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

- Mary E. Leighton - Lisa Surridge

pages 1 2 3 4 5

Fig. 1. J. McLenan, « I turned on the instant... », 1859

In the British serial edition of the novel, these two women in white had no visual presence, as Collins’s novel was published in an unillustrated journal. However, even without the added force of illustration, Anne and Laura were forcefully associated by means of both visual and verbal repetition. This repetition occurs upon Collins’s introduction of his woman in white as the protagonist, Hartright, meets her at night, alone, on a road to London through Hampstead Heath. At this moment, Anne Catherick materializes in the narrative without any diegetic explanation or context whatsoever. She thus appears as a mystery, a blank, a trope to be deciphered. Let us consider the unillustrated British text first. Initially, the encounter is purely tactile: as Hartright recounts, “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.” [5] Hartright’s sensation of shock is captured as his “fingers [tighten] round the handle of [his] stick,” [6] but he comes no closer to defining this woman. Hartright then switches to visual interpretation: “There, in the middle of the broad, bright high-road (...) stood the figure of a solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in white garments (...] her hand pointing to the dark cloud over London.” [7] Female vs male, country vs. city, brightness vs. darkness, white vs. black: the woman in white is defined almost purely by contrast, by what she is not. Her interpreter struggles to read this cipher: “All I could discern distinctly by the moonlight, was a colourless, youthful face, meagre and sharp to look at.” [8] He tries to read her clothing and demeanour, but to little effect: “Her dress—bonnet, shawl, and gown all of white—was, so far as I could guess, certainly not composed of very delicate or very expensive materials.” [9] Although he is a drawing master and therefore expert at visual interpretation, Hartright is defeated: “What sort of a woman she was, and how she came to be out alone in the high-road, an hour after midnight, I altogether failed to guess.” [10]

The unnamed woman’s dialogue contributes to her mystery, as she reveals little of herself or her circumstances. Instead, very strikingly, she poses a series of questions that become the defining feature of her speech. Many are untagged, or minimally tagged, with references to her “mechanical” voice and “rapid” delivery: “Is that the road to London?” “Did you hear me?” “You don’t suspect me of doing anything wrong, do you?” “May I trust you?” “You don’t think the worse of me because I have met with an accident?” “Can I get a fly, or a carriage of any kind?” “Is it too late?” “Will you promise?” “Do you know many people in London?” “Many men of rank and title?” “Are you a man of rank and title yourself?” “Do you live in London?” “North, or south?” [11] At the level of plot, such sparsely rendered speech impels the reader to speculate as to what kind of back story might prompt the unknown women to ask such questions. At the level of form, this repetition of the question associates the woman in white with the negative, not the positive, with interrogation rather than affirmation. It also establishes the trope of repetition that will characterize her speech and visual identity throughout the narrative.

Just as Hartright struggles to decipher the woman in white at this first meeting, so in her May 1862 review, Victorian critic Margaret Oliphant found no positive terminology for Anne, but rested her description on tropes of absence, negation, silence, and blankness: “there is nothing frightful or unnatural about her; one perceives how her shadow must fall on the white summer highway in the white moonlight, in the noiseless night.” [12] Modern critics have found in this blankness an invitation to impose multiple and often contradictory meanings on Collins’ cipher. Some have filled in her blankness with biographical narrative, quoting John Everett Millais’s account of the midnight meeting of Collins, his brother Charles, and Millais with an enigmatic “woman in distress” who had been kept prisoner “under threats of violence and mesmeric influence.”[13] Others have read Hartright’s encounter with the woman in white as symbolizing the breakdown of class boundaries [14] or as a scene of “gender slippage,” in which the unmanned Walter Hartight’s grasping of his stick is a symptom of “male nervousness” prompted by  “female contagion.” [15] The variety and incompatibility of such interpretations replicate Hartright’s efforts to ascribe meaning to the woman in white. In such criticism, the woman in white becomes a signifier of everything and nothing, a sign—in short—of cultural longing for interpretative stability.

The illustrated novel in Harper’s Weekly produces a very different reading experience because the first page of Part 1 features a prominent illustration of Hartright’s encounter with the woman in white (fig. 1). This means that readers see the enigmatic woman before they read Hartright’s account of their meeting. The image (which depicts the woman raising her arm to point to London and Hartright grasping his stick) places the unidentified woman in stark relief, her white figure set off against a predominantly dark background characterized by dense cross-hatching representing woods and sky. Clad in dark clothing, Hartright’s figure blends almost completely with the scenery except for the whiteness of his collar, face, cuff, and waistcoat. In contrast, the woman’s skirt is composed almost exclusively of white space, with perspective minimally suggested by cross-hatching on its folds; her shawl and bonnet are cross-hatched, against which her face (other than her eyes and other facial features) stands out in ghostly contrast. As we have already pointed out, printing techniques dictated that such ghostly figures were produced by the evacuated and un-inked part of the engraving. The visual text thus anticipates and strengthens the verbal text’s construction of the unnamed woman through contrast: male vs. female, country vs. city, darkness vs. brightness, black vs. white, inked vs. un-inked paper. Before the American serial reader arrives at the woman’s enigmatic dialogue and Hartright’s attempts to decipher her, therefore, she is already identified on the page as a visual blank, readable only by means of what she is not.



[5] Ibid., November 26th 1859, p. 101.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid., pp. 101-103.
[12] M. Oliphant, qtd. in W. Collins, The Woman in White, eds. M.K. Bachman and D.R. Cox., Peterborough, Broadview, 2006, p. 643.
[13] J. E. Millais, qtd. in W. Collins, The Woman in White, eds. M.K. Bachman and D.R. Cox., Peterborough, Broadview, 2006, p. 14-5.
[14] J. Loesberg, “The Ideology of Narrative Form in Sensation Fiction,” Representations 13, 1986, p. 115-38.
[15]D. A. Miller, “Cage aux Folles: Sensation and Gender in Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White,” The Nineteenth-Century British Novel, ed. J. Hawthorn, London, Edward Arnold, 1986, p. 95-124.