The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins uses all types of plot devices to shock audiences. From the use of knock-out poisons to the cliffhanger ending and even the use of body doubles, there is an element here that will make readers gasp, or at least groan. Collins develops these and many other shocking story elements in order to hook the reader. The serialized novel of 1859 could be long-winded at times, but its purpose is simply to keep readers reading. However, Collins did not develop this genre entirely on his own. Instead, the sensationalist novel utilized two other genres that were already prevalent during the mid-Victorian era: the gothic and the romantic genres. In The Woman in White, there are instances of ghostly figures moving about cemeteries and early in the novel, Anne Catherick appears out of darkness to Walter Hartright, entirely dressed in white. Later at Blackwater Park, Sir Percival Glyde’s abode is described as “shady,” “dank,” “shadowy” and “poisonous” (Collins 227-228), much like a haunted abode. These elements and others place The Woman in White within the gothic novel, which was already at its height by the beginning of 19th Century. Specifically, The Woman in White uses elements of the terror gothic, whose purpose is to incite feelings of fear (Hume 289). As well, by 1750 and into the middle of the 19th Century, ideals of romanticism influenced mid-Victorian writers, including Collins. Romantic ideas tend to excite the imagination with concepts like “liberty, fraternity and equality” (Burgum 482). Much like the gothic novel, the romantic novel is meant to incite an emotional response like scorn, for characters like Sir Percival Glyde or amazement, at the lengths that Marian Halcombe will go to protect her sister (Hume 282). As well, The Woman in White is an early feminist novel; therefore, there are instances of powerful and assertive women such as the aforementioned Marian Halcombe, who strives for romantic ideals. Collins incorporates romantic ideals such as fraternity and equality into his writing, while adding in sensationalist elements such as a divisive Sir Percival Glyde or a poisoning Countess Fosco. The romantic novel brings forth imaginative ideals, as the sensationalist novel shocks readers. Collins draws from both the gothic genre and romantic genres, while evolving these genres into one of his own. The Woman in White is an evolution of both the terror gothic and romantic genres into the sensationalist novel, whose purpose is centrally to shock readers, to keep the reader hooked to the narrative.
There are several examples of gothic elements in Wilkie Collins’ novel The Woman in White. Wilkie uses the terror gothic to focus on arousing feelings of fear primarily, as opposed to pity. Hume, in his article “Gothic versus Romantic: A Revaluation of the Gothic Novel,” defines the terror gothic as incorporating elements such as “ghosts and gloomy castle atmospheres” (283). In The Woman in White, Marian describes the grounds of the Blackwater Park as:
I saw here, lying half in and half out of the water, the rotten wreck of an old overturned boat, with a sickly spot of sunlight glimmering through a gap in the trees on its dry surface, and a snake basking in the midst of the post, fantastically coiled and treacherously still. Far and near the view suggested the same dreary impressions of solitude and decay, and the glorious brightness of the summer sky overhead seemed to depend and harden the gloom and barrenness of the wilderness on which it shone. (Collins 227-228)
Equating the snake as a symbol of its owner, Sir Percival Glyde, is not a hard connection to make. However, this description is more important for showing the themes of the terror gothic within the novel, which are meant to create feelings of fear or foreboding in the reader and sometimes even pity. The arousal of these emotions in the reader acts as psychological hook, where the unravelling of these negative emotions can only come about from resolution of the plotlines within the novel. The terror gothic also includes supernatural elements (Hume 282). Collins uses this elements earlier in the novel, when Anne Catherick emerges from a darkened roadway dressed in white: “there, in the middle of the broad, bright high-road ‘” there…stood the figure of a solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in white garments” (Collins 47). Her figure appears as if a ghost. This compelling scene is used early as a strategy by Collins, to create feelings of fear early in the reader, which can only be dissolved by continuous reading.
Collins takes gothic elements, which occur frequently in the novel, one step further in order to shock the reader. Brantlinger in his article “What is ‘Sensational’ about the ‘Sensation Novel?” lists several elements consistent with a sensational novel, including: “mysteries of crime, adultery, skeletons in family closets” (4). Dr. Day lists several more elements often seen in the sensationalist novel, such as: hidden illegitimacy, melodramatic dialogue, misdirected letters, romantic triangles and heightened suspense. In the previous paragraph, the pond is described in gothic terms, but this is also a place where secrets of Sir Percival Glyde’s illegitimacy are hidden in letters beneath the sand. Lying of one’s Illegitimacy would be shocking to a morally upstanding mid-Victorian audience. As well, Anne Catherick roams Blackwater Park dressed in white, as if a ghost haunts the property. These actions would seem particularly strange to a society which still believed in the possibility of certain supernatural elements. And her escape from the asylum is meant to arouse feelings of shock in the reader, as those with mental illness were feared by some Victorian readers. Blackwater Park is a foreboding place and this locale is also a location from which Collins can further shock readers and thereby hook the reader to the narrative, through their emotional arousal. In relation to Walter’s early meeting with Anne on the roadway, there is a sense of mystery, as the lady in white’s name is not revealed. Gothic elements consistently emerge in these early scenes. At the conclusion of the chapter, the reader is told of how the woman in white “has escaped from the Asylum” (Collins 54). An escaping mental patient would surely have aroused feelings of shock, to a sensitive Victorian readership. This is a sensationalist element, which creates feelings of surprise and the cliffhanger ending, while breaking up the narrative, also serves to keep the reader mesmerized by the thrilling story. Victorian readers enjoyed the gothic and sensationalist style of writing so much due to its arousal of a diverse set of negative emotions. The resolution for these feelings can only come about when the characters are removed from the terrifying settings and the sensationalist elements therein. These elements and others show how author Collins draws from the gothic, while sensationalizing these elements, to further engross the reader.
There are many romantic elements in The Woman in White, in addition to the gothic ones. Romantic elements include liberty, fraternity and equality, but there is also “heroism, adventure and freedom” (Burgum 480). While there are class struggles for equality in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton, The Woman in White focuses on equality across genders, and specifically, within matrimonial and financial situations. The classically defined hero is played by Walter Hartright. However, if one looks closely at the reading, another hero emerges. Marian shows herself to be a new feminine ideal in Victorian society; she is much more adventurous and outspoken, compared to the women of her time. She is described as being less comely than her sister Laura and even like a man: “she had a large, firm, masculine mouth” (Collins 58). As well as appearing masculine, she is unafraid of entering the political sphere of men. For fraternity and the love of Laura, Marian endangers herself, by entering the masculine sphere. Her presence here is dangerous due the shunning of those who act differently from their gender roles within Victorian society. Marian eavesdrops on Sir Percival Glyde and Count Fosco, as they contemplate how best to part Laura with her substantial inheritance (Collins 345). She takes a great risk and her assertive behaviours would surely elicit some excitement, or amazement from Victorian readers, as she uncovers Sir Percival Glyde’s plan for Laura’s wealth. She uses strategies that would hamper Sir Percival Glyde and Count Fosco’s dealings, in heroic fashion. In one instance, Marian escapes Blackwater Park in order to send a letter to Frederick Fairlie, Laura’s uncle. The scene is of some adventure, as Marian prepares to confront Sir Percival Glyde on her trip to town, while asserting her equality: “any woman who is sure of her own wits is a match at any time for a man who is not sure of his own temper” (Collins 332). Collins puts Marian on the same level as men, which is a new perspective on a social hierarchal system, which saw men at the top. She is also not shy of nor intimidated by Sir Percival Glyde and Marian seems more concerned with Laura’s financial independence and her liberty from the man she was forced to marry, rather than merely fearing male figures of authority. Collins paints a new feminine and romantic Victorian ideal with Marian. By doing so, Collins is arousing feelings of excitement within readers. These feelings of excitement are another emotional hook, which keeps the reader engrossed within the novel.
Collins incorporates several concepts from the romantic genre into his novel, The Woman in White and he goes one step farther, by layering sensationalist ideas amongst the romantic ones. By using the romantic, Collins is bringing some light to the darkness of the gothic, but he is also exploiting romantic ideals in such a way that creates shocking action. Staying with Marian, some of her actions are so unladylike, when compared to Victorian feminine ideals e.g. fragility, gentleness, that they were sure to create shock, in the reader. In Chapter IX of the Second Epoch, Marian strips off her clothing in favour of a black cloak and her presence on a veranda is one of danger. Her purpose for being in this dangerous situation is to protect her sister’s life and the words she hears from Sir Percival Glyde and Count Fosco are shocking. There are allusions, for the reader, that Sir Percival Glyde and Count Fosco intend to murder Laura, in order to gain her inheritance: “well, then, let us say your wife dies before the summer is out” (Collins 349). Murder is still shocking to present day societies and even more so to a conservative Victorian one, which expects a proper moral code. Marian is on the veranda for romantic ideals and purposes; yet, murder and manipulation are sensationalist topics. As mentioned in the previous paragraph, Marian meets with Fanny, a housekeeper, to deliver a letter of appeal to Mr. Fairlie. Sensationalist elements are plentiful in this scene, as Marian believes she is followed: “I thought I detected at intervals the feet of a man walking close behind” (Collins 332). A woman’s sphere of influence was generally the home. For a women to be out on the streets facing danger, is very contemporary. As well, Fanny is drugged by the Countess Fosco, after the reception of Marian’s letters. Fanny’s letters are stolen and the use of mysterious strangers and poison are sensationalist elements, which would be new and shocking to a Victorian readership. Perhaps, most shocking in Marians’ behaviour is her continuous antagonistic actions towards the central villain and patriarch, Sir Percival Glyde. Here, she sets herself up against a man. The behavioural roles for Victorian women at the time required passivity and submissiveness to the man, not the confrontational ones shown by Marian. By venturing out against his will, Marian is taking great personal risk, in the pursuit of romantic ideals and her adventures create the opportunity from which sensationalist elements can develop e.g. heightened suspense, emotionalism, drugs and potions (Day). Marian’s actions draw Sir Percival Glyde down in integrity, while lifting her and Laura’s social power upwards. These romantic ideals such as equality create feelings of excitement to draw the Victorian reader in. The shocking sensationalist elements further bring the reader into Collin’s compelling narrative. The result is a page-turner, which while often unbelievable in circumstance, creates for compelling fiction.
Collins evolved the gothic genres and the romantic genres into the sensationalist novel. Genres are not spontaneously created and instead they evolve from one to the next. Genres in the Victorian era developed from the gothic and earlier forms into the romantic and then into the sensationalist novel. Evidence of the evolution of genres can be seen in Hume’s statement: “early Gothic novels can be considered the precursors of romanticism” (Hume 289). Just as the gothic was the foundation for romanticism, gothic and romantic genres were the precursors for the sensationalist genre. Some changes were necessary to develop these previous genres into the newer sensationalist one. As stated by Brantlinger on the topic of genre: “the sensation novel involves…the domestication…of the Gothic romance” (4). Simply, the sensationalist novel brought romantic ideals into reality. For instance, Laura Fairlie is not an unattainable feminine ideal, which would be an aspect of an earlier genre, courtly love. Rather, she is an imperfect character, who encounters difficulties with the men in her life. An imperfect and attainable feminine character is an example of sensationalism, rather than romanticism. Just as the gothic transformed into the romantic, there is evidence to suggest that the romantic then transformed into the sensationalist novel. Brantlinger notices that there is a mixing of genres in literature and he also notes the transformation of the romantic novel into a sensationalist one: “the element of mystery in a sensation novel…points to their relatedness to other romantic…forms” (2). The romantic novel had reached its extinction by the 1850s and in its place rose the sensationalist novel, by the 1860s. However, the romantic novel did not die off completely, as elements of the romantic novel e.g. mystery, realism were revitalized by Wilkie Collins in his novel The Woman in White and later in The Moonstone. Thus, the development of the sensationalist genre is a relatively smooth transition from the gothic to the romantic and from both the romantic and gothic genres into the sensationalist one.
The roots of the terror gothic can be seen in The Woman in White through its use of terrifying settings and supernatural elements. The purpose of the terror gothic was to arouse feelings of fear, terror and sometimes pity. As well, there are romantic ideals within The Woman in White. The feelings often aroused by the romantic novel include amazement and sometimes scorn for villainous characters. The arousal of all of these feelings acts as an emotional hook, to keep readers reading. Collins evolved both the gothic and romantic genres in The Woman in White, while adding in another element, shock. The arousal of shock in the reader is an element which defines the sensational novel, from the previous genres of gothicism and romanticism. Combining the gothic and romantic genres with the addition of shock, created the popularity of the sensationalist novel, which is still influential today.
Brantlinger, Patrick. “What Is “Sensational” About the “Sensation Novel”?” Nineteenth-Century Fiction
37.1 June (1982): 1-28. Print.
Burgum, Edwin B. “Romanticism.” The Kenyon Review 3.4 (1941): 479-90. Print.
Hume, Robert D. “Gothic versus Romantic: A Revaluation of the Gothic Novel.” Modern Language
Association 84.2 Mar. (1969): 282-90. Web. 8 June 2011.