The Ruins of Copán in The Woman in White: Wilkie Collins and John Stephens’s Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan

by Richard Colllins

In Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (serialized in All the Year Round 1859-60) Walter Hartright disappears from the English setting to serve as illustrator for an archeological expedition to Honduras. As part of the quest theme in the novel, this journey is no detour. It is a significant absence because, after braving fever, savages and shipwreck, he returns “a changed man” ready to face his future “as a man should” (Collins, 373-4). As Lillian Nayder has suggested, “Hartright’s manhood […] is engendered in an imperial outpost” (1), an important detail in a novel that otherwise does not deal with Collins’s usual critique and defense of British imperialism, except to raise the specter of Count Fosco’s “reverse imperialism” from Europe. Hartright’s reason for going to Honduras shows none of the missionary zeal that Swinburne objected to in Collins, yet it is curious how easily Walter requests and receives a place on the expedition—as though such an adventure was an Englishman’s just entitlement. Walter’s journey is far too sketchy and too mythically schematic to have its roots in anything but an archetypal rite of passage into manhood. Indeed, it is primarily through Marian Halcombe’s imagination that Walter’s experience is filtered. Walter himself is notably reticent, saying on his return, “These pages are not the record of my wanderings and my dangers away from home” (373). But the Wanderings of Young Walter would seem to deserve a sequel (and a better title than that), if they had not already been written by John Stephens in hisIncidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan.

While Walter is gone, Marian Halcombe, who got him his job with the expedition, has a vivid daydream about Walter in the forests of Central America. The dream begins:

He appeared to me as one among many other men, none of whose faces I could plainly discern. They were all lying on the steps of an immense ruined temple. Colossal tropical trees—with rank creepers twining endlessly about their trunks, and hideous stone idols glimmering and grinning at intervals behind the leaves and stalks and branches—surrounded the temple, and shut out the sky, and threw a dismal shadow over the forlorn band of men on the steps. (248)

In the new Oxford World Classics edition (1996), John Sutherland gives credit to Harvey Peter Sucksmith, the editor of the earlier edition (1973), for “plausibly” suggesting the source of Marian’s dream-description to be an unsigned article by Henry Morley on the ruins at Copán, published in Household Words in 1851 (Sutherland, 682n). As a friend of Dickens, a colleague of Morley, a contributor to the magazine from early 1852, and a member of its staff from 1856, Collins would certainly have known the article, so I do not wish to dispute this as one source for the details of Marian’s dream. I would like to suggest, however, that Collins was also familiar with the source from which Morley (who had never been to Central America) so heavily borrowed—today we would say plagiarized—his facts and figures of speech, his information and impressions.

Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan (1841), by the American lawyer, explorer, and travel writer, John Lloyd Stephens (1805-52), was not only an extremely popular and well-written travel narrative, it was also the authoritative statement on archeology in the region well into the twentieth century, enjoying numerous reprints, abridgments, and translations. Today it is credited with initiating interest in the study of native civilizations in the Americas, and is still considered essential reading on the subject of Mayan art and architecture (see Baudez; and Ackerman, Introduction). Stephens had published two other popular books, Incidents of Travel in Egypt, Arabia Petraea, and the Holy Land (1837) andIncidents of Travel in Greece, Turkey, Russia, and Poland (1838), but it is his book on the New World that is justly singled out as his most lively, original and authoritative work.

Indeed, Stephens’s authority on the region was recognized in the pages of Household Words in an unsigned article by William Weir and W. H. Wills that predates Morley’s by almost a year. This refers to the book—somewhat elliptically if not monolithically—as “Stephens’s ‘Central America”‘ (Dickens, 65). The reference suggests that even the most casual reader would be familiar with the work. In the same article in which they mention Stephens as a source for their facts, though, Weir and Wills fail to capture his spirit when they describe Central America as a place of “poor and ignorant aboriginals and mixed races, in a state of scarcely demi-civilisation” (Dickens, 3). England’s interest in the region was more political and economical than archeological. As the title to the Weir and Wills article, “Short Cuts across the Globe,” suggests, the real topic of interest was how to ensure control of what was to become the Panama Canal. If it could be established early that the indigenous people were incapable of designing, building or maintaining the canal, it would be in the world’s best interest for a “civilized” (i.e., European or American) power to take control. Stephens himself, especially in the later editions of his book, devotes quite a bit of space both to the practicalities and to the politics of the canal project, although he falls short of making the imperialist and racialist (if not racist) argument that Morley resorts to: “nothing but Anglo-Saxon energy will ever stir this sluggish pool into life” (521). The contrasts between the blustering superiority of Weir and Wills, or the disgusted superiority of Morley, and the bemused observation of Stephens’s descriptions of local customs and conditions is striking. Early in his journey, for example, Stephens visited a tribe of Carib Indians who, he says, without “mingling their blood with that of their conquerors […] were nevertheless completely civilized” (1:19).

While the Household Words colleagues share the tell-tale signs of the journalistic hack—excessive borrowing, overwrought writing, hackneyed and ethnocentric metaphors, reactionary ideology—on almost every point Stephens emerges not only as the better writer, but also as a well-traveled man of some enlightenment on racial matters. On his arrival in Belize, Stephens took the place offered him at table between “two colored gentlemen,” noting that “some of my countrymen, perhaps, would have hesitated about taking it, but I did not.” During the meal he learns “that the great work of practical racial amalgamation, the subject of so much angry controversy at home, had been going on quietly here for generations; that color was considered a mere matter of taste; and that some of the most respectable inhabitants had black wives and mongrel children, whom they educated with as much care, and made money for with as much zeal, as if their skins were perfectly white. I hardly knew whether to be shocked or amused at this condition of society” (1:6). Aside from the deprecatory “mongrel,” Stephens’s tone is that of the sophisticated traveler, observant of inequities without the missionary’s judgmental zeal for reform.

As a lawyer, Stephens also took pleasure in observing the legal system of Belize, which he commended for its racial equality and its complete absence of “gentlemen of the bar.” He notes the presence of mulatto judges and jurors, and records the comment of one judge who was “aware of the feeling which existed in the United States with regard to color, and said that in Belize there was, in political life, no distinction whatever, except on the ground of qualifications and character, and hardly any in social life, even in contracting marriages.” The absence of lawyers Stephens treats with humor, warning his “professional brethren” not “to pack their trunks for a descent on the exempt city” because the system, though “an anomaly in the history of English jurisprudence,” happens to be quite “satisfactory” without them, even though “in every other place where the principles of common law govern, the learning of the bench and the ingenuity of the bar are considered necessary to elicit the truth” (1:10-11). Morley, too, mentions the system of justice in Belize, echoing Stephens’s description almost point by point, except that while he remarks on the absence of lawyers, he avoids the question of racial integration (517). In The Woman in White, of course, the law as conjuror of the truth is at best seen as indifferent, impotent or irrelevant, and at worst as the corrupt “servant of the long purse” (1).

Morley, the armchair traveler, is well aware of his lack of first-hand experience. He even suggests that he has to rely on others’ accounts, although his scruples stop short of actually citing his source: “Though most of us like to know as much as travellers can tell us, about the country of the Incas, very few of us care to experience what it now actually is” (516). For his lack of experience, Morley compensates with stylistic excesses. His fictional “we,” for example, is a transparent device to establish his authority as our guide, while his use of the present tense is a sort of directorial imperative, instructing us not only in what to see at Copán, but what to feel:

What Titanic wall is that whose image is reflected in the river? By the shrubs and creepers we can climb up to the summit. It looks like the portion of some massive ruin. We have climbed, and we stand spell bound. Step below step, broken by trees, loaded with shrubs, and lost at last in the luxuriance of forest, we see the traces of a theatre of masonry. (518)

Compare Stephens’s original on-site description:

The wall was of cut stone, well laid, and in a good state of preservation. We ascended by large stone steps, only some of which were well preserved, and reached a terrace, the form of which it was impossible to make out because of the density of the forest in which it was enveloped. (1:78)

A couple of pages later, Stephens continues his description, which Morley patchwrites into his own summary:

Climbing over the ruined top, we reached a terrace overgrown with trees and, crossing it, descended by stone steps into an area so covered with trees that at first we could not make out its form. When the machete had cleared the way, we saw that it was a square with steps on all the sides almost as perfect as those of a Roman amphitheatre. (1:80)

Note how a “good state of preservation” or a “ruined top” becomes a “massive ruin”; how a figurative “Roman amphitheatre” becomes an actual “theatre”; how a “density” of forest becomes a “luxuriance,” and above all how objective description becomes a directive to “stand spell bound.”

Morley continues by describing two carved stele, or ‘idols,’ and indulges in several more impressionistic directives (indicated here in italics). He ends with a rhetorical question:

But from a pillar of broken stone below, the fixed stare of an enormous sculptured head encounters us. We descend wondering, and stand before an altar richly carved. We seek for more, and find at our first plunge into the forest a colossal figure frowning down upon us; it is a statue twelve feet high, loaded with hieroglyphic and with grotesque ornament. The grand face seems to be a portrait— but of whom? (518)

Again, compare Stephens’s calmer original:

[…] we came upon a square stone column, about fourteen feet high and three feet on each side, sculptured on all four of the sides, from the base to the top, in very bold relief. On the front side was carved the figure of a man (evidently a portrait) curiously and richly dressed, whose face was solemn, stern, and well fitted to excite terror. The design on the opposite side was unlike anything we had ever seen before; the remaining two sides were covered with hieroglyphics. (1:78)

Note how “fourteen feet high and three feet on each side” is inflated into “colossal,” yet reduced to twelve feet high, and how throughout Morley conflates Stephens’s meticulously recorded catalogues and measurements with approximations and inaccuracies. Where Morley poses a rhetorical question about “whom” is depicted in the stone “portrait,” Stephens only suggests that it is a portrait. More interested in the culture’s artisans than in its heroes, a couple of pages later Stephens reports: “When we asked the Indians who had made them [the sculptures], their dull answer was ‘Quien sabe?’ (Who knows?)” (1:80).

In general, then, Morley appropriates the voice of the “demi-civilized,” while Stephens lets the facts and the natives speak for themselves. Describing the scene for the most part without sensationalism, Stephens does suggest that one of the sculptures is “well fitted to excite terror,” and in an atmospheric passage tries to capture the spirituality of what he supposes is sacred ground: “One [monument] with its altar before it stood in a grove of trees which grew around it, seemingly to shade and shroud it as a sacred thing; in the solemn stillness of the woods, it seemed a divinity mourning over a fallen people” (1:79). Far from sounding like egregious pathetic fallacies, the personification of nature in this passage precisely characterizes his speculations. Whereas Morley directs us like a guide, Stephens modestly follows the real guide who often hacks a way through the foliage: “From our guide we learned that the square column was an ‘idol’ and the block of stone was an ‘altar'” (1:79). As Predmore notes, the meticulous Stephens was not sure that ‘idol’ and ‘altar’ were accurate terms and so enclosed them in quotation marks.1 Morley, however, takes these words as gospel, and as a cue to indulge in ethnocentric metaphor: “The trees meet overhead; it is like a cathedral aisle” (518). Unlike Morley, both Stephens and Marian Halcombe use the more generic “temple.”

It is clear that Marian’s daydream is based on Stephens or Morley, though in a highly abbreviated form. Marian’s description of the “immense ruined temple” is essentially only one sentence:

Colossal tropical trees—with rank creepers twining endlessly about their trunks, and hideous stone idols glimmering and grinning at intervals behind leaves and stalks and branches—surrounded the temple, and shut out the sky, and threw a dismal shadow over the forlorn band of men on the steps. (248)

Compare Morley:

The colossal roots of the mahogany trees get sadly in the way. It is almost dark under the dense branches. (518)

And Stephens:

The whole terrace was covered with trees, and even at this height were two gigantic ceibas (kapok trees), over twenty feet in circumference; their half-naked roots extended fifty or a hundred feet around, binding down the ruins and shading them with their wide- spreading branches.” (1:80)

It argues for Morley’s influence that Collins and Morley describe trees as colossal; Stephens uses the word frequently—and more correctly—only in reference to monuments or statues of human figures.

Beyond a source for atmosphere and setting, Stephens’s popular travel narrative may also have aided Collins in developing Hartright’s character. If Collins was looking for a model of modest heroism for his readers to associate with Hartright’s character-forming mission to Central America, he could have done worse than to invoke the memory of Stephens’s British illustrator, Frederick Catherwood,2 whom Stephens introduces as “an experienced traveler and personal friend, who had passed more than ten years of his life in diligently studying the antiquities of the Old World” (1:3). Catherwood is portrayed by Stephens as something of a quiet hero, whose invaluable contributions to the expedition are not restricted to his famous illustrations to the text, but include acts of bravery and resourcefulness in dangerous situations. If the reader could be encouraged to associate Hartright with Catherwood, then Walter’s unnarrated experiences in Central America would be put in a new light of modest heroism and practical ability combined with artistic talent.

If the textual evidence is clear that Collins further abbreviated Morley’s plagiarized précis of Stephens’s description of the ruins, the rest of Marian
Halcombe’s dream suggests that Collins was also acquainted with Stephens’s original text. Marian envisions Walter as surviving the three dangers of illness, attack, and shipwreck. Morley, too, envisions a trinity of dangers in Central America to be survived by the traveler, but gives them a comic coloration: “Fleas, fevers, and frijoles […] go far to quench the spirit of the traveller” (516); this is his brief in favor of armchair travel. So when Marian envisions Walter as surviving illness, attack, and shipwreck, Collins seems to be, if you will, unparodying Morley’s text, returning it to the original seriousness of Morley’s source. Morley, for example, simply mocks the fever obligatory to the travel narrative: “We will get a fever at San Miguel. It’s time to have a fever. Every traveller in Central America must have a fever and get well, or die” (520). But it is no joke for Marian who tells Walter in her dream, “Come back to us, before the Pestilence reaches you, and lays you dead like the rest!” even though Walter replies, “The Pestilence which touches the rest, will pass me” (248). The travelers in Stephens are not so lucky. Directly after their first visit to the ruins at Copán, Stephens tells how Catherwood is besieged by the hacienda natives forremedios for their fevers and rheumatism, and how the illustrator becomes a “medico” by distributing pills and powders and liniments from his medicine chest. The journey ends, however, with Catherwood, his constitution “severely shattered” by fever (2:354), having to be carried from Uxmal to Mérida on the shoulders of the natives. Stephens himself died in New York in 1852 as the result of a fever he contracted in Panama years earlier (Stephens, xv).

The second part of Marian’s dream shows Walter still in the forest. “The temple is gone, and the idols were gone—and in their place, the figures of dark, dwarfish men lurked murderously among the trees, with bows in their hands, and arrows fitted to the string.” She calls out to him, but he answers, “The arrows that strike the rest will spare me” (249). No such adventure takes place in Stephens’s book, because it was not the “savages” that Stephens and Catherwood had to fear but the soldiers of the “civilized” governments of the region. All of which suggests that Collins was working from materials other than Stephens or Morley, such as the stuff of adventure tales or, more likely, of contemporary London exhibitions of anthropological curiosities that were described by the newspapers as “strikingly similar to the sculptured figures on Central American monuments” (cited in Altick, 284). Collins may have been drawing on the awe inspired in the public mind by the so-called Aztec Lilliputians, who were on display in Regent Street and the Queen’s Concert Rooms, Hanover Square, and summoned to meet the royal family in Buckingham Palace. Called by the Athenaeum (9 July 1853), “living wonders,” they were thought to have “no other alliance in the species” than to “the ancient races whose portraitures are found on the antique Sculptured Obelisks and Hieroglyphical Pictures brought from the ruins of Nineveh, Egypt, and Central America” (cited in Altick, 284), a direct reference, it seems, to Catherwood’s several accomplishments.

The third part of Marian’s dream shows Walter “in a wrecked ship, stranded on a wild, sandy shore.” According to formula, Marian calls out to him and he replies, “The Sea which drowns the rest will spareme” (249). On their return journey through the Gulf of Mexico, Stephens and Catherwood ran into sharks and whales, oppressive heat and a lack of wind that set them dead in the water, giving them plenty of time to “read through all the books in the mate’s library, consisting of some French novels translated into Spanish, and a history of awful shipwrecks” (2:390). When the wind came up and they resumed their journey, they discovered that they were four hundred miles off course and “perfectly lost,” but there was no shipwreck outside of their reading (2:394). Stephens and Catherwood were rescued by an American vessel bound for New York; Hartright is rescued by an American vessel bound for Liverpool.

A displacement and combination of Stephens’s metaphors may explain Marian’s vision of shipwreck. Stephens, in concluding the description of his first impression of Copán, uses two comparisons to evoke the image of the ruined city: it is like a shipwreck, and it is like the monuments of Egypt. First, it is

a shattered bark in the midst of the ocean, her masts gone, her name effaced, her crew perished, and none to tell whence she came, to whom she belonged, how long on her voyage, or what caused her destruction—her lost people to be traced only by some fancied resemblance in the construction of the vessel, and, perhaps, never to be known at all. (1:81)

But Copán is also like Egypt, where

colossal skeletons of gigantic temples stand in unwatered sands in all the nakedness of desolation; but here an immense forest shrouds the ruins, hiding them from sight, heightening the impression and moral effect, and giving an intensity and almost wildness to the interest. (1:81)

Thus, if Stephens’s “shattered bark” is transported, through metaphor, to Egypt’s “unwatered sand,” Marian’s vision of Walter seems to combine the images to see him “in a wrecked ship, stranded on a wild, sandy shore” (249). Given the sensation novelist’s interest in tombstones, lost identities, fancied resemblances, impressions, moral effects, intensities and wildness of interest, it is easy to see how Collins could have been charmed by Stephens’s evocation of a lost civilization.

In addition to these parallels in Stephens’s text, the closing lines of Marian’s dream may have a source in Catherwood’s drawings: “The darkness closed round the pilgrim at the marble tomb; closed round the veiled woman from the grave; closed round the dreamer who looked on them. I saw and heard no more” (249). This is clearly a foreshadowing of Hartright’s experience on his return, when he visits Laura’s grave, only to be confronted with Laura herself when she unveils and looks at him over “her” tombstone (378). In several engravings of monuments, Catherwood includes a human figure, no doubt to provide a sense of proportion. Catherwood’s talent was apparently for monuments rather than men: most of those he depicts seem to be natives, their dark skin indicated only by cross-hatching, even though their body types and facial features are European. One or two of these figures, however, lack the native characteristics and appear to be entirely European, although they wear the indigenous loose cotton clothing and high straw hats, almost as roomy as opera top hats. Figure 8, for example, depicts next to a “Gigantic Head at Copán” a light-skinned young man (without cross-hatching), who might be Stephens himself in the native dress of short cotton trousers, open-throated shirt, and a hat that might suggest the tall headgear of the European Pilgrim that Marian mentions, presumably metaphorically.

Marian’s dream does not need to be—nor is it meant to be—an accurate representation of the ruins of Copán.3) As a novelist, what Collins needed was a credible model for what Marian fancied Hartright might have seen there. The scene filtered through Morley’s imagination would be just as serviceable as Stephens’s reportage—perhaps even more so. As a journalist and academic, Morley had to visit Copán vicariously through Stephens’s text. As a woman, Marian can only “dream” what Walter experiences. Her vivid imagining of the ruins, brief as it is, may show an uncanny sympathy or spiritual connection with Walter, but it may also show an envious identification with Walter’s passage into manhood through a three-part ritual of overcoming “The Pestilence that wastes, the Arrow that strikes, the Sea that drowns” and (equally overcome, though back on English soil) “the Grave that closes over Love and Hope” (249). If Marian’s facial hair suggests a witch’s talent for prophecy that envisions Walter’s meeting with “the veiled woman” over a marble tombstone, it also suggests a masculine side to her nature that is impatient with being imprisoned in petticoats and eager for the engendering adventure.

The sensation novel relies for its full effect on the interaction of the reader, who brings his/her experience—both real and imagined, actual and textual—to bear on the novelist’s evocations. Just as the reader is asked to flesh out Hartright’s sketch of Laura Fairlie with “the first woman who quickened the pulses within you” (42), so the reader familiar with John Stephens’s journey to Central America might have been able to add a number of impressions to Marian’s dream of the ruins and to Collins’s sketch of Hartright’s journey to Copán, including perhaps a flattering comparison to Catherwood.

Whether Wilkie Collins based his description of the ruins of Copán on that of Morley or Stephens or both, he manages to avoid the former’s purple prose and faux first person voice, even as he captures the latter’s interest in lost identities and mystery in Marian’s brief, feverish daydream. To understand how Victorian novelists treat colonial and imperial matters, we need to know how well acquainted they were with the texts of such first-hand descriptions of the New World and its ancient civilizations as that of Stephens, and not just their familiarity with such literary circles as that of Dickens and Household Words. Such research pays off when we turn to Stephens because his prose is highly readable yet scrupulously accurate, combining the narrative powers of art with the measured observation of a scientist. In calm and objective prose that has allowed Stephens’s work to endure, we hear a voice that is for its time remarkably free of prejudice, indicating that Stephens was a man of reason, experience and sophistication.

David Johnson has argued that Stephens “complicates his desire to deromanticize the representation of Mayan ruins” when he tries to “subordinate the tales of the ruins to a scientifically rigorous discussion” (7), substituting the European discourse of scientific description for indigenous legend and ellipsis, thus falling into his “own particular romanticization of a scientific discourse” (l5).4 Interestingly, the same might be said of Collins’s use of the forensic method in The Woman in White, attempting to supersede the romanticism of the Gothic tale of horror with the more familiar horrors of everyday life as seen in the courtrooms and asylums of London. Hartright is the mediator of that transformation, combining the investigative eye of the detective, lawyer, or scientist, with the observing eye of the artist. In this way, Hartright is a combination of the lawyer Stephens and the illustrator Catherwood, as well as the partial alter-ego of Wilkie Collins, the novelist trained in both painting and law.

Hartright, however, must earn his right to interpret. While, as already noted, I think that he zealously overstates Stephens’s culpability in what he calls the “devaluation” and “exploitation” of the Amerindian culture, Johnson does make an interesting point when he focuses on the importance of the hieroglyphics as “writing in the dark”, in Stephens’s metaphorical phrase. Despite his trained eye, Catherwood has difficulty drawing what is in front of him because of the unfamiliarity of the “writing”: “The designs were very complicated, and so different from anything Mr. Catherwood had ever seen before as to be perfectly unintelligible” (1:90). And later:

As we feared, the designs were so intricate and complicated, the subjects so entirely new and unintelligible that he was having great difficulty in drawing [….] The idol seemed to defy his art; two monkeys on a tree on one side appeared to be laughing at him, and I felt discouraged and despondent. In fact, I made up my mind with a pang of regret that we must abandon the idea of carrying away any materials for antiquarian speculation, and must be content with having seen them ourselves. (1:92-3)

Like Catherwood, Walter Hartright is unable to interpret the unfamiliar signs of the mystery that is woven by the foreigner Count Fosco until after he has had more exposure and experience in the Central American heart of darkness. The next day, “Mr. Catherwood was much more successful in his drawings; indeed, at the beginning the light fell exactly as he wished, and he mastered the difficulty” (1:93). When Walter returns, “the morning light showed the friendly shore in view,” and the next sentence reads: “My pen traces the old letters as my heart goes back to the old love” (374). The familiar light of the English coast and the familiar letters of Laura’s name restore Walter’s confidence and he is now able to decipher the mystery of the various hidden documents that are the “writing in the dark” that he must interpret and bring to light.

One of the few times Walter mentions his Central American experience is when he is going after “positive evidence, in writing,” of Sir Percival’s secret at the church (472). His blood is throbbing at “fever heat,” and though he has bought a cudgel in case of attack, he is ready and willing to take to his heels, for he “had not wanted for practice since, in the later time of my experience in Central America” (472). This slightly comic note may remind us of the dangers he had to undergo there, or it might invoke Stephens’s experiences with hieroglyphics, those “writings in the dark” which Catherwood had such difficulty copying, and which Hartright will copy if he can, but would rather take home the original if possible. (“The copy of the register was sure to be safe in Mr. Wansborough’s strong-room. But the position of the original, in the vestry, was, as I had seen with my own eyes, anything but secure”, 472). In the building the Indians call Akatzeeb, “signifying the writing in the dark […] no light enters except from the single doorway, the chamber was so dark that the drawing could with difficulty be copied” (cited in Johnson, 20). Similarly, the vestry which holds all the records of the people of Welmingham Parish Church is lit by a single skylight.

Hartright himself is, in a sense, writing in the dark—or at least reading in the dark—until he returns from Honduras. Only then, after his presumed contact with the undecipherable hieroglyphs which (like Catherwood) he would have had to illustrate, is he able to see Count Fosco’s and Sir Percival Glyde’s mysteries for what they are: not mysteries at all but puzzles, word games in which the legal and criminal minds excel. In contrast to the unreadable hieroglyphics of the Mayans, these European, or alphabetical mysteries are quite legible. In restoring Laura’s identity, Walter brings her back to light, reinscribes her name not on a lying tombstone (literally a hieroglyph, or “sacred carving”) but on the registers of law, such as deeds of property. Hartright becomes a reader of the dark writing, as well as a writer who enlightens us about the truth of the woman in white. Rendering the aesthetic surfaces in art is not enough to right wrongs in the realm of ethics. A faithful portrait may capture her character but it does nothing to establish her identity. His journey into darkness and mystery, in other words, ends in light and truth. His rewards, of course, are those of the returned colonialist who has translated his foreign-earned capital (in this case, his new-found resourcefulness and resolve) into real estate, providing his son with a legacy as the “heir of Limmeridge House.”

Stephens was a writer with whom the unconventional Collins might well have identified, and his work on Central America is one that Marian Halcombe, with her futile fantasies of vicarious masculine empowerment (if not engenderment), might credibly have appropriated from her reading into the dream work of paraphrase.

Works Cited

Ackerman, Karl, ed. Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan, by John Lloyd Stephens. Abridged edition. Washington & London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993.

Altick, Richard D. The Shows of London. Cambridge & London: Harvard University Press, 1978.

Baudez, Claude-François. Maya Sculpture of Copán: The Iconography. Norman & London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994.

Collins, Wilkie. The Woman in White. Edited by Harvey Peter Sucksmith. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973.

Dickens, Charles, ed. The World Here and There: or, Notes of Travellers. From ‘Household Words.’ New York: Putnam, 1852.

Johnson, David E. “‘Writing in the Dark’: The Political Fictions of American Travel Writing.” In American Literary History 7:1 (Spring 1995) 1-27.

[Morley, Henry.] “Our Phantom Ship. Central America.” In Household Words 2 (22 Feb 1851) 516-22.

Nayder, Lillian. “Agents of Empire in The Woman in White.” In Victorian Newsletter 83 (1993) 1-7.

Stephens, John L., Esq. Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan. 2 vols. Illustrated by Frederick Catherwood. Edited by Richard L. Predmore. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1949.

Sutherland, John, ed. The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

[Weir, William and W. H. Wills.] “Short Cuts across the Globe.” In Household Words 1 (13 Apr 1850) 65-8. Reprinted in Dickens, 1852.


  1. Predmore comments: “Modern archeologists use the term stela rather than idol. Stephens enclosed the word idol in quotation marks because of his doubts as to the accuracy of the term” (Stephens, 1:79n). []
  2. The similarity of Frederick Catherwood’s name to those of Frederick Fairlie and Anne Catherick in the novel may well be only coincidence. Nor would I want to make much of the fact that Stephens and Catherwood set sail for Honduras on a British brig named the Mary Ann, even though the Mary Ann takesCatherwood to Honduras and Marian sends Hartright there. It may be important, though, that before having Marian find Walter’s position, Collins first had Walter asking the lawyer Mr. Gilmore to look for a position among his “large circle of acquaintances,” which could have included an American colleague like Stephens. See Sutherland (676n) for a discussion of this revision of the manuscript. []
  3. Let’s assume for a moment that Marian and Walter are historical. She could not have read Morley’s 1851 article in Household Words when she dreamed of Walter in 1850 (unless her powers of prophecy are more fully developed than we are led to believe). She could, however, have read Stephens’s book in one of its many editions between its first publication in 1841 and 1849, when she sent Walter to Honduras, or even 1850, when she dreamed of Walter’s adventures. (See “The Chronology of The Woman in White,” Appendix C, in Sutherland, 662-68. []
  4. Stephens’s attempt to “deromanticize” the discourse previously applied to New World ruins and to replace it with that of science seems entirely laudatory. But in Johnson’s view, it seems, any attempt by a European to understand Amerindian culture is doomed a priori to Eurocentrism because a hieroglyphic discourse is not accessible to an alphabetical one. When Stephens wants to know the history of the artifacts, he is frustrated by native ignorance; as Johnson puts it, “the site ultimately grounds a critique of Amerindian indifference to the antiquities of their country” (10). Johnson argues that “the role of the native informant and of native knowledge” is devalued by Stephens so that it is “no knowledge at all” (9). But it is not cultural insensitivity that causes Stephens to find the native knowledge lacking when it can tell him where a ruin is, but not what it is. It hardly seems fair to fault Stephens for the thrill of discovery and the desire to disseminate his findings in language comprehensible to his countrymen. If he finds it easier to translate the unpronounceable Xcocpoop as “casa no. 1,” it may be a “discursive strateg[y] of appropriation” used to “familiarize the radically foreign, soothe the European imagination, enabling not only comprehension but cultural exploitation” (17), but Stephens was neither disingenuous nor diabolical in his discourse; he was an explorer and a scientist who used language as a tool for the work in hand. (If that tool can be called “exploitative” by Johnson, it may be because Johnson is appropriating the discourse of a historically specific past to soothe the moral absolutism and universalist confidence of his academic imagination in an act of exploitation of Stephens’s cultural text). After all, discourse is all we have. When he realized he could not be another Elgin by physically carrying his finds to New York, and that even Catherwood’s drawings might not materialize, Stephens resigned himself to the possibility that his discourse would be all he had to show for his trip. The explorer who shares his findings should not be blamed for the colonial regime that follows him, just as Einstein cannot be blamed for the atom bomb. []

The Ruins of Copán in The Woman in White: Wilkie Collins and John Stephens’s Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan by Richard Colllins
The Wilkie Collins Journal 02 (1999)

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