The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins

The Woman in White: Victorian melodrama at its best


The Gothic genre is generously wide, by which I mean it can embrace the Brontës, Mary Shelley and Wilkie Collins; a meeting of the sublime and the ridiculous.

‘The Woman in White’ ticks so many boxes for trashy Gothic its easier to list them than write a sensible, reasoned summary.  Here goes:

Gothic stereotype number 1: The virtuous, ineffectual heroine.  While it is true that 18th century gothic had loads of empowered, active heroines the Victorians were past-masters at revisionist history.  In this book, watch at Wilkie Collins shows that women can’t be beautiful, good and active at the same time.

Gothic stereotype number 2: The ugly clever woman.  Marian Halcombe is the best thing about the novel, and her introduction brilliantly sets up her non-threatening role as the repulsive representation of intelligent femininity.

Never was the old conventional maxim, that Nature cannot err, more flatly contradicted—never was the fair promise of a lovely figure more strangely and startlingly belied by the face and head that crowned it. The lady’s complexion was almost swarthy, and the dark down on her upper lip was almost a moustache. She had a large, firm, masculine mouth and jaw; prominent, piercing, resolute brown eyes; and thick, coal-black hair, growing unusually low down on her forehead. Her expression—bright, frank, and intelligent—appeared, while she was silent, to be altogether wanting in those feminine attractions of gentleness and pliability, without which the beauty of the handsomest woman alive is beauty incomplete. To see such a face as this set on shoulders that a sculptor would have longed to model—to be charmed by the modest graces of action through which the symmetrical limbs betrayed their beauty when they moved, and then to be almost repelled by the masculine form and masculine look of the features in which the perfectly shaped figure ended—was to feel a sensation oddly akin to the helpless discomfort familiar to us all in sleep, when we recognise yet cannot reconcile the anomalies and contradictions of a dream.

Marian is great and she saves the day, you just really pity her for not being written fifty years earlier when the author wouldn’t have needed to justify her mind in such an offensive way.

Gothic stereotype number 3: overly emotional and excitable ‘good’ foreigners.  Our hero saves the life of the Italian Professor Pesca in chapter 2, which mean that for the rest of the book he keeps on popping up with his ‘warm southern nature’, ‘exaggerated Italian way[s]’ and ‘puzzling foreign peculiarities’.  He even speaks with a comedy Italian accent.  Good old xenophobic fun.  Also, please remember that English people in the novel are never ever foreign, even when they travel abroad they’re still not foreign anywhere.  And everyone else wants to be English too, just like them.

Gothic stereotype number 4: evil foreigners.  If they’re not enamoured with all things English and don’t see the English as their saviours they’re 100% evil.  Count Fosco had proper super-villain character traits, if he doesn’t sit in a big chair stroking a white cat, it’s only because he’s hugely affectionate towards his pet mice.  Bond would never have escaped; it’s a good thing we have Marian to help us.

Gothic stereotype number 5: crazy coincidences.  They’re all over the place and they’re great.  I’m a twin myself and I always like it when plot twists are resolved by two characters being physically identical.

Gothic stereotype number 6: evil aristocrats.  Sir Percival Glyde is dastardly and unscrupulous and he does not treat beautiful women with the respect they deserves.  He doesn’t treat ugly women much better, though he sees fewer of them.  Essentially he’s a baddy and he forms alliances with bad foreigners.

As you can tell – I really enjoy ‘A Woman in White’.  It’s good for a read and good for a rant and you can’t ask much more of Victorian melodrama.

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