Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1535
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 great deal of flexibility and control over the suspense; ensures variety in the narrative style, mood, and tone; and sharpens the characterizations. As the speakers offer their information, they characterize themselves through their diction, prose style, habits, and attitudes. Collins’s narrative method offers readers a gigantic prose jigsaw puzzle. A few years later, Collins uses this same method in writing what many have called the first English detective novel, The Moonstone.
The object of the conspiracy, Laura, is a passive creature with little color or character. The real conflict is between Marian and Walter on the one hand and Percival and Fosco on the other. In the first half of the book, leading up to Laura’s falsified death, Marian acts as a foil to the villains. After Laura’s escape, Walter becomes the principal hero. Percival enters the novel before Fosco but quickly retreats in the reader’s mind to a subordinate position. Fosco, the most impressive character, dominates all the other characters.
As Walter describes her, Marian is a physically unattractive woman: “the lady’s complexion was almost swarthy, and the dark down on her upper lip was almost a mustache. She had a large, firm, masculine mouth and jaw; prominent piercing resolute brown eyes and thick coal-black hair, growing unusually low on her forehead.” Morally and intellectually, she is nevertheless a very strong character. Her qualities, when summed up—loyalty, steadfastness, courage, propriety, intelligence, sensitivity—sound like a list of stock Victorian virtues, but as Collins presents her she seems real.
It is Marian who first senses a conspiracy. It has gone too far to stop, but she manages to hamper the villains for a time. The irony of her situation is that when, having courageously risked her life and gained the information she needs to expose the plot, she catches pneumonia in the act—thus exposing herself and becoming helpless at the critical point. Her illness gives Fosco an opportunity to read her journal and learn everything about her counterstrategy. Having read Marian’s comments, however, Fosco is so impressed by her character and resourcefulness that, for the first time, he allows sentiment to mitigate his treatment of an adversary. This slight moral hesitation is ultimately a significant factor in his downfall.
Fosco is one of the most memorable literary criminals of all time. By contrast, Percival, in Collins’s own words, is “a weak shabby villain.” Percival is clearly dominated by Fosco and does very badly when he operates alone. He reacts to situations emotionally and physically, with little planning and crude execution; the most obvious example is the vicarage fire that costs him his life. Because Collins thought “the crime too ingenious for an English villain,” he felt it necessary to create Isidor Ottavio Baldassare Fosco.
Collins wisely never introduces or describes Fosco directly but allows his presence to grow by means of the reactions and the impressions experienced by the other characters. The count’s most obvious physical feature is his size; he is the first of the great fat criminals, a common type in later crime fiction but still unusual in Collins’s time. “I had begun my story when it struck me that my villain would be commonplace, and I made him fat in opposition to the recognized type of villain.” Fosco’s physical size is matched by his appetites for food, culture, money, and intrigue: he is, in short, a demonic Falstaff.
Fosco’s intellectual powers are likewise impressive. His conspiracy has style as well as intelligence, and he is witty, extremely articulate, and suavely ironical. Furthermore, he is no ordinary criminal; he justifies his amoral actions philosophically. “Crime,” he tells Marian, “is a good friend to man and to those about him as often as it is an enemy.”
Despite the evil he does, Fosco is an attractive man. In addition to his intelligence, style, courage, and strong, if distorted, sense of honor, he also possesses a number of vivid humanizing traits: his fondness for animals, especially his birds and mice; his feelings for his wife; and his honest admiration, even devotion, toward Marian. Perhaps Collins assigns Fosco’s punishment to a mysterious Italian political group rather than to Walter because he realized that his readers’ ambiguous feelings about Fosco will place some onus on the man who brings him to justice.
Although critics have long lauded the characterizations of Marian and Fosco, they have tended to ignore Walter, though he is too important to the novel to be so easily dismissed. He lacks some of the color and sympathy of Marian but is, nevertheless, her equal in courage and intelligence. More important, looking at the novel from the standpoint of a nineteenth century reader, it is Walter with whom one would most likely identify, and it is he who upholds the English national character and middle-class morality in the face of Fosco’s threat.
Walter, the hardworking son of a thrifty drawing-master, confronts a nobleman, a baronet, and a decadent member of the gentry (Fairlie), all vestiges of aristocracy. Walter takes his work seriously; he is industrious, loyal, rational, courageous, and tenacious—in short, he possesses all the Victorian middle-class virtues. In contrast to the amoral Fosco, Walter believes that virtue, truth, and justice must ultimately triumph, and he is given the job of demonstrating that assumption in the action. Because he does it so efficiently, the novel answers the intellectual and moral expectations of the Victorian reading public. Despite Fosco’s style and charm, even twenty-first century readers find Walter’s final victory satisfying.