Read an Excerpt
From Camille Cauti’s Introduction to Woman in White
The opening line of Wilkie Collins’s enormously popular novel The Woman in White is one of the more confrontational in narrative history: “This is the story of what a Woman’s patience can endure, and what a Man’s resolution can achieve.” It is a statement of mystery as well as a challenge. Pausing here, a reader is likely to wonder about what trials await this poor woman and to speculate on what constitutes her relationship to this resolute man. Is he the cause of her travails, or is he her rescuer? Why must she be forced to endure what one presumes can be only cruelties? And why must she so patiently withstand them at all, rather than fight back herself? Even beyond these contemplations, what are we to make of an author who begins his tale this way? Does he enjoy seeing women suffer, for example? And more important, to what sadistic ends will our own attention be put?
A more famous set of lines preceded this opener on the same page of its first serial installment, and when one contrasts these sentences, Collins’s abruptness and somewhat harsh tone become even more unsettling. The Woman in White appeared first in serial form in Charles Dickens’s weekly publication All the Year Round, from November 26, 1859, to August 25, 1860 (and simultaneously in the United States in Harper’s Weekly, from November 25, 1859, to August 4, 1860). More interestingly, it commenced one column over from the conclusion of Dickens’s novel A Tale of Two Cities, and the juxtaposition of the inspirational final words of Dickens’s text with the chilling first words of Collins’s cannot fail to capture the reader’s attention. “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known,” Sydney Carton proclaims in the legendary last line from A Tale of Two Cities, as he goes to the guillotine in place of a better man than he so that this man may return to the woman Carton himself loves. He certainly demonstrates resolution, as well as enacting a personal redemption, in making the ultimate sacrifice, and for the contemporary reader—or today’s reader who wants to perform an interesting comparison—Collins’s hero, no matter who he turns out to be, obviously has a lot to live up to. Sydney Carton is a hard act to follow.
But these brusque new lines of Collins’s signify a larger shift in temperament between the two novels, a move from Dickens’s brilliantly evolved characterizations, vast social sweep and scale, and stateliness of narrative to Collins’s heralding the advent of the pure sensation novel, of which The Woman in White represents an early and prime example. Collins is universally acknowledged as the master of the Victorian sensation novel, a wildly popular genre that managed to transmit the shocks and surprises familiar to readers of hair-raising Gothic novels but that contained no, or generally no, supernatural elements. Yet the usually domestic crimes described in sensation novels—whose authors prided themselves on their realism in opposition to outrageous Gothic conventions—were mainly of a lurid nature and many times were impossible to imagine happening in the real world. As an anonymous critic of the trend argued in the Dublin University Magazine (February 1861), “The spirit of modern realism has woven a tissue of scenes more wildly improbable than the fancy of an average idealist would have ventured to inflict on readers beyond their teens.” Sensation fiction was precursor of the mystery thriller and the detective novel, and it proved extremely attractive to a Victorian audience primed with an appetite for scandal and for shocks that could not be sated by the gruesome accounts of crimes readers devoured in the cheap daily newspapers.