The Fashionable Woman in White
Wilkie Collins is often credited with writing the first full-length detective novel in English, The Moonstone (1868). But his 1859 novel, The Woman in White, was the one that made his reputation. Wildly popular when serialized in a journal, it sold out the day it appeared in a bound edition. Like blockbuster movies today, the book spawned a line of products. Stores sold Woman in White cloaks, hats, and perfumes. Woman in White waltzes and quadrilles became popular dances.
Though derided by some contemporary critics as sensationalist trash, the novel has remained popular for 150 years with adaptations for the stage, film, and television. It even inspired an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical (not very popular).
At Collins’ request, the inscription on his tombstone reads: “In memory of Wilkie Collins, author of ‘The Woman in White’ and other works of fiction.”
The Woman in White: Plot and Characters
Collins based the villainy in The Woman in White on an actual crime that occurred in France. He modified the story and added the trappings of the Gothic novel popular earlier in the 19th century: a claustrophobic setting, a spectral figure warning of danger, a beautiful woman victimized by powerful men, and the stalwart heroes who devote themselves to rescuing her. As the plot unfolds, social problems come under scrutiny, including the treatment of the mentally ill and the laws denying women rights.
Following the example of his friend and mentor, Charles Dickens, Collins not only explored social issues, but filled his novel with quirky, memorable characters. The plucky Marian, who risks her life to save her half-sister, serves as a model for the brainy, courageous heroines of romantic suspense, though later writers wisely dropped Marian’s distinguishing feature, a faint mustache.
Marian has a worthy opponent in Count Fosco, whose wit, charm, and brilliance make him the archetype of the affable criminal. The obese count, his pet mice scampering over his huge body, simultaneously attracts and repels Marian—and the reader. According to Margaret Oliphant, a novelist and early reviewer of The Woman in White, “No villain of the century comes within a mile of him.”