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The Woman in White | Context

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Women's Rights in 19th-Century England

In Victorian England single women had control of their own wealth. They could enter into contracts and own property in their names. However, married women had very few legal rights. The courts regarded wives not as individuals but as the chattel (property) of their husbands. They were not allowed to own property, and any possessions or other wealth belonged to their husbands. They had no legal control over the distribution of any property or income. Women could not divorce their spouses, and wives who left their husbands could be forced to return to their marriages. When couples decided to separate, custody of any children automatically went to the fathers. In his novel, Collins starkly points out many of these inequities. The character of Sir Percival contrives to gain control of his wife's income and property, denying her the right to dispose of it as she sees fit.

England's married women gradually gained legal rights during the 19th century. Passage of the 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act and the Married Women's Property Acts of 1870, 1882, and 1893 significantly improved their status. Under the Matrimonial Causes Act, women could divorce their husbands if they could prove adultery and desertion or cruelty. Upon her divorce or legal separation, a woman regained her legal status as an individual and could reclaim the property rights she had before marriage. However, the only court responsible for hearing divorce cases was located in London, which limited opportunities for people living far from the city.

The Women's Property Act of 1870 improved rights of married women by giving them ownership of their earnings—which previously would belong to their husbands. In 1882 the 1870 Act was amended—giving wives control of property and other goods which they had brought into their marriages. Married women's rights advanced further under the 1893 amendment to the Women's Property Act. This change to the law gave wives control of property obtained during the marriage.

When The Woman in White was written, the character of Laura Fairlie would not have had the protection of the Women's Property Act. Thus her husband, Sir Percival, is able to ignore the bequests she wants to make from her inheritance.

Mental Illness and Institutionalization

Diagnosis and treatment of mental illnesses were far different in the Victorian era than they are in modern times. Individuals suffering from mental disorders managed with psychotherapy and medications were often committed permanently to mental health institutions, or insane asylums. Some unscrupulous families had relatives confined to institutions because they wanted them out of the way—sometimes in order to collect inheritances. Many people developed a fear of being improperly confined and a "lunacy panic" gripped the country in the late 1850s.

A much-publicized case in 19th-century England involved novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton and his wife, Rosina Bulwer-Lytton. An 1858 editorial in The Times of London documented Bulwer-Lytton's abduction and institutionalization of his wife in retaliation for her novels satirizing his behavior. Public uproar following the editorial helped win Rosina Bulwer-Lytton's release.

Acquaintances of Bulwer-Lytton, Wilkie Collins and his friend, English novelist Charles Dickens, often presented the topic of mental illness to their readers. In The Woman in White both Anne Catherick and Laura Fairlie (Glyde) are wrongfully institutionalized to safeguard Sir Percival Glyde's criminal secret.

The Sensation Novel

The Woman in White was among the first of a short-lived genre of literature called "sensation novels." The term sensation had two meanings: first, the stories were filled with horrifying or terrifying details, graveyards, nefarious villains, and thrilling lovers. Second, the books vividly described assaults on their characters' senses, such as nerve-jangling noises and overpowering smells. Sensation novels were rooted in the older gothic romances, but they also included elements of realism that made them uniquely Victorian.

The new genre was wildly popular with Victorian readers. Literary critics, however, felt the stories were overly melodramatic and fraught with absurd situations, impossible coincidences, and other unlikely elements.

Most sensation novels contain many of the same characters and other devices:

  • bigamous marriages and romantic triangles
  • women in physical distress
  • villains from the nobility
  • drugs, poisons, and other chemical potions
  • disguises
  • misdirected or stolen letters
  • suspenseful details

The Woman in White also makes use of some classic gothic elements such as a ruined manor, ghostly scenes in graveyards, and heroines wrongfully confined.

In addition to the unlikely elements of romance narratives, sensation novels included elements of realism that gave their stories and characters more depth. In The Woman in White, Marian Halcombe's assertiveness and pragmatism and Count Fosco's fascination with opera and animals give their characters lively sparks of reality.

The Origins of The Woman in White

While the midnight appearance of a mysterious woman in white may sound like the product of an overheated imagination, the event actually occurred. Following a dinner party, Collins and his guests heard screams coming from a nearby house. The gate of the house flew open, and a woman dressed in fluttering white garments burst out—disappearing into the shadows. Apparently, the woman was Caroline Graves, who eventually became Collins's mistress. Charles Dickens's daughter later recounted that Mrs. Graves had been kept as a prisoner in the house.

Another source that influenced Collins in creating The Woman in White was a book of French court records he read while traveling with Dickens. One case Collins studied concerned Marquise de Drouhault, whose relatives drugged and imprisoned her in an asylum under a false name. Eventually identified and released, the marquise then sued in court to reclaim the inheritance her family had stolen.

Epistolary Novel

The Woman in White is an example of an epistolary novel—a novel written entirely in the first person as a series of documents (in this case letters, journal entries, and a few official documents). The first such novel was Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740), written by English author Samuel Richardson. Other famous epistolary novels include Irish author Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897), English author Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), and the much more recent book Bridget Jones' Diary (1996) by English writer Helen Fielding. The epistolary novel has sometimes been described as the precursor to the psychological thriller.

Epistolary novels offer a number of advantages for readers. Specifically, they allow the reader access to the thoughts and feelings of a number of characters from their own perspectives. As a result, it's possible to explore not only the actions and intentions of each character but also the complex thought processes and emotions that motivate their actions. In The Woman in White, the epistolary form allows readers to, for example, better understand Marian Halcombe's careful consideration of people and situations—and to fully appreciate the narcissistic vanity of characters such as Count Fosco and Mrs. Catherick. Use of documents such as a tomb inscription also suggest a kind of realism that is otherwise absent from the novel.

On the other hand, the epistolary novel has limitations that are not imposed on a typical third-person narrative. For example, it is impossible for the novelist to set up a scene about which a character has not written (or about which a character could not write). So, for example, in The Woman in White, it would have been impossible for the character of Laura Fairlie to write about her own abduction as it happened—and so there is no description of the event from her point of view. In addition, in some cases, characters are forced to write in ways that are incompatible with their backgrounds or personalities, simply in order to tell the story.

While the epistolary novel was particularly popular during the 1700s and 1800s, it continues to be a popular style of storytelling for both literary and genre fiction.

Response to The Woman in White

Upon its publication, The Woman in White met with mixed response. Some reviewers admired Collins's technical skill but felt that the content and style of his work was too melodramatic to qualify as serious literature. Fellow author Edward Bulwer-Lytton dismissed Woman as "great trash." American writer Henry James considered Woman "ponderous," yet believed Collins "introduced into fiction those most mysterious of mysteries, the mysteries which are at our own doors."

Charles Dickens, Collins's friend and mentor, declared Woman to be Collins's best work yet. To English novelist Margaret Oliphant, Woman represented "a new beginning in fiction." Describing Count Fosco, Oliphant stated, "From his first entrance [Fosco] is master of the scene ... No villain of the century ... comes within 100 miles."

Whether critics praised or derided Woman was of little interest to English readers. From the first of Woman's 40 weekly installments, readers eagerly followed the story, entranced by its cliffhanger structure. Dickens's magazine, All the Year Round was already popular, and demand for The Woman in White pushed circulation to more than 100,000 issues per week. When the complete novel was published in 1860, the entire edition of 1,000 copies sold on the first day. More than 1,000 additional copies sold the following week.

Although the magazine installments of Woman did not include the author's name, Collins's identity leaked out and the previously little-known writer found himself a household name. Popularity of the novel led to commercial exploitation and the establishment of a Woman in White brand. Entrepreneurs began selling Women in White perfumes, cloaks, bonnets, and dresses. People even danced to a new song, the "Woman in White Waltz."

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