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

- Mary E. Leighton - Lisa Surridge

pages 1 2 3 4 5

This ending with blank space constitutes the text’s modernity. If, as Daly notes, sensation fiction manifests its modernity by failing to conceal the technology of its own production, then Harper’s illustrated serial version of The Woman in White provides a quintessential example of this phenomenon. As we have seen, the visual images of Anne and Laura are linked by their affiliation with blank space, which in the era of print engraving signified whiteness. Hartright and Marian, then, may affirm Laura’s presence, but the printing process nevertheless establishes this presence with absence or negativity. Moreover, while they try to assert Laura’s identity as unique, her image is finally one of repetition insofar as all images in the era of mass production are reproductions. Even the novel’s resolution—which hangs on Hartright’s discovery that Sir Percival forged his own christening record in order to inherit his title—never rests on legal proof because the forgery is burned in the same fire that kills Sir Percival. The “real” Percival and his falsified christening record perish together, the original and the forgery disappearing simultaneously. Once again, Hartright and Marian can only resort to spinning an alternate narrative to replace the first. The novel’s assertion of uniqueness thus relies on the multiplication of narratives.

Whistler’s and Harper’s Weekly’s women in white, then, both draw attention to their own material circumstances of production: Whistler’s by the visibility of paint and brush stroke, Harper’s by the thematization of the double, the forgery, the multiplied narrative, the repeated image of blank space. However, Whistler’s painting simultaneously asserts its uniqueness as a work of art, marked by the very hand of the artist, while Laura’s image in Harper’s asserts the proliferation of identical copies, the very notion that Hartright attempts to dispel. The image of the woman in white in this serial thus contradicts the novel’s strenuous assertion of unique identity in favour of the endless repetition of sameness in the industrial era.

Victorian critics such as H.L. Mansel reviled sensation fiction as exuding “a commercial atmosphere (...) redolent of the manufactory and the shop.” Mansel accused publishers of producing sensation fiction as a commercial product that could be endlessly produced and reproduced—“so many yards of printed stuff, sensation-pattern, to be ready by the beginning of the season.” [21] Sensation fiction was, in this view, an industrial product, mass-produced from a template to satisfy market demand. In Pierre Bourdieu’s terms, it was characterized not as art but as “the product of the system of large-scale cultural production.” [22] This debate about sensation fiction’s status extended to other genres. Notably, as Lorrain Janzen Kooistra argues, John Ruskin objected to Gustave Doré’s illustrations to Alfred Tennyson’s Elaine (1866), because “the artist’s army of engravers were merely cogs in the machine of mass production, churning out illustrated book after illustrated book.” [23].

In this debate over the value of mass-produced art, Collins’s fiction stood for what Walter Benjamin has termed “the work of art in an age of mechanical reproduction.” [24]. The Saturday Review deemed his talent “mechanical”: “he is (...) a very ingenious constructor; but ingenious construction is not high art, just as cabinet-making and joining is not high art.” [25] Similarly, critic Margaret Oliphant referred to the “machinery” of The Woman in White’s sensation scenes. [26] Specifically, Oliphant accused Collins of having created in Count Fosco a villain  “destined to be repeated to infinitude.” Ironically, Collins perceived Fosco as original because composed in “opposition to the recognised type of villain,” [27] but even this claim to originality acknowledges Fosco’s derivation from a stereotype. In Oliphant’s image of endless copying or reproduction, she evokes the stereotype as it existed at mid-century as a technology of print production: that is, as a cast-iron plate for the mechanical reproduction of text and image that permitted publishers to duplicate set type as an endlessly reproducible image, one that could be “repeated to infinitude” for a mass market. She thus describes Fosco as


unquestionably, destined to be repeated to infinitude, as no successful work can apparently exist in this imitative age without creating a shoal of copyists; and with every fresh imitation the picture will take more and more objectionable shades. The violent stimulant of series publication – of weekly publication, with its necessity for frequent and rapid recurrence of piquant situation and startling incident – is the thing of all others most likely to develop the germ, and bring it to full and darker bearing [28].


As we have shown, The Woman in White relies on doubles and repetition at the levels of both plot (doubled characters, repeated images, and forgery) and form (repeated questions, anaphora, anadiplosis, epanalepsis, epistrophe, and homiologia). The novel’s conclusion, with its insistence on Laura’s uniqueness and Sir Percival’s “real” identity, attempts to consolidate the value of the original. But the text’s emphasis on doubling and repetition also inadvertently thematizes critics’ complaints about serial fiction’s inseparability from the techniques of mechanical reproduction. For such critics, this reproducibility or repetition forms an intrinsic part of the genre: Fosco is not unique, but endlessly reproducible; the woman in white spawns copies, the novel prompts parodies, stage adaptations, and merchandise. The woman in white stands, therefore, as a quintessential symbol of the 1860s, of the era when mass reproduction of print materials became possible and a mass readership made sensation serials vastly profitable. She represents the spectre that haunts the work of art in this era: the figure of repetition that undermines the notion that aesthetic value inheres only in the unique, the unrepeated image.



[21] H. L. Mansel, in M. E. Braddon, Aurora Floyd, ed. R. Nemesvari and L. Surridge, Peterborough, Broadview, 1998, p. 574.
[22] P. Bourdieu, “The Market of Symbolic Goods,” The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends, ed. David H. Richter, Boston, Bedford, 1998, p. 1242.
[23] L. J. Kooistra, Poetry, Pictures, and Popular Publishing: The Illustrated Gift Book and Victorian Visual Culture 1855-1875, Athens, Ohio UP, 2011, p. 240.
[24] W. Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn, New York, Schocken, 1968, pp. 217-51.
[25] Anonymous, [Review], in W. Collins, The Woman in White, eds. M.K. Bachman and D.R. Cox., Peterborough, Broadview, 2006, p. 629.
[26] M. Oliphant, in W. Collins, The Woman in White, eds. M.K. Bachman and D.R. Cox., Peterborough, Broadview, 2006, p. 640.
[27] E. Yates, in W. Collins, The Woman in White, eds. M.K. Bachman and D.R. Cox., Peterborough, Broadview, 2006, p. 648.
[28] M. Oliphant, in W. Collins, The Woman in White, eds. M.K. Bachman and D.R. Cox., Peterborough, Broadview, 2006, p. 642.