Creative-Critical Analyses: Reading Characters
We’re about to explore brief descriptions of factors that shaped how people encountered and interpreted The Woman in White during the nineteenth century. Because this creative-critical research activity exists in part to meld close-reading approaches and historical research, the pool of available reader identities in this section is constrained by Collins’s own narrative scope. Given that the text in your hands is a critical edition of a novel rather than a comprehensive account of novel-reading practices during the 1800s, it’s obvious that there will be significant gaps in the way that this section maps out readers’ experiences. However, it’s worth exploring the kinds of gaps that emerge when we consider the Victorian literary landscape through this novel’s eyes.
For one thing, The Woman in White is a story that is both limited and biased in the way that it describes British life during the nineteenth century. Collins was a white, financially-comfortable, cisgender British man who spent a considerable portion of his life living in London. He was demonstrably classist and ethnocentric in his views. (To see just one example of Collins’s elitist perspectives, consider how he describes working-class readers in his 1858 essay, “The Unknown Public!”)
Yet the descriptions in the novel don’t reflect the totality or individuality of Collins’s actual readers. As we acknowledged in the section “Reading in Parts,” The Woman in White circulated beyond Britain and the United States to places as distant as India and Australia. Characters living in a wide range of colonial contexts aren’t reflected The Woman in White, and on a more individual level, nineteenth-century readers in all locales would have had different experiences of the novel based on characteristics such as race, country of origin, disability status, and more. We won’t see these experiences represented through the lens of this novel’s characters alone.
Just as Collins’s viewpoint is limited, so too is our current historical record. This is due in part to the fact that a large proportion of surviving descriptions of Victorian reading practices highlight the experiences of white, heterosexual, cisgender British and American people without disabilities. One reason for this is that the Victorians who enjoyed the most power and privilege tended to fall into these categories. No surprises here: the people with the most power and privilege tended to have the most access to publishers.
Another reason for these gaps is that historically, twentieth- and twenty-first-century academia has failed to acknowledge or include range of scholars whose identities are marginalized by institutions of privilege. Women, scholars of color, scholars from non-Western countries, working-class scholars, and LGBTQIA+ scholars, among others, have been actively and passively excluded from the table. This means that the documents that have been preserved in archives can often skew towards the works of people who occupied privileged identity categories.
Things are changing, however, as the field of literary studies becomes more diverse and as its members recognize biased perspectives in literary and historical accounts. Scholars such as Priya Joshi are considering how the British novel circulated in India and how Indian readers responded in creative and politically-resistant ways. Scholars such as Sharon Marcus are helping us think differently about the wide range of ways that women experienced romantic and sexual desire during the nineteenth century. Yet the authors who are helping to address gaps in the research literature’s treatment of non-dominant identities simply can’t provide detailed descriptions of every individual nineteenth-century novel’s reading audience. This means that the scholarship we have about how people encountered specific texts such as The Woman in White still tends to disproportionately explore a white, British, middle-class reader experience. There’s plenty of work to be done to expand our understanding of these individual texts’ audiences.
A call to action
We encourage you to read the character-as-reader descriptions on the following pages with an eye to learning more about broad technological and social trends in nineteenth-century Britain.
After using the following character descriptions to learn about a subset of Victorian readers, ask yourself: whose identities are most prominently represented both in the novel and the secondary research you can locate about nineteenth-century readers? Whose experiences are left out? How does this omission skew the story this novel—and this critical edition—tells? How might you begin to shift the narrative?
We encourage you to delve deeper: consider exploring a wider range of reader experiences detailed in the databases and books included in the Using Primary and Secondary Sources for Your Research section of this text. As a writer and a researcher, where will you go next?
Joshi, Priya. In Another Country: Colonialism, Culture, and the English Novel In India, Columbia University Press, 2002. OCN: 827481448.
Lewis, Paul. “Where Wilkie Lived,” The Wilkie Collins Pages, 1999, http://www.web40571.clarahost.co.uk/wilkie/Homes/11NC.htm.
Marcus, Sharon. Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England, Princeton University Press, 2007. OCN: 70167639.