When I picked up the book The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins (1824 – 89), published in 1860, I admit that I was expecting a ghost story along the lines of The Woman in Black. However, the former is most certainly set in the world of flesh and blood.
In my opinion, you cannot read the splendidly creepy late-night encounter with the eponymous woman, in chapter four, and not want to read to the end of the book. I had now arrived at that particular point of my walk where four roads met—the road to Hampstead, along which I had returned, the road to Finchley, the road to West End, and the road back to London. I had mechanically turned in this latter direction, and was strolling along the lonely high-road—idly wondering, I remember, what the Cumberland young ladies would look like—when, in one moment, every drop of blood in my body was brought to a stop by the touch of a hand laid lightly and suddenly on my shoulder from behind me.
The effect immediately put me in mind of the famous scene in chapter 3 of Wuthering Heights when, half asleep, a ghostly hand seizes that of Edgar Linton through the window. But again, in The Woman in White, the encounter, although intensely eerie, is in no way supernatural.
Several people narrate the story, which is divided into three epochs, and it was first published in serial form in All the Year Round from 26 November 1859 to 25 August 1860 (40 parts). The book freely acknowledges its debt to earlier French literature and serial fiction, with these lines in the penultimate chapter: We had arranged the evening before to ascend the Cathedral of Notre Dame, with Victor Hugo’s noble romance for our guide.
Now as a writer I’ve found that every “how to” guide warns strongly about telling a tale from multiple points of view (except for a romance, where it alternates between the male and female perspective). Yet in The Woman in White the device is entirely successful. In fact it neatly avoids the trap of a single narrator, who couldn’t possibly be privy to all the events depicted.
I can only describe reading this book as being like a TV soap opera, where a particularly lurid plot grabs you and won’t let you go, and although you may like to kid yourself that you’ve been drawn in “despite yourself”, in all honesty you know that you’re loving each twist and turn of the melodrama.
There are two villains in the piece; Sir Percival Glyde and Count Fosco.
Count Fosco has a penchant for mesmerism, self-taught medicine and vanilla bonbons. Which makes him bad enough. While Sir Percival is a man who we understand from the outset is far too charming to be true. He’d like to glide over the surface, but the weight of his actions soon sends cracks skittering away across the figurative ice. Unutterable cads and bounders the pair of them, if you ask me.
In a story containing eavesdropping, false imprisonment, identity theft, illegitimate birth, mistaken identity, murder, romance, secret societies and spies, we read each chapter wondering, can the villains be stopped in time and will the truth come out? With the appearance of a mysterious man in black, in chapter five of the third epoch, I realized that The Woman in White truly has it all. Wilkie Collins, I take my hat off to you.