Over 150 years later, The Woman in White still deserves its status as one of the most beloved and influential novels written in English. The combination of Gothic aesthetics, penny dreadful scandal, domestic drama and Victorian true crime makes it a mainstream delight for all readers, then and now. There’s even classic detective work that would, no doubt, go on to inspire the Sherlock Holmes mysteries.
Collins’ mix of motifs were so unique, and inspired so many knock-offs, that eventually literary critics dubbed The Woman in White as the first ‘Sensation Novel’. Specifically, this new genre is said to begin in Chapter 3, when a woman clad entirely in white is found wandering metropolitan streets in the pale moonlight. Her inexplicable, ghostly presence, possibly being the escapee of an insane asylum, and mysterious connection to an arranged marriage elsewhere was the cauldron that officially swirled all these ingredients together.
Stylistically, Collins’ close friendship with Charles Dickens is observed in his similar fashion of language, with a focus on middle class characters and pacing that reflects serialized publication. In other words, the book is long. Probably longer than it should be, but somehow rarely boring.
Serialized novels, like TV shows, are meant to drag out unanswered questions and keep audiences in suspense to sell more installments every week. In some ways this results in a bloated story, but it also means a number of “shocks” every few chapters to generate buzz. Tension is a constant presence, with the assurance of “something bad” about to happen lingering on every page. Cliffhangers are plentiful, yet artfully placed and used to great effect.
The novel would have been read side-by-side with articles involving high-profile legal cases and true crime happening around London, adding an impossible-to-ignore realism to the dramatic fiction. There were a few real life cases in particular which appear to have influenced Collins directly, including the 1856 trial of William Palmer.
Palmer was accused, convicted and ultimately hanged for his particularly heinous crimes of using strychnine to poison a friend, his mother-in-law, his brother, and even his four children. It seemed every day new details about his motivations were revealed. For instance, he received a huge life insurance payment after the death of his 27-year-old wife—who supposedly died of cholera—and brother, whom Palmer poisoned. He was also proven to have defrauded his mother’s wealth to pay heavy losses from gambling debts. The murder of his children was suspected merely for the sake of having less mouths to feed.
Dickens described Palmer as “the greatest villain that ever stood in the Old Bailey” and Collins seems to have been equally enthralled by the events of the twist-filled trial. For modern examples we would have to think as big as O.J. Simpson or Jodi Arias, and even those may have paled in comparison. It is estimated that a staggering 30,000 people attended the public hanging of William Palmer on June 14th, 1856. There’s evidence which suggests Wilkie Collins was one of them.
The Woman in White, with its detail-oriented prose and carefully constructed mystery, gave readers a front row seat to what could be the workings of this type of domestic poisoning which dominated the news. When Count Fosco, the novel’s central villain, confesses to his exceptional skills in chemistry, Collins did not need to provide further explanation for how chemists could use their talents for evil. William Palmer made Victorian audiences all too aware.
Once The Woman in White started to appear in print, it was clear a phenomenon was brewing. Frequent discussions around the local pubs included bets over what Sir Percival Glyde’s big “secret” might be. “Walter” became an increasingly popular baby name, while “Fosco” was a favorite choice for cats who exhibited sneaky, stalking personalities. Circulation of ‘All the World Around,’ the popular publication which serialized the novel, drastically increased its circulation. Beyond the text itself, The Woman in White inspired spin-off merchandise including its own line of perfume, bonnets and cloaks.
While society has certainly changed since Victorian times, it seems Wilkie Collins’ story still hits on all the topics which fascinate us, including what drives people to crime, marriage anxieties, and a desire to put bad guys to justice. I’m not surprised at all that it continues to find such a vast and eager audience.
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