Sensational Umwelten: The Woman in White and Semiotics

Oct 19, 2018 | Articles

Hannah Scupham

University of Kansas


  1. Sensation Fiction as a Semiotic Genre

What do we talk about when we talk about sensation in sensation fiction? Many modern scholars, including Lyn Pykett, Andrew Mangham, Kimberly Harrison, and Richard Fantina, have discussed how sensation fiction unravels the mythology of the Victorian domestic home and exposes new fears and anxieties about marriage, divorce, family life, technology, and identity, and in doing so, their work has brought sensation fiction into the wider canonical acceptance it enjoys today. Thanks to the tireless work of critics of the past forty years, which has led to the reprinting of lost novels, plays, and other texts, the production of monographs and edited volumes, and even a Cambridge Companion edition, we can say that the reclamation work of sensation fiction has been a resounding success.

Perhaps the better question for a modern critic is: how do we talk about the sensation in sensation fiction? This is a more fraught issue; there seems to be little consensus about how or why the sensational element of genre should be read and discussed. Often, sensation fiction’s most alluring quality––its ubiquitously quoted ‘preaching to the nerves’––is pushed into the margins of analysis. Much of the field’s criticism still is fixated, although perhaps in a less explicit way, on proving that sensation fiction is deserving of study. My work proceeds on the assumption that this has been already thoroughly proven, and that from this foundation we can turn to thinking about what makes sensation fiction a unique and compelling genre that offers readers and critics new ways of thinking about Victorians and Victorian culture.

My intention here is to offer a new theoretical perspective to examine sensation fiction at its core, through its most defining feature: sensationalism.[1] One of the most unique qualities of sensation fiction is its ability to detail and replicate bodily sensations, both within the world of the novel as well as the world of its readers. Specifically, for this project, I want to consider how bodily sensations and bodily reactions to the environment shape sign reading and detective work in Wilkie Collins’ novel, The Woman in White.

The Woman in White, like so many sensation novels, features plot structures, including suspense and gothic horror, designed to produce physical responses in the reader. For example, scholar Ann Cvetkovich’s essay, ‘Ghostlier Determinations: The Economy of Sensation and The Woman in White’, analyses Collins’ narrative techniques in The Woman in White to demonstrate how other sensational narratives unfold in conjunction to the main plotline. Specifically, Cvetkovich argues that Collins’ sensational narrative structures, including the use of character foils and doppelgängers as well as descriptions of increasingly confused or unsure mental states, allow the novel to create physical responses in the reader. In particular, she argues that the sections of Walter’s narrative use these plot devices to mask Walter’s potentially material motivations for marrying Laura; thereby offering an alternative reading of his character that troubles his image as the heroic detective. Cvetkovich argues that Walter’s bodily experiences of nervousness and hysteria throughout the novel garner the readers’ physical and emotional responses, thus masking the lurking financial motivation in Walter’s romantic plotline. She writes, ‘Walter’s incapacity to control his own body, even as it renders him anxious, permits him to rise to power without appearing to aspire to it’ (Cvetkovich 26–27). Walter’s desire to solve the mystery of the woman in white is a subconscious smokescreen that ‘sensationalizes and masks’ his social climbing (Cvetkovich 28).

However, this sensational narrative technique expands to do more than excuse Walter’s fortune hunting because sensationalism creates the need for detection and sign-reading. Cvetkovich writes, ‘[p]hysical sensations that threaten to overwhelm the perceiver must be transformed into mysteries to be explained’ (32). Yet these overwhelming sensations also engulf the reader as well, creating a need for the reader to solve the mystery along with the detectives. For example, the frightening and sudden appearance of Anne Catherick on the country road at night, which makes Walter and the reader feel physical terror, prompts the foundation of the mystery of the novel.

Although Cvetkovich concludes that this technique functions to woo the reader into further sensation reading by ‘fulfilling the desire to make what the body fears meaningful’. However, I would argue that, financial incentives for authors to produce top-selling titillation aside, Collins deploys a carefully crafted narrative technique that not only encourages, but requires readers to approach his text as detectives, carefully reading both the multiple layers of signs available in the text as well as our bodily responses to the text, such as nervousness, anxiety, or terror (42). Although many critics have adopted various methods[2] to untangle Collins’ novel and its mysteries, the unifying feature that lies at the heart of The Woman and White and other examples of the sensation fiction genre is the uncertainty of meaning––who is truly (in)sane or criminal?––and the necessity for both characters and audiences to read signs well, whether those are physical markers of instability and deviance or clues to a crime.

In fact, what makes The Woman in White so compelling, I argue, is that liminal- bodied characters––the characters whose bodies and bodily responses to the environment are depicted as out of ordinary––are his best detectives in the novel.[3] Liminal-bodied characters like Walter (whose position as an employee in the manor home exposes a threatening potential as a fortune hunter) and Marian (whose queer appearance and bold bravery set her apart from the traditional mould of female behaviour and embodiment), possess a unusual ability to read and interact with their Umwelten (environments) in non-traditional ways, making them uniquely skilled to expose and see through the facades of society and its crimes. Collins imbues various locations in the novel, such as the London cityscape and Blackwater Park, with hidden signs that only particular characters can read and respond to which, in turn, forces readers to join the nonstandard characters in their semiotic processes. Furthermore, by demonstrating how natural environments impact bodies and how bodies simultaneously respond to these environments in unique ways, The Woman in White offers new possibilities to read the sensational elements in the genre as more than simply cheap thrills, but as critical genre elements that privileges bodily experiences as the foundation for inquiry. By examining Collins’ depiction of characters who perceive, interpret, and act in their environment in unique ways, The Woman in White’s sensational elements are infused with a greater social and political urgency.

To accomplish this new form of reading, I have relied on the work of late-nineteenth century philosopher Charles S. Peirce, whose theories on semiotics and semiotic processes allow for a more nuanced and interdisciplinary discussion of how bodies and the environment interact. In addition to the theoretical advantages of Peircean semiotics, Peirce’s theories are roughly contemporary to Collins’ work, demonstrating a philosophical response to the questions that sensation fiction, as well as other works, prompted for Victorian thinkers. Furthermore, Peircean semiotics, allows modern readers to view sensation fiction through a lens that would have been contemporary to Victorian readers.[4] Using this approach, The Woman in White emerges as a novel in which the sensational elements not only serve a valuable entertainment and plot revelation, but also demonstrate Collins’ larger concern with shaking the foundations of how his characters and his readers perceive and interact with the world.

  1. Bodies, Semiotics, and Umwelt

Continuing her discussion of the novel, Ann Cvetkovich raises an interesting question: ‘It is difficult to say whether Anne and Laura are fascinating because they are bodies or because they are signs’ (41, my emphasis). My intent here is to think not only about how bodies signify in the novel, but also how bodies become the means of interpreting signs in the world, inscribed on other bodies or the natural world. Collins’ characters are neither just bodies nor just signs as they act as both in the fictional world of the novel as well as for their readers.

But before delving into Wilkie Collins’ novels, some clarification is needed on Peircean semiotics, which significantly differs from the better-known model by Ferdinand de Saussure. Saussure’s semiotic model is (highly) focused on linguistic signs, and it is a dyadic model consisting of signified and signifier (Chandler 14). For Saussure’s model, the emphasis lies in the relationship between the signifier and signified with the recipient or interpretation of the semiotic process playing little to no role (Chandler 18–22).

In contrast, the Peircean model is a triadic[5] model of sign relation, which asserts that ‘the sign is a unity of what is represented (the object), how it is represented (the representamen), and how it is interpreted (the interpretant)’ (Chandler 29). Peirce’s triadic model not only allows for a discussion of how signs can be read, but also invites other forms of sign-making and sign-interpretation, not merely linguistic expression. Instead of thinking of signs as purely linguistic utterances, Peirce argues that signs are stimulus patterns that produce a response from the organism in reaction to the sign. This stimulus pattern can roughly be broken down into the experience of the sign, the types of sign registers, and the types of inquiry (a visualisation of these areas can be seen in Table 1). Peirce’s work argues that the stimulus pattern takes on distinct qualities in Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness that affect the different areas of the sign.

  1 2 3
Experience of the Sign Firstness: Quality of feeling, Sensation Secondness: Connection, causation, relation Thirdness: Response in          language and/or action

Sign Registers Icon: resembles object Index: points to relationship with object Symbol: adheres to conventions or set meaning(s)
Types of Inquiry Abduction: educated guess or hypothesis Deduction: hypothesis testing Induction: verified conclusion to hypothesis
Table 1: Peirce’s Sign System (created by Scupham, adapted from De Waal)

When experiencing a stimulus, Peirce argues that the qualities of the sign will be felt simultaneously, although each quality has distinctive features. Peirce describes, ‘The First is that whose being is simply in itself, not referring to anything nor lying behind anything. The Second is that which is what it is by force of something to which it is second. The Third is that which is what it is owing to things between which it mediates and which it brings into relation to each other’ (Volume 1, 248).  Peirce describes Firstness as ‘fresh, new, initiative, original, spontaneous, free, vivid, conscious’ and ‘it cannot be articulately thought, assert it, and it has already lost its characteristic innocence […] stop to think of it, and it has flown!’ (Volume 1, 248). At its core, Firstness defies language and exists only the immediacy of a quality of feeling or sensation. In contrast, Secondness is defined by ‘that which cannot be without the first,’ and ‘limitation, conflict, constraint’ (Volume 1, 248–9).  Finally, Thirdness is ‘that which bridges over the chasm between the absolute first and last, and brings them into relationship’ (Volume 1, 249). Thirdness is the experience of living and interpreting signs, which for living organisms generally results in conscious thought, action, and/or expression. To grossly oversimplify, we can think of Firstness as the quality of a feeling, Secondness as that which puts Firstness into relationship (connection, causation, etc.), and Thirdness as the result through action or language. In general, it can be said that signs derive from sudden sensations or feelings, are interpreted through relations and boundaries, and then result in a response.

An example might be helpful here: the experience of being stung by a bee is a (painful) semiotic process. Firstness is the immediate feeling of pain unrelated to its source; Secondness is the realisation of where the pain is located and that it has come from outside one’s body; and finally, Thirdness is the resulting action, in this case possibly physical reaction such as a clutching or investigation of the stung location, and possibly a linguistic response (if swear words are involved), coming from logical realisation or prior experience(s) that it must have been a bee sting. It is important to note that language is the end point, not the beginning, of semiosis for Peirce. Instead, Peirce argues that we should position the body and its responses to sensations/stimuli as the foundation for our perception and interpretation of the world.

Overall, Peirce’s theories of semiotics offer several advantages when discussing literary texts by grounding the experience of sign reading––whether it is a description of a character making sense of their environment, or whether it is a reader making sense of the novel and its paratexts––through physical response, the conceptualisation of relationships and boundaries, and, eventually, through language. By using semiotics, critics can approach a text through one unified approach that values embodiment, environment, and linguistic structures. Peircean semiotics provide a unique vantage point from which to unite various theoretical and methodological persuasions into an interdisciplinary approach that places the experience of living and existing at the fore. Feminist critic Marcia K. Moen has argued for using Peirce’s semiotic theories as the means by which critics can approach semiosis, embodiment, and the environment through one unified approach. She writes, ‘[u]nder a Peircean semiotic the body’s materiality connects us with a universe of meaningful events and beings which exceed the social, indeed exceed the human’ (439).

In order to discuss how bodies interact with the environment, I have relied on the key term Umwelt, or environment, drawn from the work of biosemiotician,[6] Jakob von Uexküll. However, Umwelt is more than simply the outer world surrounding an organism––it is the organism’s subjective perception of the world around it (The Whole Creature 103). For example, even though we may inhabit the same space, the Umwelten a bumblebee, my dog, and I experience at the same moment in time and space are vastly different. I may have the superiority of colour vision, but my dog has a far better sense of hearing and smell, and the bee of pheromones and chemical trails. Even between humans, both physiological (dis/abilities or neurotypicality) and socially constructed (race, gender, class, etc.) perceptions of the same Umwelt will vary. As cultural biosemiotician Wendy Wheeler writes, ‘[a]n organism’s Umwelt is, therefore, what signifies for it; and through it, it perceives stimuli and responds to them. An Umwelt, in other words, is a space of semiosis’ (The Whole Creature 103).

How then does semiosis happen? Peirce theorises that continued subject exposure to the various stimuli in our Umwelten comes to shape our habits (creating what we now know to be feedback loops), allowing for fairly predictable responses or interpretations to particular signs (264–266). These habits of body-mind allow us to interact with our Umwelten in more effective, pragmatic ways: one’s body can filter and prioritise which stimuli demand more urgent attention. Both the habits and the semiotic functions, Peirce argues, allow organisms to explore, formulate, and test hypotheses about their Umwelten (Douven). The detailing here of how sign interpretation shapes process of inquiry is especially important considering the focus of sensation novels on detection. Peirce theorised that the process of inquiry also had three distinct stages, which roughly map onto his ideas of Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness: abduction, deduction, and induction (see Table 1). Like Firstness, abduction arises from initial sensation that, in turn, prompts inquiry: ‘For Peirce, abduction had its proper place in the context of discovery, the stage of inquiry in which we try to generate theories which may then later be assessed’ (Douven). Deduction ‘helps to derive testable consequences from the explanatory hypotheses’ and induction ‘finally helps us to reach a verdict on the hypotheses’, thus mapping onto the relational quality of Secondness and the action of Thirdness, respectively (Douven). It is important to note that processes of inquiry are not generated through abstract thoughts, but rather through hunches or educated guesses that arise from sensations. Again, Peirce’s theories redirect the understanding of sign relationships to the mind’s interaction with the environment and the body as the foundation for thought and action.

However, by examining and considering how different experiences of Umwelten shape understanding, we can account for how different bodies react in unusual ways, using the process of inquiry differently in new Umwelten. In my argument, I am most concerned with how abduction functions as a form of Firstness by using physical or emotional sensation to guide the individual to a line of inquiry. Returning to the world of Wilkie Collins, I examine how the use of Umwelten in the novel create particular physical sensations that lead our proto-detective characters on the path of inquiry, which is otherwise blocked to other characters.

III. Walter Hartright: Class-Crossing Fantasies and Habit Changes

When the reader first encounters Walter Hartright in the opening pages of The Woman in White, he is hardly the ideal hero, described as ‘out of health, out of spirits, and out of money,’ biding his time in his apartment in London and his mother’s cottage in Hampstead (Collins 10). Despite Walter’s artistic profession, Collins immediately aligns him with his position in the urban setting, noting ‘the small pulse of 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’ (10). Here, Walter’s emotions and the working centre of London are one, united in their sense of time and despairing at the end of another day. The opening pages are relatively devoid of references to the natural world, and Walter’s life is seemingly consumed with his family, friends, worries about finances, and his future working for the Fairlies (Collins 10–22). Walter’s present life is one of habit, as well as everyday worries, that his urban Umwelt reinforces.

Yet after making the fateful decision to work at Limmeridge House, Walter’s relationship to his Umwelt drastically shifts, and creates the far more suspenseful (and memorable) early scene in the novel, when Walter encounters the woman in white. Collins describes the scene in meticulous detail:

The moon was full and broad in the dark blue starless sky; and the broken ground of the heath looked wild enough in the mysterious light, to be hundreds of miles away from the great city that lay beneath it. The idea of descending any sooner than I could help into the heat and gloom of London repelled me. The prospect of going to bed in my airless chambers, and the prospect of gradual suffocation, seemed, in my present restless frame of mind and body, to be one and the same thing. I determined to stroll home in the purer air […] So long as I was proceeding through this first and prettiest part of my night-walk, my mind remained passively open to the impressions produced by the view; and I thought but little on any subject––indeed, so far as my own sensations were concerned, I can hardly say that I thought at all […] I had mechanically turned in this latter direction [to London], and was strolling along the lonely high-road––idly wondering, I remember, what the Cumberland young ladies would look like––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 finger 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’ (22–24).

In an attempt to avoid his habitual experiences, which he describes as the acute physical suffering of crowded and ‘airless’ urban life, Walter takes an unexpected route home. This choice, which opens Walter up to new Umwelten and semiotic experiences, also produces new patterns of thought. Walter dreamily meditates on the young women he has been hired to teach (despite claiming previously, ‘I can hardly say that I thought at all’), and Collins is perhaps deliberately vague on Walter’s true thoughts about these upper-class, wealthy ladies (Collins 23). Walter’s reverie is broken by a new stimulus, the touch of the hand of an unknown woman, and his thoughts, whether they tended toward the benign or more toward the financial prospects for the Limmeridge House women, are disrupted. Collins writes that Walter is too overwhelmed by the appearance of Anne Catherick to even think or speak, describing their later conversation as ‘a fathomless mystery, a dream’ (24–7). Following her appearance, Walter observes ‘I hardly knew where I was going, or what I meant to do next; I was conscious of nothing but the confusion of my own thoughts’ (Collins 30). In this moment of broken habit, the physical sensation that Walter experiences develops new lines of thought that unite Anne’s physical presence with Walter’s yet-unseen-students. The sensation of the woman in white’s touch is paired with Walter’s fantasies about his rich charges, and thus, imbues this physical sensation with greater significance, priming Walter’s mind and body to blur his perception of Anne and Laura. Even upon learning that the woman has escaped an asylum, Walter’s thought process is confused, even contradictory, and only the prospect of leaving London and following a normal routine of work alleviates his mental turmoil (Collins 31–32). Yet this encounter with Anne marks the beginning of not only the mystery of the novel, but also of Walter’s more engaged interactions with the natural Umwelten at Limmeridge House and the development of more clearly defined Romantic and class-crossing fantasies.

The new Umwelt at Limmeridge house offers Walter a respite from his urban life and Umwelt. Walter, drawing on his artistic linguistic habits, describes his first morning in Cumberland as a beautiful landscape painting:

When I rose the next morning and drew up my blind, the sea opened before me joyously under the broad August sunlight, and the distant coast of Scotland fringed the horizon with its line of melting blue. The view was such a surprise, and such a change to me, after my weary London experience of brick and mortar landscape, that I seemed to burst into a new life and a new set of thoughts the moment I looked at it. A confused sensation of having suddenly lost my familiarity with the past, without acquiring any additional clearness of idea in reference to the present or the future, took possession of my mind (Collins 33).

The scene of sea, sky, and coast are described in terms of brushstrokes painting a new view.  With his painterly sensibilities newly inspired, Walter’s physical delight and surprise at the beauty of the natural world around him prompt fresh ideas and a new view on life. More importantly, Walter’s past life, his urban life, is scrubbed out, leaving him open to explore new potentials for his present and future at Limmeridge, which, despite his current role as drawing-master, takes on the role of romantic suitor, and eventual possessor of Laura Fairlie and Limmeridge.

These new potentials are laid out when Walter attempts to describe Laura and her appearance at the time of their first encounter. It escapes him: ‘How can I describe her? How can I separate her from my own sensations, and from all that has happened in the later time? How can I see her again as she looked when my eyes first rested on her––as she should look, now, to the eyes that are about to see her in these pages?’ (Collins 50–51). Laura’s physicality and presence are totally subsumed by Walter’s past and present emotional responses to her, a distinction that Walter neatly disguises. In this way, Laura takes on her role as cipher for the rest of the novel, represented as perpetually in relation to Walter, Marian, or Sir Percival, and making her the double (and iconic sign) to the equally mysterious Anne. Without inherent qualities of her own represented in the novel, Laura’s body is a sign, which Walter reads as his artistic muse and romantic object. Walter writes of Laura, in an adoring and romantic tone, ‘The woman who first gives life, light, and form to our shadowy conceptions of beauty, fills a void in our spiritual nature that has remained unknown to us till she appeared’ (Collins 52). Despite the gushing praise of Laura’s beauty, Walter can only attest that her appearance is a void, open for his own idealised conceptions of aesthetics, beauty, femininity, and fantasies about his future. Just as a painter with his brush, Walter bends his perception (rooted in his physical attraction) of Laura to his will.

As he teaches Laura to draw and paint, Walter meditates (or perhaps even lectures Laura) on Art and Nature, and his thoughts, inspired by the restful and scenic views, seemingly push for a marriage of like-minded lovers of aesthetics, despite social differences. Walter argues that the true admiration of Nature must be taught, because ‘as children, we none of us possess it’, which conveniently justifies his role as teacher to Laura, while simultaneously marking Walter as a uniquely sensitive and educated mind, equal to a sensitive and educated women like Laura (Collins 55). Art, meanwhile, Walter writes, can only be best practiced ‘when our minds are most indolent and most unoccupied’ (Collins 55). At first, this seems a Romantic prospect, a carefree painter creating perfect art, but undergirding this fantasy is the aspiration for financial security and independence that will allow Walter to paint when and how he chooses.

Walter eventually comes to imagine himself as one with the residents of the landscape around Limmeridge House. Even when hearing the news that Laura is engaged to be married to someone else, Walter’s body and the Umwelt at Limmeridge House respond with him. Collins describes Walter’s physical reaction and the Umwelt around him, writing, ‘My arm lost all sensation of the [Marian’s] hand that grasped it. I never moved and never spoke. The sharp autumn breeze that scattered the dead leaves at our feet, came as cold to me, on a sudden, as if my own mad hopes were dead leaves, too, whirled away by the wind like the rest’ (72). Like the opening, the Umwelt mirrors Walter’s feelings, but unlike the urban scene, Limmeridge’s pastoral scene seemingly, according to Walter’s perception, mourns with Walter at the devastating news. A similar scene occurs again when Walter prepares to leaves Laura and his post, and as he studies the ‘barren, decaying, and groaning’ scene, Walter describes that he feels ‘lost […] as if I stood already on a foreign shore’ (116–7). These scenes read as a romantic farewell between Walter and his lover, but another, more cynical view prompts readers to consider if Walter is not also mourning for the loss of the pastoral estate that accompanies Limmeridge. Indeed, these scenes of mourning and natural decay also demonstrate that Walter’s dreams of achieving a cross-class marriage through Romantic ideals of egalitarianism have rotted away in the face of the wealth and privilege that Sir Percival Glyde embodies. Although his pastoral perspective allowed Walter to experience his fantasies, they cannot secure it in reality, and heeding Marian’s advice to leave, Walter heads out into the world, away from England, to seek new perspectives.

After Walter returns from Honduras and discovers that Laura is still alive, his fantasies of his marriage are more within reach––if he can restore Laura’s identity, that is. However, Walter’s method is less focused on restoring Laura’s good name, than it is on destroying Sir Percival Glyde through the secret that threatens his societal position. During Walter’s quest to find out Sir Percival’s secret, Walter’s Romantic approach to Umwelten alters dramatically, taking on capitalist and imperialistic tones. The reason for this change is vague, although Walter does note that during his time abroad in Honduras, he shed much of his old self.[7] Walter writes, ‘In the stern school of extremity and danger my will had learnt to be strong, my heart to be resolute, my mind to rely on itself’ (Collins 406). During his imperialist venture, Walter leaves behind his more Romantic sentiments and fully engages in the capitalist ideology of the mid Victorians, praising himself for his strength and self-reliance. It is clear then, that the exposure to the Umwelt of imperialism in British Honduras has altered Walter’s habits and shifted his perception of the world.

This shift in perception and identity becomes more apparent when Walter returns to the Umwelt of rural England to uncover Sir Percival’s secret. The environment that once inspired Walter’s cross-class fantasies, no longer thrills. Instead, Walter’s new habits find him drawn to describe Anne’s small hometown village, currently undergoing renovation:

Is there any wilderness of sand in the deserts of Arabia, is there any prospect of desolation among the ruins of Palestine, which can rival the repelling effect on the eye, and the depressing influence on the mind, of an English country town, in the first stage of its existence, and in the transition state of its prosperity? I asked myself that question, as I passed through the clean desolation, the neat ugliness, the prim torpor of the streets of Welmingham […] Every object that I passed seemed to answer with one accord: The deserts of Arabia are innocent of our civilized desolation; the ruins of Palestine are incapable of our modern gloom! (Collins 482–3).

Instead of the Romanticism that once would have infused his worldview in a new town, Walter’s new sense of embodiment, constructed through imperialism, produces a new semiotic effect. Welmingham’s new capitalist project is now aligned with the decaying civilisations of old. Indeed, Walter’s experiences abroad have altered his bodily response such that the experience of seeing the petit bourgeois transformation of a city inspires revulsion and dread. The change that time abroad wrought on Walter’s mind and body becomes clear and he seemingly unconsciously abandons his old, Romantic, and optimistic way of seeing signs for a process laden with capitalist and imperialist values.  Although Walter is critical of the aesthetic changes in Welmingham, his semiotic process is simultaneously embedded with the values he decries.

In an ironic twist, Walter, like Sir Percival, recreates a new self and abandons his shameful secret in a forgotten place; however, unlike Sir Percival, who makes the fatal mistake of attempting to fake a claim to a legitimate title, Walter supplants this feudal model for a modern, imperialist one, which goes unquestioned and accepted by the novel’s end.[8] As Sally Shuttleworth has noted, ‘[t]he final disclosure [of sensation novels] can raise more questions than it answers while the male detective himself is usually tainted by his quest’ (Shuttleworth 196–7). Although Walter returns to England and is able to fulfil his dreams of cross-class marriage but, in doing so, he must abandon his older sense of Umwelt and semiosis to become a modern man in society. By repositioning Walter as both critical and complicit in imperialism, Collins preserves Walter’s liminal body. Walter can be both the moralistic hero and the threatening mercenary figure of the novel, continually requiring readers to accept both perspectives of him.

IV. Marian Halcombe: Detection and Abductive Reasoning

In contrast to Walter’s transformation, Marian Halcombe remains a nonstandard and unresolved figure throughout The Woman in White, and her sense of Umwelt and experience of semiosis are the vital components to uncovering the novel’s mystery. Walter’s semiotic processes act as a feedback loop to confirm his own personal desires, while Marian’s allow her to become the novel’s keenest detective. It is also important to note that while Walter’s sense of semiotic reading comes from his class status, gender, profession, and experience in Honduras, Marian’s semiotic processes are inherently tied to her nonstandard body and remain consistent through the novel. Walter’s semiotic experiences result in the creation of new habits that produce more conventional, and socially accepted outcomes, whereas Marian’s semiotic processes continue to function uniquely throughout the novel, even in her relative absence in the last act.

Walter describes Marian’s first appearance in great detail, and the shock of her physical appearance echoes throughout the book. Marian has a graceful, feminine body and a masculine face with a ‘swarthy complexion; large, firm, masculine, mouth and jaw; piercing eyes’ and, perhaps most masculine of all, a moustache (Collins 34–5). Walter writes: ‘To see such a face as this set on shoulders that a sculptor would have longed to model […] was to feel a sensation oddly akin to the helpless discomfort familiar to us all in sleep, when we recognise and yet cannot reconcile the anomalies and contradictions of a dream’ (Collins 34–5). Marian’s appearance takes on distinct queer connotations, as well as the embodiment of the uncanny. The fact of her nonstandard appearance is heightened when juxtaposed with her extremely feminine and weak half-sister, Laura, the stereotypically beautiful English heroine. Yet Marian and her body become the novel’s greatest method of detection and revelation. Her mixture of nervous sensibility, coded as feminine in the novel, and, as Count Fosco says, her ‘foresight and resolution of a man’ make Marian a brave and resourceful detective (Collins 324). This idea of an unknowable body as the purveyor of truth aligns with D.A. Miller’s work, which places ‘a body, whose fear and desire of violation’ as the centre of the sensation genre as a whole (163). Miller further argues that ‘in The Woman in White this body is gendered: not only has its gender been decided, but also its gender identification is an active and determining question’ (163, original emphasis). As we have seen in the discussion of Walter, limitations on the type of masculinity that can aspire to cross-class marriage force Walter to create a new semiotic system, one not aligned with Romantic pastoral masculinity. However, Marian’s body, which embodies the struggle between masculine and feminine, does not have to reconcile itself to societal standards and, therefore, is open to liminal ways of seeing the world. Marian’s processes of semiotic inquiry, in particular, her abductive (an educated guess based on physical sensations) and inductive (partial knowledge that hints at larger truth) reasoning plays a vital part in her role as detective in the novel. I am particularly interested in how Marian’s semiosis allows her to detect the true horrors of Sir Percival’s estate, Blackwater Park, before his devious plan for Laura unfolds. In these passages, Collins weaves gothic tropes with sensational description, producing a unique form of semiotic suspense that guides both Marian and her readers.

From its first appearance in the novel, Blackwater Park seems more suited to an Ann Radcliffe novel than a sensation novel. Arriving alone to Blackwater Park, Marian writes in her diary:

Judging by my vague impressions of the place, thus far, it is the exact opposite of Limmeridge. The house is situated on a dead flat, and seems to be shut in––almost suffocated, to my north-country notions, by trees. I have seen nobody, but the man-servant who opened the door to me, and the housekeeper […] I have not seen one of them [the servants] yet […] Daylight confirmed the impression which I had felt the night before, of there being too many trees at Blackwater. The house is stifled by them. They are, for the most part, young, and planted far too thickly. I suspect there must have been a ruinous cutting down of timber, all over the estate, before Sir Percival’s time, and an angry anxiety, on the part of the next possessor, to fill up all the gaps as thickly and rapidly as possible (Collins 197–204).

From the initial impressions of Blackwater, in both night and day, Marian notes her physical response to the relationship between the house and the estate. Despite being a large property, Blackwater inspires feeling of entrapment, loneliness, and suffocation. Frighteningly, the view is not improved in daylight; in fact, its hidden nature from the outside world is exacerbated. Marian, examining the Umwelt, abducts the relationship between the tree growth and the residents of Blackwater, and she finds herself drawn to imagine the types of owners––ruinous, angry, anxious––who could have created a similar-feeling landscape . Also, Blackwater Park’s Umwelt suffers in comparison to Limmeridge House; Limmeridge is a pastoral, flourishing, and healthy Umwelt, whereas Blackwater Park, with its ill planted trees, is seen as over cultivated and unhealthy. Furthermore, this opening description of Blackwater Park, scholar Stephen Bernstein argues, creates from the outset a sense of gothic horror.[9] He writes, ‘Collins is able to put Blackwater Park firmly in line with his gothic precursors by sharing the earlier settings’ accent on darkness and the problematics of vision’ (Bernstein 293). The oppressive and unhealthily spaced trees create dark spaces ripe for terror, and Marian immediately notes how her lack of vision distorts her sense of Umwelt. Bernstein also notes how Collins draws on the generic tropes of the gothic by using Marian’s diary as the mode of narration through the Blackwater plot. He writes, ‘[t]he genre thus becomes one poised between public and private, a novel which works to model the psyche towards the ends of self-analysis and a public role both’ (Bernstein 293). Just as Marian’s writing reveals her own psyche, readers also experience how Marian ties her personal sensations to a larger understanding of the danger and mysteries at Blackwater. This slippage between the interior of Marian’s mind and the exterior of the events at Blackwater allows for uncertainty to increase, thus creating a pattern of suspense through this plotline.

Bernstein also writes that despite the gothic tropes that surround Blackwater Park, ‘Marian is unable to comprehend this text [the symbolically sinister grounds of Blackwater Park]’ (299). But this is not true; Marian is able to read the text of the landscape before her, and she clearly reasons, through her physical responses to the Umwelt, that something is horribly awry at her half-sister’s new home. The clearest example comes when Marian visits Blackwater Lake for the first time, and this passage is worth quoting at length:

The lake itself had evidently once flowed to the spot on which I stood, and had been gradually wasted and dried up to less than a third of its former size. I saw its still, stagnant waters, a quarter of a mile away from me in the hollow, separated into pools and ponds, by twining reeds and rushes, and little knolls of earth. On the farther bank from me trees rose thickly again, and shut out the view, and cast their black shadows on the sluggish, shallow water. As I walked down to the lake, I saw that the ground on its farther side was damp and marshy, overgrown with rank grass and dismal willows. The water, which was clear enough on the open sandy side, where the sun shone, looked black and poisonous opposite to me, where it lay deeper under the shade of the spongy banks, and the rank overhanging thickets and tangled trees. The frogs were croaking, and the rats were slipping in and out of the shadowy water, like live shadows themselves […] I saw here, lying half in and half out of the water, the rotten wreck of an old overturned boat, with a sickly spot of sunlight glimmering through a gap in the trees on its dry surface, and a snake basking in the midst of the spot, fantastically coiled, and treacherously still. Far and near, the view suggested the same dreary impressions of solitude and decay; and the glorious brightness of the summer sky overhead, seemed only to deepen and harden the gloom and barrenness of the wilderness on which it shone (Collins 204–5).

Blackwater Lake takes the shadows that fringe the house and transforms them into a site of grotesque decay and ruin. Marian notes that here again, the trees are oppressive and distort how the viewer can see beyond the lake. This frightening lack of sight is heightened when Marian and Laura meet at the lake to discuss her marriage, and the tree line prevents them from discovering the identity of the figure lurking and eavesdropping in the wood at the lake’s edge (Collins 262–4). Although there is life in and around the lake, Marian’s visceral physical response is placed into her description that breathes contempt and disgust. The water and earth are repellent to her, and pose a threat to her body through contamination, disease, and poison. The wildlife too presents a lurking and terrifying potential for injury or physical danger. The view is capped by the image of the upturned and rotting boat, a reminder of the cruel progression of time and decay, and furthermore, the wastefulness of the Glydes, who have allowed the lake and their property to rot. Different than the highly structured, obviously cultivated, yet unhealthy environment of the manor, which places ‘[a] pretty, winding path, artificially made’ to the lake, the lake itself is untamed, deviant, and disturbing (Collins 204, my emphasis). The distinction between poorly cultivated appearances and natural rot will be one that lingers in Marian’s mind throughout this section of her narrative. In general, the description of the decaying horror of Blackwater Lake, which is infused with adjectives chosen because of Marian’s bodily response to the scenery. This violent physical reaction plants the seeds of inquiry in place, allowing creative hypotheses to be formed, tested, and confirmed about Laura’s new husband and the secrets in the house. Furthermore, by imbuing the supposedly realistic description of the scene with Marian’s emotional perceptions, her physical sensations made manifest in language and Collins primes the reader for increasing suspense surrounding this stereotypically gothic site.

The suspense, at first, seems to find an outlet in the action immediately after Marian moves to sit in the boathouse to ‘get her breath again’ after taking in the disturbing scenery (Collins 205). But there is no relief in the boathouse, because Marian discovers to her horror the sound of another breathing thing in the shed, which forces her to jump to her feet, and discover the suffering body of a small fatally wounded dog  (Collins 205). Marian rushes back to the house to care for the sad creature, where she finds two figures: a housemaid who laughs at the dying dog and the gossiping housekeeper, who reveals the dog belonged to Mrs. Catherick, Anne’s mother (Collins 205–9). The connection between the dying dog, the tainted lake, and the woman in white, sparks Marian’s detective instincts and her sense of distrust surrounding Sir Percival. Like Walter, who immediately notices the physical similarity between Laura and Anne, Marian’s diary reveals that her sign-reading has morphed from abduction (an educated guess) to induction (partial knowledge of a larger truth) when she links the events of the day with her hopes to see Laura.  She writes, ‘How still and lonely the house is in the drowsy evening quiet! Oh, me! How many minutes more before I hear the carriage wheels and run down stairs to find myself in Laura’s arms? The poor little dog! I wish that my first day at Blackwater Park had not been associated with death – though it is only the death of a stray animal’ (Collins 209). The diary gives readers access to Marian’s thoughts which link Laura and the dead dog within the span of a sentence. Marian’s overloaded semiotic processes create new linkages, as well as new mysterious and suspenseful connections that she probes after the Glydes and Foscos arrive at Blackwater.

Marian’s fear of lurking fatal danger, illuminated by her physical experience at the lake, guides her to uncover what Sir Percival and Count Fosco have planned for Laura.  Although Marian writes in her dairy that she wants to ‘abstain from forming a decisive opinion of Glyde’s manners, language, and conduct in his house,’ her writing reveals abduction slowly taking place, putting together her experiences with the Umwelt to craft a tentative idea of the possible truth of the situation (Collins 215). At one point, Marian notes, ‘Most men show something of their dispositions in their own houses, which they have concealed elsewhere’ (Collins 214). Yet, as Marian has already discovered, Sir Percival’s home does indeed mask a hidden truth and, in fact, his poorly executed management of the property, through the heavy planting of trees, attempts to hide the putrid lake from visitors. The estate initially seems to be emblematic of an old titled family, but on closer inspection, the home is ill-run with few and mostly inept servants. The estate was ruthlessly logged, presumably for profit, and trees were hastily planted without care or concern to preserve the home’s appearance. Like Sir Percival himself, Blackwater Park twists the field of vision of the onlooker to accept an artificial image cultivated to maintain the façade of a pastoral estate while the truth lies mouldering beyond the field of vision.

But the natural world rebels against Sir Percival and Marian quickly comes to realise that the lake is more than just a blight on the property, but that it is in fact revelatory of the truth of who Sir Percival is: dangerous, cruel, and tainted. Marian notes in her diary: ‘The few days we all had passed together at Blackwater Park, had been many enough to show me––to show anyone––what her husband had married her for’ (Collins 258). In this phrase, as well as others, Marian does not even complete her thought for the reader, instead inviting them to complete the semiotic process with her. This semiosis drives the process of inquiry that leads Marian to conclude that Sir Percival’s intents for Laura are dangerous, possibly lethal, and financially motivated, which allows her to begin the treacherous detective work to uncover the secret of Blackwater Park to save Laura from harm. Although Collins manipulates gothic tropes to create the otherworldly sense of the lurking danger throughout the novel, Marian’s section, which uncovers her thought process while it also claims to be her impartial description of the events, crafts the true suspense of the middle of the novel. Marian’s unique embodiment allows for a new chain of semiosis and new strains of inquiry founded in physical sensations, which enables her to become the bold heroine of the novel.

  1. Reading Semiotically and Sensationally

Laurie Garrison, in Science, Sexuality, and Sensation Novels, points out that Victorian critics of sensation novels often posited the habit of reading as a danger. In particular, critics were anxious that young women readers would experience the illicit criminal and/or sexual behaviours in the novel, and thus become morally depraved themselves, continually craving new thrills they needed to fulfil them outside of the pages of a book (Garrison 6). Garrison’s assertion, confirmed by Victorian moral critics like Margaret Olphiant and Reverend Henry Mansel, is clearly the primary reason for the overwhelming anxiety surrounding the sensation fiction genre (2-4).

However, I would like to offer a secondary cause that may have alarmed Victorian critics. As we have seen in The Woman in White, liminal bodies are in control: they make the best use of semiotic processes, their unique perception allows them to achieve their fantasies, like Walter does, and their bodily responses to the Umwelt expose socially constructed facades, like Marian does. Although the conclusion of the novel restores injustices to right, and preserves a traditional, moralistic ending, Collins also gives his two unusual detectives their reward too, and both are able to preserve their untraditional approaches to their Umwelten. In this sense, Collins’ novel ends with a liminal approach too; a traditional marriage plot ending is paired with praise and glory for two characters whose bodies and ways of thinking that would, in other novels and genres, label them as deviants or morally degenerate.

Perhaps even more disturbingly, readers are trained by the novel to read semiotically, learning to respond physically to the appropriate clues and plot twists, in other words, treating the text as Umwelt, which enables them to solve the mysteries along with the hero or heroine. As D.A. Miller argues, ‘we “catch” sensation from the Woman [in White] who, no longer confined or controlled in an asylum, is free to make our bodies resonate with––like––hers’ (Miller 153). Sensation novels, because of their content require both the characters and the readers to engage with the world of the novel semiotically, both linguistically and physically. In turn, readers are more easily prepared to accept and agree that these liminal bodies with their unusual ability to perceive and interact in the world should be valued. Indeed, the success of Walter and Marian’s sign-reading in the novel clearly argues that readers should re-examine how they perceive and interact with the world. By making the reader aware of new ways to lift the veil over their Umwelten, Collins’ novel invites readers to perceive the world and its injustices with the body first.

This article has demonstrated how Peircean semiotics can be applied, in conjunction with a variety of literary theories and methodologies, to a semiotic genre like sensation fiction. It is my hope that this type of semiotic reading can foster a wider discussion of other previously marginalised genres and affective literary works, such as sentimental, gothic, detective/mystery, horror, romance, and/or erotic texts. By examining literature, such as popular literature or generic literature that manipulates affect, through Pericean semiotics, scholars can be allowed greater access to the bodies and environments of the characters and their readers by allowing theoretical claims about embodiment and environment to be fully grounded in the text itself. Through semiotics, affective texts can be examined and valued for the very quality that previously led critics to ignore and devalue them.



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Chandler, Daniel. Semiotics: The Basics, Second Edition. Routledge, 2002.

Collins, Wilkie. The Woman in White. Edited by Matthew Sweet. Penguin, 2003.

Cvetokovich, Ann. ‘Ghostlier Determinations: The Economy of Sensation and The Woman in WhiteNOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, Vol. 23, No. 1, Autumn 1989, pp. 24-43.

De Waal, Cornelius. Peirce: A Guide for the Perplexed. Bloomsbury, 2014.

Douven, Igor. ‘Abduction’ The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N Zalta Winter 2016,

Garrison, Laurie. Science, Sexuality, and Sensation Novels: Pleasures of the Senses. Palgrave, 2011.

Hoffmeyer, Jeseper. Biosemiotics: An Examination into the Signs of Life and the Life of Signs. University of Scranton Press, 2008.

Johnson, Melissa A. ‘The Making of Race and Place in Nineteenth-Century British Honduras’ Environmental History, Vol. 8, 2003, pp. 588–617.

Leavy, Barbara Fass. ‘Wilkie Collins’ Cinderella: The History of Psychology and The Woman in WhiteDickens Studies Annual, Vol. 10, 1982, pp. 91–141.

Mangham, Andrew. ‘‘What Could I do?’: Nineteenth-Century Psychology and the Horrors of Masculinity in The Woman in WhiteVictorian Sensations: Essays on a Scandalous Genre. Edited by Kimberly Harrison and Richard Fantina. Ohio State UP, 2006.

Miller, DA. ‘Cage Aux Folles: Sensation and Gender in Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in WhiteThe Novel and The Police. UC Press, 1988, pp. 146–191.

Moen, Marcia K. ‘Peirce’s Pragmatism as a Resource for Feminism’ Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society.  27.4 (1991): 435–450. Print.

Oliphant, Margaret. ‘Sensation Novels’ Blackwood’s Magazine, May 1862, pp. 564–584. Hathi Trust, Accessed 10 April 2017.

Peirce, Charles S. The Essential Peirce, Volume 1 (1867-1893). Edited by Nathan Houser and Christian Kloesel. Indiana UP, 1992.

––.The Essential Peirce: Selected Philosophical Writings, Volume 2 (1893–1913). Edited by Nathan Houser and Christian Kloesel. Indiana UP, 1998.

Pykett, Lyn. ‘Wilkie Collins: Questions of Identity’ The Sensation Novel: From The Woman in White to The Moonstone. Northcorte House, 1994.

Shuttleworth, Sally. ‘‘Preaching to the Nerves’: Psychological Disorder in Sensation Fiction’ A Question of Identity: Women, Science and Literature. Edited by Marina Benjamin, Rutgers UP, 1993.

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––. The Whole Creature: Complexity, Biosemiotics, and the Evolution of Culture. Lawrence & Wishart, 2006.


[1]My emphasis on embodiment and bodily sensation in sensation fiction is part of an emerging critical trend to pair sensation fiction with scientific models, histories, and/or contexts. Scholars such as Laurie Garrison, Jenny Bourne Taylor, Jessica Straley, and Daniel Matlock, have recently published works juxtaposing the genre with science.

[2] For example: Stephen Bernstein’s ecocritical reading, D.A. Miller’s gendered approach, Barbara Fass Leavy’s historicist and structural analysis, and Laurie Garrison’s historical and medical examination of the genre.

[3] My point is an extension of D.A. Miller’s 1986 reading wherein he identifies Walter and Marian as figures who are particularly ‘nerve-wracked’ and still enable the detective plot to move forward (151).  Since this publication, there has been more work done identifying how both Walter and Marian deviate (physically and mentally) from other characters and Victorian society, so I find the term ‘liminal’ more encompassing for the variety of ways that Walter and Marian oppose accepted norms for gender and class.

[4] In particular, Peirce’s personal correspondence with philosopher Lady Victoria Welby demonstrates the transatlantic interest in semiotic work during the late nineteenth-century.  Further reading: Semiotics and Significs: The Correspondence Between Charles S. Peirce and Lady Victoria Welby, Indiana UP (1977).

[5] Peirce was obsessed with the number three, so many of his formulations take a triadic form.

[6] Scholars (mainly biologists) who rely on Peirce’s theories to discuss phenomenon in the natural world, such as Jesper Hoffmeyer, Kalevi Kull, Claus Emmeche, and Terrence Deacon, refer to themselves as biosemioticians. Although Wendy Wheeler has coined the term cultural biosemiotics for her work in the humanities, this paper is not strictly biosemiotics in the sense that it does not draw on scientific research.

[7] According Melissa A. Johnson’s scholarship on the history of imperialism in British Honduras (what is modern-day Belize), the main industry of the area was the labour-intense, slavery-dependent mahogany extraction process that was overseen by British settlers (601). Although Collins is not specific about Walter’s line of work, we can speculate that Walter may have been involved with this exploitative extraction, as the more common, although less profitable, agricultural exports like fruit and sugar, would not arrive in Belize until the mid-twentieth century (Johnson 602).

[8] Similarly, we might think of the effete and feminised body of Frederick Fairlie, which prevents him from interpreting the signs of danger toward his niece, and reinforces Collins’ rhetoric against corrupt gentry.

[9] Gothic novels, which emphasise physical reactions to horror, suspense, and dread, also seem to be a genre ripe for further Peircean semiotic analysis.