The Woman in White

Jun 10, 2013 | Reviews

This well-printed, nicely-presented volume is the latest to appear in the Broadview Editions series. Earlier reprints of Heart and Science, The Moonstone and The Evil Genius are now followed by the novel of 1859-60, which established Collins as the most influential sensation novelist. As the editors note, the themes of “disguise, misrepresentation and altered identity were such successful elements of The Woman in White that several of the best-selling sensation novels of the period almost instantly took up the same themes” (12). Although their idea of Collins as the “inventor” of the sensation novel surrounded by those copycats Ellen Wood and Mary Braddon is overplayed, there is little doubt of the novel’s enormous impact. At first some of this was due to Collins’s lucky break in having the novel serialised in Charles Dickens’s magazine All the Year, but the benefits were also mutual. Collins’ cliff-hanger serial helped raise the weekly circulation to 100,000 plus. This new edition of the text prepared and annotated by Professors Cox and Bachman is based on this original serial version which, as they note, “galvanised” the novel-reading population, electrifying them with the twists and turns of its plot and became a “media sensation” (11).

In their introduction the editors give an authoritative and discerning account of the appeal of the novel for its first readers. They suggest that this had more to do with Collins’ ability to “hook” his readers than in his ability to draw three-dimensional characters—the latter skill, they suggest, he never really picked up. This is a reading which misses out on the ways in which characters like Walter Hartright and Marian Halcombe are constructed, but it is true that readers came to The Woman in White for shocks and thrills. Bachman and Cox are very good at unpicking the importance of key sensation scenes in the novel including Walter’s first meeting with Anne Catherick on the Finchley Road and they examine in ample and exact ways the different—slightly spurious—accounts of its origins in real life. Bachman and Cox also make good use of Collins’s often-overlooked account of why the novel is written the way it is—which appeared as the 1861 preface to the French edition, La Femme en Blanc translated by Emile Forgues. They use this to explain the importance of different narrators to the remainder of Collins’s work. They then go on to offer an erudite and very accessible account of the ways in which concerns in the 1850s about asylums, dreams and nightmares and mesmerists find their way into the novel and, in an uncanny way, tie in with its much admired narrative structure. “It is fitting”, they argue “that the publication of The Woman in White generated a craze of unprecedented proportion, for indeed mania and nervous energy are at the every heart of the novel’s plot and narrative structure” (20). In the same way, the emphasis on dreams and vision-like states “encapsulates the dynamics of ‘telling’ in The Woman in White; these fictive fragments are memorial attempts to recover from a disordered state of mind which is dramatically manifest in the novel’s multiple plot and structures” (26).

Inevitably the attention paid to different elements of the novel varies: the discussion of marriage laws must be one of the most detailed and erudite around, and the discussion of the Italian Question is only a little less full. Some other aspects of the edition, however, are less clear. This is particularly the case when Bachman and Cox try to explain which version of the novel this current edition is based on. In the introduction they maintain that the copy text has been culled faithfully from the All the Year Round serial version. So far so good. However they also write:

We have collated the serialised version … with both the 1860 and 1861 editions, as well as with Collins’s original manuscript and the annotated pages that exist for the 1861 edition. In general we have restored manuscript readings when there have been textual questions that could not be resolved by comparing the multiple versions. In instalments 33-35 we have chosen to restore a number of passages that Collins himself restored in the three volume edition on the grounds that these readings were apparently the version he had originally intended (and preferred).

This editorial tinkering prompts a question: What text of the novel are we being offered? Answer: It is and isn’t the serial version. This may be unfair but it is not clear, at least to this reader, what passages have been reinstated and where. As far as I can see, the only restoration indicated as one reads through the novel is a description of hanged curates in instalment 33. This is a passage which Collins apparently cut as being too similar to one in Martin Chuzzlewit. If, as the editors imply, they have inserted other passages, then it seems essential to indicate where these are located. Otherwise we are left with what seems to be a mongrel text—being neither one thing or the other and representing not what Collins ever saw but what twenty-first century editors imagine he would have liked to see. One might say that such mysteries are appropriate for a work abounding in questions of identity and illegitimacy, but they are surely weaknessess in a text offering itself as a scholarly edition.

Other textual apparatus is of the high standard that traditionally characterises Broadview texts. Like other editions this one also contains an Appendix of contemporary reviews and source documents. These point to the novel’s relationship to the “lunacy panic” of the late 1850s and to its interest in “The Woman Question.” The reviews and comments from friends like Dickens also add usefully to the details provided in the Introduction. The editors have also taken the imaginative step of including several of the illustrations accompanying the novel. These include John Gilbert’s evocative frontispiece to the 1861 edition and illustrations by Francis Fraser accompanying 1875 Chatto and Windus edition. At least, I am assuming they are Fraser’s since it is not made clear; the only reference to him is in a footnote in the introduction. So whilst the generous number of illustrations is a good idea and they reflect the centrality of pictures in the Victorian novel-reading experience, there is again some slight confusion. If these illustrations are important more needs to be said about them; if they are not important then why include them? Since great play is made of the way in which this text conforms to what Collins would (probably) have wanted, it would, at the very least, be useful to know if Collins approved of the illustrations scattered though it.

Alongside its advantages, then, this edition does have flaws and loose ends. It is also pricey. Intended for the student market it will have to compete —at least in the British market—with cheaper editions from OUP and Penguin. Having said this, it is student-friendly in many ways and does flag up something of the immense scope and complexity of Collins’s most famous novel. Bachman and Cox editors have a sure grasp of their subject, but it is a pity that they have left readers guessing concerning a number of the editorial decisions that they have made.