Creative-Critical Analyses: Reading Characters

Creative-Critical Analyses: Characters as Readers


This section invites you to learn more about nineteenth-century reading cultures by considering Collins’s characters in a new light. In the following pages, we’ll blend the worlds of fiction and historical research by imagining how that the characters in The Woman in White might have encountered Collins’s own novel (had they been so inclined). Together, the following overviews begin to trace out some of the ways that a Victorian person’s location, age, gender, and social class might affect how they read. It is our hope that this section will provide you with a different lens through which to view Collins’s characters as well as insight into a a small corner of nineteenth-century reader history.

Why meld the creative and the critical in this way? Research about how people learn suggests that when people refer to an organizational schema as they engage with new information, they’re better able to retain and apply that knowledge later.[1] By imagining how characters in a familiar novel may have encountered literary texts in different ways, you may be better able to retain, apply, and seek out additional information about the events and social dynamics that shaped Victorian literary culture.

To ground this historical reflection process in a specific set of research questions requires us to take a couple of imaginative leaps. First, we’ll take a few liberties with the characters’ timelines. The events of the narrative occur a decade before The Woman in White was first published in serial form: the novel is set in 1849-50, but the serial was first circulated from 1859-1860. Rather than pretend that our character-readers are ten years older than they appeared to have been in the novel, we’ll imagine that the characters’ social circumstances within the novel persisted until 1859 and 1860. (In other words, we can pretend that the Walter Hartright who might have read The Woman in White is still the “teacher of drawing, aged twenty-eight years” that we encountered in the novel’s first installment rather than imagining that he is a thirty-eight-year-old man in unknown circumstances.)

Our second imaginative leap will be to assume that our characters would be encountering Collins’s novel not as a story about them, but as a simple sensation serial. (We’re not asking “How might Louis, Mr. Fairlie’s valet, have felt about the way Mr. Gilmore describes him in the book?” Instead, we’re asking “How might Louis, Mr. Fairlie’s valet, have purchased or borrowed an installment of Collins’s latest novel in 1859?”)

Because The Woman in White: Grangerized is a participatory edition, the following section will start out small and continue to grow over time. We invite you to create a Character-As-Reader Persona of your own to contribute to this section.

Participation Objectives

Historical Knowledge

  • Describe factors that may have influenced how quickly an individual person might have accessed the latest installment of The Woman in White in 1859 and 1860.
  • Differentiate between printed materials that were easily accessible to people who were privileged and people who were economically and/or socially marginalized during the mid-nineteenth century.

Attention to Gaps in Collins’s Novel and in Secondary Research Materials

  • Analyze the degree of narrative attention that minor characters receive in Collins’s novel
  • Identify demographic characteristics that are over- and underrepresented in the secondary research literature about nineteenth-century readers

Works Cited

Ambrose, Susan A., et al. How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. Jossey-Bass, 2010. OCN: 1047860660.

Ausubel, D. P. “The Use of Advance Organizers In the Learning and Retention of Meaningful Verbal Material.” Journal of Educational Psychology, vol. 51, 1960, pp. 267–272. DOI: 10.1037/h0046669

Bower, G. H., Clark, M. C., Lesgold, A. M., and Winzenz, D. “Hierarchical Retrieval Schemes in Recall of Categorical Word Lists.” Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, vol. 8, 1969, pp. 323–343. DOI: 10.1016/S0022-5371(69)80124-6.

  1. For more information about this teaching and learning research, see Ambrose et al. 51-54, Ausubel 267-72, Bower et al. 323.


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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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