When Wilkie Collins—close friend of Charles Dickens—published his fifth book, The Woman in White, (found here in a collection of all his work, for a buck ) in spite of outrage on the part of critics, it was a runaway bestseller.
It stayed in print long after Collins’ death, had countless stage adaptations, and has been made into film fourteen times between 1917 and 2017.
Victorian-era critics never did square themselves with Collins’ mix of what they called sensational tropes (read action/adventure) and forward-thinking ideas, including complex and even sympathetic villains, added to the fact that Collins could not resist taking potshots at social injustice, including bastardy and divorce.
In this novel, as in many, he demonstrates, with dramatic intensity, how the poor get hammered by grim authority whereas the wealthy get away with lawlessness while said authorities look off at the Winged Victory of Samothrace and whistle.
Sound like a familiar problem?
But calling Collins a social reformer is to make him merely sound preachy, which is a disservice to the complexity of his characters, the vein of humor, and the pulse-pounding turns of many of his plots. Dickens himself was famed for his vivid character types, which tended to be one note (that is, you always know how they are going to react, and they tend to stay in the same emotional range throughout the story, whether that is anger, outrage, weepiness, villainy, angst, woe, etc); great as Dickens was, I don’t think he ever could have penned a heroine with the complexity, as well as the strength, of Miss Marian Halcombe.
There are many who claim that The Woman in White was the first mystery novel. There are a number of novels bearing this claim; supporters of Collins’s book point out the steps taken in detection, and the stylistic choice of presenting various stages of the mystery through succeeding points of view. What first drew me to read it fifty years ago was the character of Marian Halcombe, and her determination to solve the mystery.
No, she’s not a detective, nor does she step too far out of the invisible social rules binding females of her class. But she is still a strong, direct, active character.
It might be fruitful to mention that the long decades of what is termed “Victorian literature” were not constrained to a singe type of story or character. For every Silver Fork novel tugging its forelock at the status quo there were the likes of Thackeray’s savage satire, and the more subtle satire of novels such as Meredith’s The Egoist.
This range extends to female characters, too. For every passive, “pure” Dickens heroine waiting to be rescued by her deserving hero, we’ve got the likes of stubborn, determined Jane Eyre, George Eliot’s complicated female characters, Diana in Diana of the Crossways, Becky Sharpe, and of course the id vortex crack of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, which many could not believe could possibly have been penned by a woman.
The central character in The Woman in White is Marian Halcombe, who one critic around the turn of the century called the best heroine in literature. As with “the first mystery novel” various characters throughout nineteenth century literature have been deemed “the best.” I don’t want to get into a debate on that front—too subjective to be useful.
But Collins was in many respects a man of his time. Marian Halcombe is first introduced her from the back. Collins’s narrator in the first segment, Walter Hartright, comments on how elegant she looked with her natural waist instead of being distorted by unnatural stays, but when she turns around, he calls her An ugly woman.
Mannish hands, broad features, a low forehead, even—gasp—down on her lip make her clearly unmarriageable, despite how smart, loyal, and dedicated she is. At the end of the novel her beautiful, sensitive and passive sister gets her happy ending, as does Walter, the villains are defeated . . . and Marian is confined to Victorian spinsterhood, dedicating herself to her sister’s family, a fate the adventure-loving, intelligent, and brave Marian doesn’t deserve.
Book View Cafe’s own Brenda Clough decided to fix that.
This isn’t the first time that Collins’s story has been retold or reexamined through text, most notably in Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith.
What I admired about Brenda Clough’s A Most Dangerous Woman is that Clough doesn’t stuff a 21st Century woman into more-or-less Victorian clothes. That’s not to say there isn’t room for such stories, because of course there is, and an enthusiastic audience who wants exactly that.
But if you, like me, have read tons of nineteenth century literature and history, tracing the development of English literature at one end through Jane Austen’s satiric wit examining human foibles, and her insistence on how the female viewpoint matters, up to Virginia Woolf tackling previously unmentioned subjects a century later, you might appreciate the skill with which Clough matches tone and the details of Collins’s novel before beginning Marian’s adventures.
It begins with Marian getting a new journal from her sister, in the hopes that she will now get to do something with her life and to attain the happiness she deserves. Clough does a terrific job of matching the humorous, vigorous tone of Collins’ writing as she paints a picture of domestic contentment, but introduces a sinister note in a newspaper article about dangerous Balkan spies and derring-do in the Austrian Empire.
A cracked tooth in old Mrs. Hartright sends Marian off to London to accompany Walter’s mother, where she meets Theo Camlet, a local publisher, and his two small children. Camlet, a widower who’d been abandoned by his wife, is cautious, but the two swiftly become friends over books.
Another aspect that I really enjoyed is that Serial Box is, through its weekly installments, emulating how Victorian novels were published all through the mid-nineteenth century: The Woman in White first appeared in Dickens’ magazine All the Year Round from 1859-60.
The first installment of A Most Dangerous Woman ends with a splendid cliff-hanger in true Victorian form, kicking off what will be a terrific adventure.