A Sensation of the Victorian Age: Wilkie Collins’ A Woman in White

Ever heard of sensation novels? No? Me, neither until I met A Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, published in 1859. For the most part I listened, rather than read the book, courtesy of Librivox.org.

I’ve sampled many audiobooks at this site and I take my hats off to volunteers who’ve dedicated precious time and energy to bring classic literature to people who prefer to listen or are unable to read. However, as one who can comprehend the written word better than the spoken one, I get picky about delivery. Not all audiobook narrators are created equal. I was lucky, to have found a version of A Woman in White that has great narrators.

In addition to being the prototypical sensation novel, A Woman in White is quite possibly one of the first crime or detective novels. Walter Hartright, its unlikely hero, is a clever, methodical, young art teacher in search of truth (aren’t most artists?). His quest? To learn who has wronged the young woman he cares about and why.

Wilkie Collins
Present day writing gurus of genre novels will delight in how Mr. Collins begins his story with a bang—a mysterious encounter on a chilly evening. As he walks on a deserted road toward his new employer’s mansion, someone taps Mr. Hartright on the shoulder. Assuming no other soul was lurking about,

every drop of my blood in my body was brought to a stop

as he turns to see a woman in white—a ghostly apparition of a damsel in distress.

As the mystery develops, you meet other quirky characters. A very fat, cultured, and sociopathic Italian count. A spunky lady with a bit of mustache who might be lesbian. A rude baronet with dwindling funds and a damning secret. A prettier, naive, and protected rich version of the woman in white (is she Mr. Collins’ heroine?). A hypochondriacal aristocrat recluse obsessed with his art and stamp collections. Are you salivating yet? But wait, there is more.

There is a marriage of convenience before a marriage of love could make the pretty lady happy. Also: false commitment into an insane asylum, stolen identities and a second false commitment, secret meetings and stalking, and finally sickness, death and murder.

The villains are sinister, desperate to succeed in their evil schemes. But in the end, they do get their just desserts. One burns in a church while retrieving the evidence of his secret.

But what about the more sinister villain? The one who hides behind his cool, culture, and charm?

Count Fosco, the principal villain, is too cunning to be crushed by Mr. Hartright who is too decent and rational not to know when to stop his quest. The story doesn’t end there though. The author takes this chance to add yet another another mysterious character and another twist, albeit the last one.

From these characters and the many plot twists, can you deduce what a sensation novel is? The satirists of Punch put it this way: A sensation novel

was conceived for ‘Harrowing the Mind, Making the Flesh Creep, Causing the Hair to Stand on End, Giving Shocks to the Nervous System, Destroying Conventional Moralities, and generally Unfitting the Public for the Prosaic Avocations of Life’.

The Punch, a defunct humor and satire London magazine exaggerates. But they’ve hit the core. A sensation novel will get you excited, titillated, provoked, angered, worried, etc. as you read it. Complete with all the physical sensations that come with those emotions.

Probably a sub-genre of Gothic novels, the sensation novel was a British literary phenomenon of the 1860s and 1870s. It was wildly popular among the masses of Victorian England and some scholars believe it reflected the conditions of the period.

Don’t you notice, though, that you can find many of the elements of the sensation novel in the genre novels of today? Writers of today are advised to make sure their novels have strong emotional impact. Otherwise, the consequence is utter obscurity and no sales.

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