A Novel for Hysterical Times: Wilkie Collins' Haunting Mystery of False Identity and Female Instability Reflected One of the Lunacy Panics of the Age. Sarah Wise Looks at Three Events That Inspired the Woman in White Published 150 Years Ago This Month

By Wise, Sarah | History Today, August 2010 | Go to article overview

A Novel for Hysterical Times: Wilkie Collins' Haunting Mystery of False Identity and Female Instability Reflected One of the Lunacy Panics of the Age. Sarah Wise Looks at Three Events That Inspired the Woman in White Published 150 Years Ago This Month


Wise, Sarah, History Today


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I had now arrived at that particular point of my walk where four roads met--the road to Hampstead, the road to Finchley, the road to West End, and the road back to London. I had mechanically turned in this latter direction, and was strolling along the lonely highroad ... when, in one moment, every drop of blood in my body was brought to a stop by the touch of a hand laid lightly and suddenly on my shoulder from behind me. I turned on the instant, with my fingers tightening round the handle of my stick. There, in the middle of the broad, bright high-road--there, as if it had that moment sprung out of the earth or dropped from the heaven--stood the figure of a solitary woman, dressed from head to foot in white garments, her face bent in grave inquiry on mine, her hand pointing to the dark cloud over London, as I faced her. I was far too seriously startled by the suddenness with which this extraordinary apparition stood before me, in the dead of night and in that lonely place, to ask what she wanted. The strange woman spoke first. "Is that the road to London?'

So begin the mysterious events that embroil young Walter Hartright, hero of Wilkie Collins' The Woman In White, published in novel form in August 1860. Charles Dickens is said to have stated that this was one of the two most dramatic episodes in fiction that he could recall. The story had been hugely popular when it first appeared as a serial in the periodical All The Year Round edited by Dickens, Collins' close friend and supporter.

Chivalrously, Dickens did not acknowledge that he himself may have contributed to the striking, phantasmagoric image of a solitary female wearing white, wandering a London street. His own deranged woman in white (one inspiration for Miss Havisham of Great Expectations) had appeared in his piece 'Where We Stopped Growing' for the January 1st, 1853 edition of Household Words. In this he recalled the real-life West End oddity, the White Woman of Berners Street, 'dressed entirely in white ... a conceited old creature, cold and formal in manner, and [who] evidently went simpering mad ... because a wealthy Quaker wouldn't marry her'.

But Collins' night-time apparition makes herself known out in the north-western suburbs, a region Collins knew well, having spent his youth in a succession of rented homes in Maida Vale, St John's Wood, Marylebone, Hampstead and Regent's Park. He had attended Maida Hill Academy, just off the Edgware Road, in the late 1830s. The Collinses had lived for a year or so at 20 Avenue Road--the very street in which Hartright gets his shock--while the novel's villain, Count Fosco, the corpulent, white-mouse-loving schemer, has a London home nearby, at the fictional 5 Forest Road.

Behind the high walls of a St John's Wood villa, many a wealthy Victorian man housed his mistress and the covered path from garden gate to front door that is a feature of some of the houses gave nosy parkers only the briefest glimpse of who was coming and going. The seclusion offered by its architecture meant that St John's Wood could protect other middle-class secrets, too. After her brother Charles' death in 1834, Mary Lamb, who suffered bouts of insanity and had murdered their mother in a mad fit, lived out her last years in the now disappeared Alpha Road. The area's monied seediness made it a perfect location for Hartright's encounter and had all sorts of associations that Collins would not have needed to explain to his readership.

Without spoiling the story, The Woman In White concerns a dastardly conspiracy by two members of the gentry to defraud beautiful, highly strung but perfectly sane Laura Fairlie by confining her to an asylum. This is possible because they have spotted the physical similarity between Laura and a genuinely emotionally disturbed young woman, Anne Catherick (it is she who accosts Walter). If Laura is to be freed, restored to her rightful identity and the body-swap revealed it will take the combined organisational and detective powers of Walter and Laura's intelligent, brave but physically unattractive half-sister, Marian Halcombe. …

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A Novel for Hysterical Times: Wilkie Collins' Haunting Mystery of False Identity and Female Instability Reflected One of the Lunacy Panics of the Age. Sarah Wise Looks at Three Events That Inspired the Woman in White Published 150 Years Ago This Month
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