Throughout his career, Wilkie Collins, like many other writers, was torn between a need to satisfy the demands of the popular reading public and a personal desire to create works of lasting artistic merit. He achieved the desired synthesis only twice, initially with The Woman in White and, a few years later, with The Moonstone (1868). The Woman in White was both his most popular work and his most important serious book.
Although the plot of The Woman in White is fantastic, it is based, as were many of Collins’s crime stories, on an actual case history he discovered in Maurice Méjan’s Recueil des causes célèbres (1808). In 1787, Madame de Douhault was cheated out of a portion of her father’s estate by a brother. On her way to Paris to launch proceedings against her brother, she stopped at a relative’s home, where she was drugged, confined to a mental hospital, and declared dead. The unscrupulous relatives collected all that remained of the father’s estate. Like her fictional counterpart, Madame de Douhault—wearing a white dress—finally escaped, but, unlike Laura Fairlie, she was never able legally to reestablish her identity, despite positive identifications from friends and associates. She died a pauper in 1817.
The crime becomes more elaborate and complicated in Collins’s hands. Not only is the heroine drugged and secreted in an asylum, but a deceased double is buried in her place. “The first part of the story,” Collins commented in a newspaper interview, “will deal with the destruction of the victim’s identity. The second with its recovery.” Collins added a number of secondary lines to this basic plot movement: the question of Laura’s marriage to Percival Glyde; the identity and story of Anne Catherick, the mysterious “woman in white”; the love affair between Laura and Walter Hartright; Laura’s supposed death and the events surrounding it; Percival’s relationship with Anne’s mother, Mrs. Catherick, and his mysterious secret; and, finally, Count Fosco’s mysterious background.
Complex as the plot is, Collins handles the threads of the narrative in such a way that they support and complement one another without obscuring the central thrust of the book. While answering one question, Collins uses that answer to introduce new, more provocative questions. As the puzzles are gradually unraveled, the pressures on the hero and the heroines become more extreme. Throughout much of the book, the victims seem nearly helpless before the villains’ power. The reversal does not come until late in the novel and, when it does, the shift is sudden. Nevertheless, even in the last important scene, Walter’s confrontation with Fosco, when the initiative is clearly the hero’s, the sense of danger remains intense. Nowhere does Collins demonstrate his mastery of intricate plotting more effectively than in The Woman in White, and it remains, with the possible exception of The Moonstone, the most perfectly structured example of the sensation novel.
The gradual revelation of the intricate conspiracy is made doubly effective by Collins’s narrative method. The story is told in bits and pieces by a number of characters who reveal only as much as they know. Some of the narrators, among them Walter, Marian Halcombe, and Fosco, are major participants who explain and interpret events as they occur or after the fact. Others, such as Laura’s uncle, Frederick Fairlie, Glyde’s housekeeper, and Eliza Michelson (and even Laura’s tombstone), can provide only fragments of information that reflect their brief connections to the story. This technique, in which he reveals only so much information at any one time as convenient, gives Collins a...
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Describe the narrative strategy of the novel. What are the benefits and the limitations of this narrative style?
The Woman in White is written in the epistolary style which tells the story through a series of documents, letters and first-person narrators. This narrative style provides many different perspectives because each narrator offers unique observations based on their own experience of the events of the story. A story told through various first-person narrators allows each first-person narrator to speak in a unique style and to offer an unique point of view. However, Walter may not be a reliable narrator because he has an agenda of his own. He exhibits a considerably patronizing attitude towards women, especially towards Laura Fairlie. Under his pen, Laura Fairlie is described as a defenseless child devoid of any spirit and vigor. It is possible that Laura in fact possesses more self-assertiveness than Walter is willing to acknowledge. Marian Halcombe is Walter’s co-narrator. However, Marian can hardly be considered an honest narrator, because she displays a superhuman memory in her diary. She often records entire conversations, down to the last detail. Her perfect record of the conversation between Fosco and Percival is especially doubtful, because it is impossible to render such a conclusive report of the conversation on which she was eavesdropping. It is possible that Marian deliberately embellishes her dairy in order to demonize her enemies. It is also possible that she rewrites her dairy in semi-fictional style in order to spice up her narration. Her description of Percival and Fosco may have been tainted by her obvious dislike towards them.
Marian Halcombe is plain to the point of ugliness. However, she is able to win the love and admiration of her greatest enemy Fosco. Why is this? What is the source of Marian’s attractiveness?
Fosco is not alone in his attraction towards Marian. After the story’s publication, a reader wrote to the author, inquiring after the inspiration behind Marian’s character. This reader says that if a woman like Marian truly existed in this world, then he would very much like to marry her. His view is shared by many of his contemporaries. Although Marian’s physical plainness may repel people, her fascinating character wields an irresistible appeal. Beauty may strike the sight, but it is the merit of one’s character that wins the soul. Even Walter Hartright, who was briefly repelled by her plain face, can not resist the charms of her vivid personality. Marian is highly intelligent, perceptive, bold, brave, opinionated and strong. She is not daunted by domineering men and possesses a stubborn courage to defend her interests. Fosco is someone who worships the sophisticated skills of an expert criminal. Therefore, Marian’s brilliant qualities struck a chord in Fosco. He admires her intelligence and penetrating insight. He sees his own reflection in the shrewd Marian, and regards her as his match and equal. Fosco and Walter’s attraction towards Marian indicates that, in the late Victorian era, the celebrated feminine ideals of passivity and meekness were rapidly losing their appeal. Women were beginning to be valued for the intelligence of their mind and the vivacity of their character. Fosco and Walter’s attraction towards Marian show that attitudes towards gender were undergoing changes. The image of the passive “angel of the hearth” is beginning to fall out of favor with some forward-thinking men in Victorian society.
Laura Fairlie symbolizes the image of the perfect Victorian woman. However, the author uses Anne Catherick, an emotionally deranged person, as her double. What does this doubling reveal about the role of gender in the novel?
Laura and Anne are represented as doubles. They are half-sisters who bear a striking resemblance to each other. Anne’s only difference from Laura lays in her deranged emotional state and sickly appearance. Laura is an unassuming and uninteresting character. She possesses little spirit and vivacity. When Laura is imprisoned in the asylum under Fosco’s conspiracy, she literally takes up the identity of Anne Catherick and become transformed into the image of a madwoman. By using the “madwoman” Anne Catherick as Laura’s double, the author provides an unflattering portrayal of the conventional feminine virtues. The author is certainly not an enthusiastic proponent of the conventional qualities of femininity. The passive Laura is presented as someone who can easily lose her sanity under the influence of manipulation. By transforming Laura into the image of the deranged Anne Catherick, the author shows that the idealized images of femininity create weakness and an unstable identity. By showing Anne as Laura’s double, the author shows that a passive and unenergetic woman like Laura Fairlie could not muster enough strength to defend herself and could easily lose her self-identity under external pressure. On the other hand, a strong and resolute woman like Marian is in full command of her self-identity and will not lose her sanity under the evil forces of male conspiracy.
Is this novel a moralistic novel? If so, in what way.
Like many Victorian novels, The Woman in White certainly carries a deep moral undertone. In this novel, the virtuous characters are rewarded and the evil ones are punished. The arch-villains Percival and Fosco both meet an untimely and violent death. The greedy, self-absorbed, and obnoxious Frederick Fairlie also dies at the end of the book. Percival and Fosco are men who have committed a crime in their early days. Percival has faked his parents’ marriage registrar while Fosco has betrayed his political organization. Even though these two men were able to escape punishment for many years, their crimes eventually catch up with them in the end. On the other hand, the characters who embody the Victorian virtues emerged triumphant in the end and are rewarded with wealth and status. Walter Hartright, the most industrious and morally upright male character in the novel, succeeds in climbing the social ladder by marrying into the upper class. After the death of Frederick Fairlie, Limmeridge House becomes inhabited by three virtuous characters: Laura, Marian and Walter.
In what sense can the novel be considered a detective story?
After Walter discovers that Laura is alive, he becomes determined to restore her identity. In order to do so, he must uncover all the details of the scheme and how it happened. He becomes particularly fixated on uncovering the exact date on which Laura left Blackwater Park because this will prove that she did not arrive in London until after the date of her supposed death. Walter's investigation also ends up turning up a number of other secrets, such as Anne's paternity, and Percival's forgery. Walter functions like an amateur detective in that he tracks down a number of leads, and follows up on them diligently. He conducts interviews with anyone he thinks might be able to contribute information. He also travels to many different places in order to locate information. Walter's detective work is made possible because of new conditions of modern life, such as quick travel. Walter ultimately proves himself to be an effective detective because he uncovers a lot of new information which leads to Laura's identity being recovered.