The Woman in White, White Space
and Mid-Victorian Print Technology

- Mary E. Leighton - Lisa Surridge

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As Nicholas Daly notes, “The early 1860s are white years. The arrival of ‘sensation’ as a byword for the breathlessly modern (...) seems curiously wedded to that color. To be more precise, the sensation era is ushered in by a series of female figures identified with whiteness.” [1] Daly cites numerous examples of the repeated image of the woman in white during this decade, an image that occurred across fiction, melodrama, and painting: Willie Collins’s novel The Woman in White (1859-60), Dion Boucicault’s play The Colleen Bawn (1860) (Irish for “the white-haired girl”), and James McNeill Whistler’s portrait Symphony in White No. 1: The White Girl (1862), to name a few examples. Daly argues that these repeated images of women in white signal a departure from mid-Victorian realist representation in narrative and painting. He emphasizes how Collins’s novel departs from realism in favour of sensational shock effects, interpellating the modern reader as obsessed with bodily reaction rather than textual nuance. Similarly, he notes, the carpentry and “spectacular set-piece[s]” of sensational melodrama upstaged the actors. Finally, he argues that, in Whistler’s painting, the use of paint and texture upstages content, stressing instead the “material medium (...) its nature as paint on canvas.” [2] All three texts, he notes, manifest their modernity by failing to conceal the technology of their own production.

This article takes up the subject of the woman in white in the early 1860s in order to explore her significance as a repeated image. Our paper will focus on the famous serial novel that started the sensational craze for women in white: Collin’s The Woman in White (1859-60). The novel was serialized simultaneously on both sides of the Atlantic: in Britain, it was published in Dickens’s unillustrated journal, All the Year Round, and in America it appeared in Harper’s Weekly, a journal that prided itself on the quality and quantity of its illustrations. [3] As we will show, in both illustrated and unillustrated versions of the serial, Collins’s woman in white is figured by tropes of insistent repetition, both verbal and visual. At the verbal level, her speech is formally repetitive to the point of saturation or loss of meaning: she is characterized not so much by the content of her utterances but by their iteration of formal structures: repeated questions, words, and phrases. At a visual level, the unillustrated text relies on the phenomenon of characters who are indistinguishable, whose appearances repeat one another’s in a manner figured by the ghost or revenant. Collins’s women in white, then, are insistently figured by tropes of repetition and iteration.

These tropes are strengthened in the illustrated print serial of the novel, where the woman in white’s whiteness was not associated with texture or brush strokes but with absence. This absence was created by the printing process itself, in which whiteness was produced by the spaces that engravers hollowed out, by the part of the engraving plate or wood block that did not come in contact with ink. Whistler’s white girl was famously created by the application of paint and creation of texture by brush and palette knife; by contrast, Collins’s illustrated Victorian serial renders the image of the woman in white by removal and excavation. In print, the woman in white is constituted through contrast with the dark lines around her, but her figure itself is identical with the pristine whiteness of the original page. She is, therefore, literally a blank. We will suggest that her figure foregrounds the creation of meaning through contrast, absence, and repetition—thus, ultimately, Collins’s woman in white becomes a figure for mid-Victorian print reproduction itself.

The sensation scenes of Collins’s novel focus on two women who look unaccountably alike and who both consistently dress in white garments: Anne Catherick, who wears only white because of her childhood love of Mrs. Fairlie; and Laura Fairlie, Mrs. Fairlie’s daughter, who often wears simple white muslin in order to detract attention from the fact that she is richer than her beloved half-sister, Marian. The text’s criminal plot relies on this visual identification between the two women: Laura’s husband, Percival, schemes with the evil Count Fosco to substitute Anne for Laura and to take Laura’s money. They stage Laura’s death by passing the dying Anne off as Laura and then burying Anne Catherick under a gravestone with Laura’s name on it. Meanwhile, they imprison Laura in an asylum under the identity of the mad Anne Catherick. By this means, they defraud Laura’s estate and take her inheritance. However, Marian, and her friend Walter Hartright (Laura’s art teacher and true love) try to foil this scheme. They discover Laura in the asylum and set out to prove that she is not Anne Catherick, but herself, alive, and sane. The plot, then, revolves around the sensational conflation and subsequent separation of identity. Laura is, paradoxically, at once the “living image” [4] of Anne Catherick and, as Hartright and Marian insist, separate from her. The novel’s most sensational scene, as we shall see, focuses on this paradox.



[1] N. Daly, “The Woman in White: Whistler, Hiffernan, Courbet, Du Maurier”, Modernism/modernity, 12.1, 2005, p. 1.
[2] Ibid., pp. 8-9.
[3] W. Collins, The Woman in White, All the Year Round, 26 Nov. 1859-25 Aug. 1860; Ibid., The Woman in White, Harper’s Weekly, 26 Nov. 1859-25 Aug. 1860.
[4]W. Collins, The Woman in White, All the Year Round, 10 Dec. 1859, p. 146.