The Woman in White

The Woman in White

by Wilkie Collins, Otto Penzler

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Overview

The first and greatest sensation novel, a thrilling story of evil thwarted and love reclaimed

The night before he leaves London for a temporary engagement in the North of England, drawing instructor Walter Hartright walks home on an empty, moonlit road. Suddenly a hand reaches out of the darkness and touches him on the shoulder. Terrified, he turns to find a woman, dressed all in white, who begs him for help in getting to a friend’s place in the city. By a strange coincidence, the woman knows Limmeridge House, the country estate to which Walter is traveling in the morning. Stranger still, she refuses to reveal anything else about herself, including her name. Only after he sees her safely into a cab does Walter learn the truth—the woman in white has just escaped from an insane asylum.

In Limmeridge, Walter falls in love with one of his students, the beautiful and virtuous Laura Fairlie. An orphan in the care of her invalid uncle, Laura is engaged to Sir Percival Glyde, a baronet. She follows through with the marriage despite her feelings for Walter, but soon realizes her mistake. Sir Percival will stop at nothing to gain complete control of Laura’s inheritance, and his diabolical plot hinges on her astonishing resemblance to the mysterious woman in white. It is up to Walter and Marian, Laura’s devoted half-sister, to rescue fair Laura from a fate worse than death.

With its shocking twists and spine-chilling suspense, The Woman in White charted a whole new course for popular fiction. Devilishly entertaining and deadly serious in its indictment of Victorian marriage laws that impoverished women, it is widely recognized as one the nineteenth century’s finest novels.

This ebook features a new introduction by Otto Penzler and has been professionally proofread to ensure accuracy and readability on all devices.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781480493803
Publisher: MysteriousPress.com/Open Road
Publication date: 05/27/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 720
Sales rank: 300,328
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Wilkie Collins (1824–1889) was an English playwright and novelist. A close friend and frequent collaborator of Charles Dickens’s, he is best known as the author of The Moonstone and The Woman in White, “sensation novels” widely recognized as forerunners of modern suspense. 

Date of Birth:

December 8, 1824

Date of Death:

September 23, 1889

Place of Birth:

London, England

Place of Death:

London, England

Education:

Studied law at Lincoln¿s Inn, London

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

THE FIRST EPOCH

The Story begun by Walter Hartright, of Clement's Inn, Teacher of Drawing

I

This is the story of what a Woman's patience can endure, and what a Man's resolution can achieve.

If the machinery of the Law could be depended on to fathom every case of suspicion, and to conduct every process of inquiry, with moderate assistance only from the lubricating influences of oil of gold, the events which fill these pages might have claimed their share of the public attention in a Court of Justice.

But the Law is still, in certain inevitable cases, the pre-engaged servant of the long purse; and the story is left to be told, for the first time, in this place. As the Judge might once have heard it, so the Reader shall hear it now. No circumstance of importance, from the beginning to the end of the disclosure, shall be related on hearsay evidence. When the writer of these introductory lines (Walter Hartright, by name) happens to be more closely connected than others with the incidents to be recorded, he will describe them in his own person. When his experience fails, he will retire from the position of narrator; and his task will be continued, from the point at which he has left it off, by other persons who can speak to the circumstances under notice from their own knowledge, just as clearly and positively as he has spoken before them.

Thus, the story here presented will be told by more than one pen, as the story of an offence against the laws is told in Court by more than one witness — with the same object, in both cases, to present the truth always in its most direct and most intelligible aspect; and to trace the course of one complete series of events, by making the persons who have been most closely connected with them, at each successive stage, relate their own experience, word for word.

Let Walter Hartright, teacher of drawing, aged twenty-eight years, be heard first.

II

It was the last day of July. The long hot summer was drawing to a close; and we, the weary pilgrims of the London pavement, were beginning to think of the cloud-shadows on the corn-fields, and the autumn breezes on the sea-shore.

For my own poor part, the fading summer left me out of health, out of spirits, and, if the truth must be told, out of money as well. During the past year I had not managed my professional resources as carefully as usual; and my extravagance now limited me to the prospect of spending the autumn economically between my mother's cottage at Hampstead and my own chambers in town.

The evening, I remember, was still and cloudy; the London air was at its heaviest; the distant hum of the street-traffic was at its faintest; the small pulse of the life within me and the great heart of the city around me seemed to be sinking in unison, languidly and more languidly, with the sinking sun. I roused myself from the book which I was dreaming over rather than reading, and left my chambers to meet the cool night air in the suburbs. It was one of the two evenings in every week which I was accustomed to spend with my mother and my sister. So I turned my steps northward, in the direction of Hampstead.

Events which I have yet to relate, make it necessary to mention in this place that my father had been dead some years at the period of which I am now writing; and that my sister Sarah and I were the sole survivors of a family of five children. My father was a drawing-master before me. His exertions had made him highly successful in his profession; and his affectionate anxiety to provide for the future of those who were dependent on his labours, had impelled him, from the time of his marriage, to devote to the insuring of his life a much larger portion of his income than most men consider it necessary to set aside for that purpose. Thanks to his admirable prudence and self-denial, my mother and sister were left, after his death, as independent of the world as they had been during his lifetime. I succeeded to his connexion, and had every reason to feel grateful for the prospect that awaited me at my starting in life.

The quiet twilight was still trembling on the topmost ridges of the heath; and the view of London below me had sunk into a black gulf in the shadow of the cloudy night, when I stood before the gate of my mother's cottage. I had hardly rung the bell, before the house-door was opened violently; my worthy Italian friend, Professor Pesca, appeared in the servant's place; and darted out joyously to receive me, with a shrill foreign parody on an English cheer.

On his own account, and, I must be allowed to add, on mine also, the Professor merits the honour of a formal introduction. Accident has made him the starting-point of the strange family story which it is the purpose of these pages to unfold.

I had first become acquainted with my Italian friend by meeting him at certain great houses, where he taught his own language and I taught drawing. All I then knew of the history of his life was, that he had once held a situation in the University of Padua; that he had left Italy for political reasons (the nature of which he uniformly declined to mention to any one); and that he had been for many years respectably established in London as a teacher of languages.

Without being actually a dwarf — for he was perfectly well-proportioned from head to foot — Pesca was, I think, the smallest human being I ever saw, out of a show-room. Remarkable anywhere, by his personal appearance, he was still further distinguished among the rank and file of mankind, by the harmless eccentricity of his character. The ruling idea of his life appeared to be, that he was bound to show his gratitude to the country which had afforded him an asylum and a means of subsistence, by doing his utmost to turn himself into an Englishman. Not content with paying the nation in general the compliment of invariably carrying an umbrella, and invariably wearing gaiters and a white hat, the Professor further aspired to become an Englishman in his habits and amusements, as well as in his personal appearance. Finding us distinguished, as a nation, by our love of athletic exercises, the little man, in the innocence of his heart, devoted himself impromptu to all our English sports and pastimes, whenever he had the opportunity of joining them; firmly persuaded that he could adopt our national amusements of the field, by an effort of will, precisely as he had adopted our national gaiters and our national white hat.

I had seen him risk his limbs blindly at a fox-hunt and in a cricket-field; and, soon afterwards, I saw him risk his life, just as blindly, in the sea at Brighton.

We had met there accidentally, and were bathing together. If we had been engaged in any exercise peculiar to my own nation, I should, of course, have looked after Pesca carefully; but, as foreigners are generally quite as well able to take care of themselves in the water as Englishmen, it never occurred to me that the art of swimming might merely add one more to the list of manly exercises which the Professor believed that he could learn impromptu. Soon after we had both struck out from shore, I stopped, finding my friend did not gain on me, and turned round to look for him. To my horror and amazement, I saw nothing between me and the beach but two little white arms which struggled for an instant above the surface of the water, and then disappeared from view. When I dived for him, the poor little man was lying quietly coiled up at the bottom, in a hollow of shingle, looking by many degrees smaller than I had ever seen him look before. During the few minutes that elapsed while I was taking him in, the air revived him, and he ascended the steps of the machine with my assistance. With the partial recovery of his animation came the return of his wonderful delusion on the subject of swimming. As soon as his chattering teeth would let him speak, he smiled vacantly, and said he thought it must have been the Cramp.

When he had thoroughly recovered himself and had joined me on the beach, his warm Southern nature broke through all artificial English restraints, in a moment. He overwhelmed me with the wildest expressions of affection — exclaimed passionately, in his exaggerated Italian way, that he would hold his life, henceforth, at my disposal — and declared that he should never be happy again, until he had found an opportunity of proving his gratitude by rendering me some service which I might remember, on my side, to the end of my days.

I did my best to stop the torrent of his tears and protestations, by persisting in treating the whole adventure as a good subject for a joke; and succeeded at last, as I imagined, in lessening Pesca's overwhelming sense of obligation to me. Little did I think then — little did I think afterwards when our pleasant holiday had drawn to an end — that the opportunity of serving me for which my grateful companion so ardently longed, was soon to come; that he was eagerly to seize it on the instant; and that, by so doing, he was to turn the whole current of my existence into a new channel, and to alter me to myself almost past recognition.

Yet, so it was. If I had not dived for Professor Pesca, when he lay under water on his shingle bed, I should, in all human probability, never have been connected with the story which these pages will relate — I should never, perhaps, have heard even the name of the woman, who has lived in all my thoughts, who has possessed herself of all my energies, who has become the one guiding influence that now directs the purpose of my life.

III

Pesca's face and manner, on the evening when we confronted each other at my mother's gate, were more than sufficient to inform me that something extraordinary had happened. It was quite useless, however, to ask him for an immediate explanation. I could only conjecture, while he was dragging me in by both hands, that (knowing my habits) he had come to the cottage to make sure of meeting me that night, and that he had some news to tell of an unusually agreeable kind.

We both bounced into the parlour in a highly abrupt and undignified manner. My mother sat by the open window, laughing and fanning herself. Pesca was one of her especial favourites; and his wildest eccentricities were always pardonable in her eyes. Poor dear soul! from the first moment when she found out that the little Professor was deeply and gratefully attached to her son, she opened her heart to him unreservedly, and took all his puzzling foreign peculiarities for granted, without so much as attempting to understand any one of them.

My sister Sarah, with all the advantages of youth, was, strangely enough, less pliable. She did full justice to Pesca's excellent qualities of heart; but she could not accept him implicitly, as my mother accepted him, for my sake. Her insular notions of propriety rose in perpetual revolt against Pesca's constitutional contempt for appearances; and she was always more or less undisguisedly astonished at her mother's familiarity with the eccentric little foreigner. I have observed, not only in my sister's case, but in the instances of others, that we of the young generation are nothing like so hearty and so impulsive as some of our elders. I constantly see old people flushed and excited by the prospect of some anticipated pleasure which altogether fails to ruffle the tranquillity of their serene grandchildren.

Are we, I wonder, quite such genuine boys and girls now as our seniors were, in their time? Has the great advance in education taken rather too long a stride; and are we, in these modern days, just the least trifle in the world too well brought up?

Without attempting to answer those questions decisively, I may at least record that I never saw my mother and my sister together in Pesca's society, without finding my mother much the younger woman of the two. On this occasion, for example, while the old lady was laughing heartily over the boyish manner in which we tumbled into the parlour, Sarah was perturbedly picking up the broken pieces of a teacup, which the Professor had knocked off the table in his precipitate advance to meet me at the door.

"I don't know what would have happened, Walter," said my mother, "if you had delayed much longer. Pesca has been half-mad with impatience; and I have been half-mad with curiosity. The Professor has brought some wonderful news with him, in which he says you are concerned; and he has cruelly refused to give us the smallest hint of it till his friend Walter appeared."

"Very provoking: it spoils the Set," murmured Sarah to herself, mournfully absorbed over the ruins of the broken cup.

While these words were being spoken, Pesca, happily and fussily unconscious of the irreparable wrong which the crockery had suffered at his hands, was dragging a large arm-chair to the opposite end of the room, so as to command us all three, in the character of a public speaker addressing an audience. Having turned the chair with its back towards us, he jumped into it on his knees, and excitably addressed his small congregation of three from an impromptu pulpit.

"Now, my good dears," began Pesca (who always said "good dears," when he meant "worthy friends"), "listen to me. The time has come — I recite my good news — I speak at last."

"Hear, hear!" said my mother, humouring the joke.

"The next thing he will break, mamma," whispered Sarah, "will be the back of the best arm-chair."

"I go back into my life, and I address myself to the noblest of created beings," continued Pesca, vehemently apostrophizing my unworthy self, over the top rail of the chair. "Who found me dead at the bottom of the sea (through Cramp); and who pulled me up to the top; and what did I say when I got into my own life and my own clothes again?"

"Much more than was at all necessary," I answered, as doggedly as possible; for the least encouragement in connexion with this subject invariably let loose the Professor's emotions in a flood of tears.

"I said," persisted Pesca, "that my life belonged to my dear friend, Walter, for the rest of my days — and so it does. I said that I should never be happy again till I had found the opportunity of doing a good Something for Walter — and I have never been contented with myself till this most blessed day. Now," cried the enthusiastic little man at the top of his voice, "the overflowing happiness bursts out of me at every pore of my skin, like a perspiration; for on my faith, and soul, and honour, the something is done at last, and the only word to say now, is — Right-all-right!"

It may be necessary to explain, here, that Pesca prided himself on being a perfect Englishman in his language, as well as in his dress, manners, and amusements. Having picked up a few of our most familiar colloquial expressions, he scattered them about over his conversation whenever they happened to occur to him, turning them, in his high relish for their sound and his general ignorance of their sense, into compound words and repetitions of his own, and always running them into each other, as if they consisted of one long syllable.

"Among the fine London houses where I teach the language of my native country," said the Professor, rushing into his long-deferred explanation without another word of preface, "there is one, mighty fine, in the big place called Portland. You all know where that is? Yes, yes — course-of-course. The fine house, my good dears, has got inside it a fine family. A Mamma, fair and fat; three young Misses, fair and fat; two young Misters, fair and fat; and a Papa, the fairest and the fattest of all, who is a mighty merchant, up to his eyes in gold — a fine man once, but seeing that he has got a naked head and two chins, fine no longer at the present time. Now mind! I teach the sublime Dante to the young Misses, and ah! — my-soul-bless-my-soul! — it is not in human language to say how the sublime Dante puzzles the pretty heads of all three! No matter — all in good time — and the more lessons the better for me. Now mind! Imagine to yourselves that I am teaching the young Misses to-day, as usual. We are all four of us down together in the Hell of Dante. At the Seventh Circle — but no matter for that: all the Circles are alike to the three young Misses, fair and fat, — at the Seventh Circle, nevertheless, my pupils are sticking fast; and I, to set them going again, recite, explain, and blow myself up red-hot with useless enthusiasm, when — a creak of boots in the passage outside, and in comes the golden Papa, the mighty merchant with the naked head and the two chins. — Ha! my good dears, I am closer than you think for to the business, now. Have you been patient so far? or have you said to yourselves, 'Deuce-what-the-deuce! Pesca is longwinded to-night?'"

(Continues…)


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Table of Contents


Author's Preface (1860)
Preface to the Present Edition (1861)
The Woman in White
The First Epoch
     The Story begun by Walter Hartright, of Clement's Inn, Teacher of Drawing
     The Story continued by Vincent Gilmore, of Chancery Lane, Solicitor
     The Story continued by Marian Halcombe, in Extracts from her Diary
The Second Epoch
     The Story continued by Marian Halcombe
     The Story continued by Frederick Fairlie, Esq., of Limmeridge House
     The Story continued by Eliza Michelson, Housekeeper at Blackwater Park
     The Story continued in Several Narratives
The Third Epoch
     The Story continued by Walter Hartright
     The Story continued by Mrs Catherick
     The Story continued by Walter Hartright
     The Story continued by Isidor, Ottavio, Baldassare Fosco
     The Story concluded by Walter Hartright

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Collins's mid-Victorian novel is one of the first, and possibly still the greatest, of all literary thrillers." —-The Irish Times

EBOOK COMMENTARY

"Collins's mid-Victorian novel is one of the first, and possibly still the greatest, of all literary thrillers." —-The Irish Times

Reading Group Guide

INTRODUCTION

"To Mr. Collins belongs the credit of having introduced into fiction those most mysterious of mysteries, the mysteries which are at our own doors."

—Henry James

Illegitimacy, mistaken identity, insanity, inheritance, drugs, adultery, crimes of passion—all of these lurid features of Victorian life were Wilkie Collins's stock in trade. In The Moonstone he single-handedly developed most elements of the classic detective story. With The Woman in White Collins created the archetypal sensation novel, spawning generations of imitators. But perhaps his greatest genius was his capacity to reveal the exotic amidst the commonplace, the "mysteries which are at our own doors."

Collins composed his masterworks during one of the most tumultuous periods in the history of English literature. England's cities and industries were booming, poverty and crime filled the news, melodrama ruled the theaters, and newfound wealth made class barriers increasingly permeable. Dickens had just started his periodical All the Year Round, which helped to bring literature to a mass audience and blur the boundaries between highbrow and middlebrow culture. The new audience demanded a new type of novel, a novel as compelling as the scandalous headlines it competed with at the newsstands, able to keep readers in suspense from month to month and eager to buy the next issue.

Dickens launched the magazine, and the golden decade of the serial novel, with A Tale of Two Cities in the spring of 1860, and Collins followed with The Woman in White in the fall. The plot of Collins's novel had its origins in a French crime in which a Marquise was drugged and held prisoner under a false name so that her brother could inherit her estate. The midnight apparition of the title character—which Dickens called one of the two most dramatic scenes in literature—had its origin much closer to home.

While walking a friend home one night Collins had heard a piercing scream from a nearby villa, then saw dashing from the house "the figure of a young and very beautiful young woman dressed in flowing white robes that shone in the moonlight. She seemed to float rather than to run . . . in an attitude of supplication and terror." Caroline Graves, recently widowed with an infant daughter, said she had been held captive at the house for several months "under threats and mesmeric influence."

The details of what followed are unknown, but before long she and Collins had made a home together and she had adopted a story about her origins more suited to Collins's social position. Her father had been transformed from a carpenter to a "gentleman" and her former husband from an accountant's clerk to a captain in the army. It has been argued that the two faces of Caroline—the newly respectable lady and the abused women of questionable background—are reflected in the look-alike characters in The Woman in White, Laura Fairlie and Anne Catherick. Certainly the tension between appearance and reality that was central to the mystery had a powerful salience for Collins at the time, defying as he did the social expectations that he marry Caroline but also refusing to keep their relationship secret.

The Woman in White was an enormous success, prompting long lines at the publisher's offices and even inspiring a popular song, the "Woman in White Waltz." Collins earned a large advance for his next novel, securing his financial independence from his mother (who was the model for Hartright's impulsive, childlike mother in the book, just as Hartright was modeled in part on Collins's anxious, conventional brother). Readers were especially intrigued by the character of Marian Halcombe, whose charm, wit, independence, and ugliness probably have their roots in Collins's friendship with George Eliot. Throughout his work Collins created strong female characters that defy Victorian mores and gender roles, assertive women with a calculating streak. Imitators took the notion to an extreme, creating anti-heroines that resorted to murder and bigamy to achieve their wicked ends. By the time Collins started writing The Moonstone in 1867, the outcry over "the fair-haired demon of modern fiction" had grown so shrill and the clichés of the sensation novel so tired that he decided to try something quite different. In so doing he invented the detective novel as we know it today.

For the mystery aficionado, the list of detective-story conventions that were first conceived by Collins for The Moonstone is truly remarkable. In Sergeant Cuff we meet the prototype for the eccentric, canny detective in conflict with the bumbling local police authorities. (Even Cuff's passion for roses presages Sherlock Holmes's beekeeping.) Multiple equally plausible suspects are introduced, each with motive and opportunity. Consciously withholding key pieces of information, Collins introduces the rules of "fair play," which dictate that the detective should know no more than the reader. The summation of the crime before the gathered suspects, the revelation of the least likely suspect as the villain (albeit with a surprising twist), the confluence of multiple viewpoints to assemble the truth, a reconstruction of the crime, and the ultimate triumph of law and order were first formulated in The Moonstone in 1868.

Synthesizing several legends of cursed Indian jewels, Collins also drew on the famous Road Murder case of 1860 for several details of the plot, including a paint-stained nightshirt and a tell-tale laundry book. The Shivering Sand portrayed in the book's most chilling passages is based on a childhood journey to the Scottish coast. Sadly, the opium-induced experiences of Ezra Jennings describe Collins's own illness. As he was writing The Moonstone, the painful gout from which Collins had long suffered began to attack with increasing frequency and severity. No effective treatment was known at the time. He could find relief only in increasing doses of laudanum, an opium derivative. Collins soon required doses that would have killed anyone not habituated to the drug, first to get through the night, then increasingly in the daytime as well. Indeed he claimed that after he first outlined the book's plot, opium wiped it almost entirely from his memory. Only his careful notes allowed him to proceed with the composition.

As in The Woman in White, the solution to the mystery in The Moonstone is pieced together from the accounts of multiple narrators. This technique, which Collins first adopted after he witnessed the testimony in a trial, allows the author both to withhold key pieces of information from the reader and to adjust the pace as the plot demands. In the opening chapters, the discursiveness of chatty, avuncular Gabriel Betteredge sets the scene and introduces characters. Mathew Bruff's lawyerly account moves the action along factually and quickly. Rosanna Spearman's letter creates a peak of emotional intensity. The overall effect is to call into question the reliability of any one narrator's version of events. Truth is elusive, although if everyone told what he or she knew, the solution to the mystery could be found close to home.

The excitement generated by The Moonstone boosted circulation of All The Year Round above the level set by Dickens's Great Expectations. Critics praised the skillfully woven plot, the colorful characters, the high drama that kept readers in suspense to the last. But Collins was more than just "a master of plot and situation," as T.S. Eliot once described him. His best work displays a depth of social and psychological insight that was extraordinary for his time or his genre.

Collins's novels are peopled with the outcasts of society—ex-prisoners, servants, addicts, the ugly, and the deformed—portrayed in all their humanity, often with greater color and sympathy than the heroes and heroines. Ever a rebel against social pretension, Collins once skipped a formal dinner party to which he had been invited in order to put on casual clothes and stand with the laborers watching the festivities from the street. "In the course of a long experience of Society I never enjoyed a party half as much as I have enjoyed this," he recalled. The same note of social defiance rings in The Moonstonewhen Rosanna, despite her class, her physical handicap, and her prison record dares to love and hope for love from the well-heeled hero of the story, Franklin Blake, in competition with the beautiful and wealthy Rachel Verinder. "Suppose you put Miss Rachel into a servant's dress and took her ornaments off?" Rosanna challenges.

Throughout Collins's fiction, appearances and ornaments mask a darker reality. The respectable middle-class home hides unspeakable secrets. Wealth is rooted in plunder or deceit. Gossip parades as piety, embezzlement as charity. People are not who they appear to be. Reality is built on shivering, shifting sand. In many ways Collins is a master magician, using his craft to keep our rapt attention on the unfolding drama while revealing, with a sleight-of-hand, the mysteries that lie just beneath the surface of our ordinary lives.

 


ABOUT WILKIE COLLINS

Born in London in 1824, William Wilkie Collins grew up in the company of artists and writers. Naming their son after his godfather, the popular artist Sir David Wilkie, the Collinses counted Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth among their acquaintances. Collins's father, a respected landscape artist, was hardworking and intensely religious, though probably not as severe as the ostentatiously pious Christians that Collins would later lampoon in his fiction.

When he began attending private school at age 11, Wilkie was a good student but not a happy one. Small and clumsy, he was an easy victim for bullies. But he would later credit one of his boyhood tormentors with cultivating his narrative powers. The captain of his dormitory, a "great fellow of eighteen," was fond of hearing stories at night. As Wilkie later recalled: "On the first night, my capacity for telling stories was tested at a preliminary examination—vanity urged me to do my best—and I paid the penalty. . . . I was the unhappy boy appointed to amuse the captain from that time forth. If I rebelled, the captain . . . ordered me to be brought out in words I have never forgotten: 'Bring Collins out to be thrashed.'"

The brutality of his education was mercifully interrupted by a two-year family trip to Paris and Italy that was a great revelation for the boy. Liberated from the blinders of his parents' earnest religiosity, Collins reveled in the spicy food, the street life, the horse races, the opera, and the gaudy splendor of Catholic churches. What he learned in Italy seemed more valuable to him than all of his schooling. His return after the trip to an English boarding school was so miserable that his family withdrew him at age 17.

Apprenticed by his father as a clerk for a tea company, Collins showed little interest in commerce, preferring to spend office hours writing poems and plays. He was released from the apprenticeship and sent for legal training in London, but the law, too, was to serve primarily as grist for the literary mill rather than a means of earning a living. When his father died in 1847, Collins kept a promise he had made to write his biography, which received good reviews and was even a modest financial success. Encouraged by the experience, he published a novel set in ancient Rome and a travel book before he met the man with whom he would achieve widespread literary success.

Collins met Charles Dickens when performing in an amateur production of the play Not So Bad As We Seem in 1851. (Dickens, already one of England's most popular authors, was both director and lead actor, while Wilkie played the part of his valet.) As a director Dickens was a notoriously tough taskmaster, but when rehearsal was over he had an equally inexhaustible taste for recreation. In Collins he found his equal for both work and play. Collins had inherited his father's Herculean work ethic and attentiveness to the craft of his art, but like Dickens had rebelled against moral prudishness. Within a few years the two writers were companions on an acting company tour, a journey to Switzerland and Italy, and visits to the music halls and brothels of London's Haymarket. Collins became one of the most hardworking and reliable contributors to Dickens's Household Words and was soon appointed one of the its editors. It was for this magazine's successor, All the Year Round, that Collins wrote the novels that made his reputation.

Their personal lives became even more intertwined when Wilkie's brother Charles married Dickens's youngest daughter Kate. Eventually the marriage would strain relations between the two men, for Dickens came to see Charles Collins as weak and the marriage as loveless. Wilkie Collins's household arrangements were another source of contention, since Dickens disapproved of his relationship with Caroline Graves. It seems to have been a loving relationship, for Collins defended it openly against the harsh criticism of family and friends, doted on Caroline's daughter, and looked after them his entire life, even after she left him to remarry. His passionate opposition to the institution of marriage made him an outcast in "good society," but for a man who detested the social rituals of the elite as much as formalistic displays of organized religion, it was not an entirely unwelcome exile.

The year 1868 marked both the height of Collins's literary powers and the beginning of his decline. With the serial publication of The Moonstone, Collins's monthly following reached, by some estimates, half of London's population. But as he describes in the book's preface, the painful gout and the opium required to relieve it were taking an increasing toll on his health. Caroline left him in that same year, probably because he had begun seeing Martha Rudd, a dark, strong-minded, working-class girl who would become the mother of his three children but never his wife. His last collaboration with Dickens, a work entitled "No Thoroughfare" for the Christmas issue of All The Year Round, was published in 1868 as well, just two years before Dickens's death. Although Collins lived twenty more years and published nineteen more books, their increasingly moralistic tone showed only glimmers of his former mastery.

Collins died in 1890 and divided his estate equally between Caroline Graves and Martha Rudd.

 


DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

The Woman in White

  • Laura is presented as an ideal of Victorian womanhood, obedient, respectful of social conventions, and willing to sacrifice her own wishes for others. How does her double, Anne Catherick, illuminate the dark side of that ideal?
  • "You will make aristocratic connections that will be of the greatest use to you in life," Collins's father told him when he started school. But Collins lived a life on the periphery of respectable English society that his father would not have condoned. In the novel, how is pedigree intertwined with deception and immorality? Where do the lines blur between servants and the served? How are the underprivileged used as a screen for viewing the upper-crust characters?
  • Why is Marian so mesmerized by Fosco, who she says "has interested me, has attracted me, has forced me to like him"? Why is Fosco able to see Marian, despite her physical unattractiveness, as a "magnificent creature"?
  • When Hartright returns from Honduras to restore Laura's true identity, he brings tactics he had first used "against suspected treachery in the wilds of Central America" to "the heart of civilised London." Why is he forced to work outside the laws and conventions of society to achieve his aim? Why did he have to leave England and return in order to make this change?
  • One critic has suggested that Marian and Fosco might be considered the true protagonists of The Woman in White. (In many ways they are much closer to Collins's own bohemian sensibilities than Hartright and Laura.) In what sense might this be true? How would you interpret the story's conclusion— especially Marian and Fosco's fate—in this light?
  • The use of multiple narrators was one of Collins's favorite storytelling techniques. What qualities does each narrator bring to the story? How does each change our view of the characters? Could the story have been told from a single viewpoint, and if so, whose?

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