Fosco suggested metaphysical considerations to the learned in such matters (which I don’t quite understand to this day), besides provoking numerous inquiries as to the living model, from which he had really been taken. I can only answer these last by confessing that many models, some living, and some dead, have ‘sat’ for him; and by hinting that the Count would not have been as true to nature as I have tried to make him, if the range of my search for materials had not extended, in his case as well as in others, beyond the narrow human limit which is represented by one man. 

In presenting this book to a new class of readers, in its complete form, I have only to say that it has been carefully revised; and that the divisions of the chapters, and other minor matters of the same sort, have been altered here and there, with a view to smoothing and consolidating the story in its course through these volumes. If the readers who have waited until it was done, only prove to be as kind an audience as the readers who followed it through its weekly progress, ‘The Woman in White’ will be the most precious impersonal Woman on the list of my acquaintance. 

Before I conclude, I am desirous of addressing one or two questions, of the most harmless and innocent kind, to the Critics.

In the event of this book being reviewed, I venture to ask whether it is possible to praise the writer, or to blame him, without opening the proceedings by telling his story at second-hand? As that story is written by mewith the inevitable suppressions which the periodical system forces on the novelist—the telling it fills more than a thousand closely-printed pages. No small portion of this space is occupied by hundreds of little ‘connecting links,’ of trifling value in themselves, but of the utmost importance in maintaining the smoothness, the reality, and the probability of the entire narrative. If the critic tells the story with these, can he do it in his alloted page, or column, as the case may be? If he tells it without these, is he doing a fellow-labourer in another form of Art, the justice which writers owe to one another? And lastly, if he tells it at all, in any way whatever, is he doing a service to the reader, by destroying, beforehand, two main elements in the attraction of all stories—the interest of curiosity, and the excitement of surprise?

Harley Street, London,

August 3, 1860. 

Works Cited

Collins, Wilkie. The Woman in White, Vol 1, 3rd Edition, London, Sampson Low, Son, & Co., 1860, pp. v-viii. HathiTrust, [Public Domain.]


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