Health, Sports & Psychology

A reader's guide to The Woman In White

Updated Friday 1st October 2004

Wilkie Collins' 1859 book The Woman In White is widely considered one of the first detective novels.

The Woman in White is one of the finest examples of the genre known as Sensation Fiction. In the 1860s, Sensation writers could scarcely keep up with the demand for their books. Many of the most notable authors were female, and the public’s thirst for tales of adultery, bigamy, madness, murder, secrets and wrongful incarceration enabled Mrs Braddon and co. to earn substantial sums. They often turned to the press for their inspiration, finding alarming cases of abuse. Readers therefore felt that there were elements of reality underlying the plots: such dreadful things really could happen. This added a delicious spooky fascination!

Wilkie Collins’s novel was impressive for many reasons. From a creative writing perspective, his form was innovative: he did not restrict himself to a single narrator, but allowed the characters to take turns at telling the story. His method required readers to be alert, as they pieced together emerging clues. It is often said that Collins set the pattern for thrillers and detective novels.

Jennifer Hilary Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC

The Woman in White also had an unusual heroine in the figure of Marian Halcombe. All through his life Collins lacked confidence in his appearance, and in his books he had a tendency to sympathize with underdogs. In creating Marian he deliberately avoided a pretty-pretty female lead, preferring to emphasize her remarkable courage, integrity and devotion. Even one of the villains of the piece, Count Fosco, is presented in an interesting way. Despite his wickedness, he and Marian cannot help but feel drawn to one another. Their mutual attraction is sinister, yet somehow credible...

 

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