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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