Edited with an Introduction and Notes by Matthew Sweet.
The Woman in White famously opens with Walter Hartright's eerie encounter on a moonlit London road. Engaged as a drawing master to the beautiful Laura Fairlie, Walter is drawn into the sinister intrigues of Sir Percival Glyde and his 'charming' friend Count Fosco, who has a taste for white mice, vanilla bonbons and poison. Pursuing questions of identity and insanity along the paths and corridors of English country houses and the madhouse, The Woman in White is the first and most influential of the Victorian genre that combined Gothic horror with psychological realism.
Wilkie Collins (1824-1889) began his literary career writing articles and short stories for Dickens' periodicals. He published a biography of his father and a number of plays but his reputation rests on his novels. Collins found his true fictionalmetier in mystery, suspense and crime. He is best known for his novels in the emerging genres of Sensation and Detective fiction.Matthew Sweet is a journalist and critic, and wrote his doctoral thesis on Wilkie Collins.
A Chronology of Wilkie Collin's Life
A Note on the Text
The Woman in White
Preface to the Present Edition (1861)
Appendix A: Theatrical Adaptations of The Woman in White
Appendix B: Wilkie Collins on the Composition of the Woman in White
Appendix C: The Serialization of the Woman in White in All the Year Round
"Collins was a master craftsman, whom many modern mystery-mongers might imitate to their profit." --Dorothy L. Sayers
Probably the finest example of 'sensation fiction', a Victorian genre that used suspense as a basic element. This work twists and turns with dastardly deeds and shameful secrets, love and dishonour. Usually regarded as one of the original 'detective' stories, Collins's novel is much concerned with personal danger, suspense, the conflict of good and evil, and characters at the extremes of suffering and survival - a genuine thriller. The 'rescue of innocence' theme is essential to the genre, and the characterization and psychological detail are elements too often ignored by the thriller. Thackeray stayed up all night to finish it, and so will you. (Kirkus UK)
Runner-up for The BBC Big Read Top 100 2003
Short-listed for BBC Big Read Top 100 2003
"Collins was a master craftsman, whom many modern mystery-mongers might imitate to their profit." - Dorothy L. Sayers
INTRODUCTION "To Mr. Collins belongs the credit of having introduced into fiction those most mysterious of mysteries, the mysteries which are at our own doors." --Henry James Illegitimacy, mistaken identity, insanity, inheritance, drugs, adultery, crimes of passion -- all of these lurid features of Victorian life were Wilkie Collins''s stock in trade. In The Moonstone he single-handedly developed most elements of the classic detective story. With The Woman in White Collins created the archetypal sensation novel, spawning generations of imitators. But perhaps his greatest genius was his capacity to reveal the exotic amidst the commonplace, the "mysteries which are at our own doors." Collins composed his masterworks during one of the most tumultuous periods in the history of English literature. England''s cities and industries were booming, poverty and crime filled the news, melodrama ruled the theaters, and newfound wealth made class barriers increasingly permeable. Dickens had just started his periodical All the Year Round , which helped to bring literature to a mass audience and blur the boundaries between highbrow and middlebrow culture. The new audience demanded a new type of novel, a novel as compelling as the scandalous headlines it competed with at the newsstands, able to keep readers in suspense from month to month and eager to buy the next issue. Dickens launched the magazine, and the golden decade of the serial novel, with A Tale of Two Cities in the spring of 1860, and Collins followed with The Woman in White in the fall. The plot of Collins''s novel had its origins in a French crime in which a Marquise was drugged and held prisoner under a false name so that her brother could inherit her estate. The midnight apparition of the title character -- which Dickens called one of the two most dramatic scenes in literature -- had its origin much closer to home. While walking a friend home one night Collins had heard a piercing scream from a nearby villa, then saw dashing from the house "the figure of a young and very beautiful young woman dressed in flowing white robes that shone in the moonlight. She seemed to float rather than to run . . . in an attitude of supplication and terror." Caroline Graves, recently widowed with an infant daughter, said she had been held captive at the house for several months "under threats and mesmeric influence." The details of what followed are unknown, but before long she and Collins had made a home together and she had adopted a story about her origins more suited to Collins''s social position. Her father had been transformed from a carpenter to a "gentleman" and her former husband from an accountant''s clerk to a captain in the army. It has been argued that the two faces of Caroline -- the newly respectable lady and the abused women of questionable background -- are reflected in the look-alike characters in The Woman in White , Laura Fairlie and Anne Catherick. Certainly the tension between appearance and reality that was central to the mystery had a powerful salience for Collins at the time, defying as he did the social expectations that he marry Caroline but also refusing to keep their relationship secret. The Woman in White was an enormous success, prompting long lines at the publisher''s offices and even inspiring a popular song, the "Woman in White Waltz." Collins earned a large advance for his next novel, securing his financial independence from his mother (who was the model for Hartright''s impulsive, childlike mother in the book, just as Hartright was modeled in part on Collins''s anxious, conventional brother). Readers were especially intrigued by the character of Marian Halcombe, whose charm, wit, independence, and ugliness probably have their roots in Collins''s friendship with George Eliot. Throughout his work Collins created strong female characters that defy Victorian mores and gender roles, assertive women with a calculating streak. Imitators took the notion to an extreme, creating anti-heroines that resorted to murder and bigamy to achieve their wicked ends. By the time Collins started writing The Moonstone in 1867, the outcry over "the fair-haired demon of modern fiction" had grown so shrill and the clich
Chapter One The Narrative of Walter Hartright, of Clemant''s Inn, London IT WAS the last day of July. The long hot summer was drawing to a close; and we, the weary pilgrims of the London pavement, were beginning to think of the cloud-shadows on the corn-fields, and the autumn breezes on the sea-shore. For my own poor part, the fading summer left me out of health, out of spirits, and, if the truth must be told, out of money as well. During the past year, I had not managed my professional resources as carefully as usual; and my extravagance now limited me to the prospect of spending the autumn economically between my mother''s cottage at Hampstead, and my own chambers in town. The evening, I remember, was still and cloudy; the London air was at its heaviest; the distant hum of the street-traffic was at its faintest; the small pulse of the life within me and the great heart of the city around me seemed to be sinking in unison, languidly and more languidly, with the sinking sun. I roused myself from the book which I was dreaming over rather than reading, and left my chambers to meet the cool night air in the suburbs. It was one of the two evenings in every week which I was accustomed to spend with my mother and my sister. So I turned my steps northward, in the direction of Hampstead. Events which I have yet to relate, make it necessary to mention in this place that my father had been dead some years at the period of which I am now writing; and that my sister Sarah, and I, were the sole survivors of a family of five children. My father was a drawing-master before me. His exertions had made him highly successful in his profession; and his affectionate anxiety to provide for the future of those who were dependent on his labours, had impelled him, from the time of his marriage, to devote to the insuring of his life a much larger portion of his income than most men consider it necessary to set aside for that purpose. Thanks to his admirable prudence and self-denial, my mother and sister were left, after his death, as independent of the world as they had been during his lifetime. I succeeded to his connexion, and had every reason to feel grateful for the prospect that awaited me at my starting in life. The quiet twilight was still trembling on the topmost ridges of the heath; and the view of London below me had sunk into a black gulf in the shadow of the cloudy night, when I stood before the gate of my mother''s cottage. I had hardly rung the bell, before the house-door was opened violently; my worthy Italian friend, Professor Pesca, appeared in the servant''s place; and darted out joyously to receive me, with a shrill foreign parody on an English cheer. On his own account, and, I must be allowed to add, on mine also, the Professor merits the honour of a formal introduction. Accident has made him the starting-point of the strange family story which it is the purpose of these pages to unfold. I had first become acquainted with my Italian friend by meeting him at certain great houses, where he taught his own language and I taught drawing. All I then knew of the history of his life was, that he had once held a situation in the University of Padua; that he had left Italy for political reasons (the nature of which he uniformly declined to mention to anyone); and that he had been for many years respectably established in London as a teacher of languages. Without being actually a dwarf-for he was perfectly well-proportioned from head to foot-Pesca was, I think, the smallest human being I ever saw, out of a show-room. Remarkable anywhere, by his personal appearance, he was still further distinguished among the rank and file of mankind, by the harmless eccentricity of his character. The ruling idea of his life appeared to be, that he was bound to show his gratitude to the country which had afforded him an asylum and a means of subsistence, by doing his utmost to turn himself into an Englishman. Not content with paying the nation in general the compliment of invariably carrying an umbrella, and invariably wearing gaiters and a white hat, the Professor further aspired to become an Englishman in his habits and amusements, as well as in his personal appearance. Finding us distinguished, as a nation, by our love of athletic exercises, the little man, in the innocence of his heart, devoted himself impromptu to all our English sports and pastimes, whenever he had the opportunity of joining them; firmly persuaded that he could adopt our national amusements of the field, by an effort of will, precisely as he had adopted our national gaiters and our national white hat. I had seen him risk his limbs at a fox-hunt and in a cricket-field; and, soon afterwards, I saw him risk his life, just as blindly, in the sea at Brighton. We had met there accidentally, and were bathing together. If we had been engaged in any exercise peculiar to my own nation, I should, of course, have looked after Pesca carefully; but, as foreigners are generally quite as well able to take care of themselves in the water as Englishmen, it never occurred to me that the art of swimming might merely add one more to the list of manly exercises which the Professor believed that he could learn impromptu. Soon after we had both struck out from shore, I stopped, finding my friend did not gain on me, and turned round to look for him. To my horror and amazement, I saw nothing between me and the beach but two little white arms, which struggled for an instant above the surface of the water, and then disappeared from view. When I dived for him, the poor little man was lying quietly coiled up at the bottom, in a hollow of shingle, looking by many degrees smaller than I had ever seen him look before. During the few minutes that elapsed while I was taking him in, the air revived him, and he ascended the steps of the machine with my assistance. With the partial recovery of his animation came the return of his wonderful delusion on the subject of swimming. As soon as his chattering teeth would let him speak, he smiled vacantly, and said he thought it must have been the Cramp. When he had thoroughly recovered himself and had joined me on the beach, his warm Southern nature broke through all artificial English restraints, in a moment. He overwhelmed me with the wildest expressions of affection-exclaimed passionately, in his exaggerated Italian way, that he would hold his life, henceforth, at my disposal-and declared that he should never be happy again, until he had found an opportunity of proving his gratitude by rendering me some service which I might remember, on my side, to the end of my days. I did my best to stop the torrent of his tears and protestations, by persisting in treating the whole adventure as a good subject for a joke; and succeeded at last, as I imagined, in lessening Pesca''s overwhelming sense of obligation to me. Little did I think then-little did I think afterwards when our pleasant Brighton holiday had drawn to an end-that the opportunity of serving me for which my grateful companion so ardently longed, was soon to come; that he was eagerly to seize it on the instant; and that, by so doing, he was to turn the whole current of my existence into a new channel, and to alter me to myself almost past recognition. Yet, so it was. If I had not dived for Professor Pesca, when he lay under water on his shingle bed, I should, in all human probability, never have been connected with the story which these pages will relate-I should never, perhaps, have heard even the name of the woman, who has lived in all my thoughts, who has possessed herself of all my energies, who has become the one guiding influence that now directs the purpose of my life. Chapter Two Pesca''s face and manner, on the evening when we confronted each other at my mother''s gate, were more than sufficient to inform me that something extraordinary had happened. It was quite useless, however, to ask him for an immediate explanation. I could only conjecture, while he was dragging me in by both hands, that (knowing my habits) he had come to the cottage to make sure of meeting me that night, and that he had some news to tell of an unusually agreeable kind. We both bounced into the parlour in a highly abrupt and undignified manner. My mother sat by the open window, laughing and fanning herself. Pesca was one of her especial favourites; and his wildest eccentricities were always pardonable in her eyes. Poor dear soul! from the first moment when she found out that the little Professor was deeply and gratefully attached to her son, she opened her heart to him unreservedly, and took all his puzzling foreign peculiarities for granted, without so much as attempting to understand any one of them. My sister Sarah, with all the advantages of youth, was, strangely enough, less pliable. She did full justice to Pesca''s excellent qualities of heart; but she could not accept him implicitly, as my mother accepted him, for my sake. Her insular notions of propriety rose in perpetual revolt against Pesca''s constitutional contempt for appearances; and she was always more or less undisguisedly astonished at her mother''s familiarity with the eccentric little foreigner. I have observed, not only in my sister''s case, but in the instances of others, that we of the young generation are nothing like so hearty and so impulsive as some of our elders. I constantly see old people flushed and excited by the prospect of some anticipated pleasure which altogether fails to ruffle the tranquillity of their serene grandchildren. Are we, I wonder, quite such genuine boys and girls now as our seniors were, in their time? Has the great advance in education taken rather too long a stride; and are we, in these modern
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