Study Guide

The Woman in White

By Wilkie Collins

The Woman in White Introduction

Cult classics are nothing new. Before stuffy critics panned The Rocky Horror Picture Show (only to have it become pretty much the definition of an audience-participation event); before people decided that no one would ever like Evil Dead 2; and before reviews gave an enthusiastic two thumbs down to Donnie Darko, there was The Woman in White.

When The Woman in White first appeared in November 1859 in Charles Dickens's periodical All the Year Round it was pretty much universally dismissed by critics. They complained that the characters and plot were weak, the novel was all style and no substance, it was silly, and it wasn't "real" literature. Yeah, they were harsh.

Our favorite snotty review comes from Dublin University Magazine in February 1861. It opens by saying that the book, "which claims a passing notice from the marked disproportion of its actual merits to its seeming popularity, the spirit of modern realism has woven a tissue of scenes more wildly improbable than the fancy of an average idealist would have ventured to inflict on readers beyond their teens."

Twenty-first century translation: "This book is a load of unrealistic hooey that shouldn't be forced on anyone older than a dumb teenager. It's popular for no apparent reason."

But saying that Collins's novel was merely "popular" would be a bit of an understatement. The thing was a smash hit. People were obsessed with it. They bought products mentioned in the novel, from hats to perfume—yup, product placement existed back in the Victorian Era, too. People named their kids "Walter" and their cats "Fosco" (seriously). Collins was flooded with fan mail. Men took bets on what would happen in upcoming chapters.

And, like all good cult classics, The Woman in White has remained super-popular ever since it was first published. It's been adapted into stage productions, movies, TV miniseries, and even an Andrew Lloyd Weber musical. It was made into a movie six times between 1912 and 1948. And it's never been out of print since it first hit the stands in 1860.

Pretty impressive for a novel the critics slammed as superficial and stupid, eh? So the next time you're tempted to rewatch Re-Animator or Death Race 2000, try picking up The Woman in White instead—it's the great-granddaddy of cult classics.

What is The Woman in White About and Why Should I Care?

Have you even thought about whether posting pictures of the eggs you ate at brunch makes you a jerk? Or pondered what Instagram filter best expresses your personality? Or wondered whether the guy you're meeting from Tinder looks anything like his pictures? Or mused over whether a girl who writes her OkCupid profile in all lowercase could be actually cool?

Sometimes it seems like identity is a perpetual maze (and a perpetual illusion) in our daily lives. It can seem like identity is something that you switch-up at will… or something that can be misconstrued, misunderstood, or taken from you at any moment.

But if you think identity issues are a new phenomenon, think again. The Woman in White is all about identity and the way it can escape our control. We've got identity switcheroos, stolen identities, mistaken identities, false identities, and super-secret spy identities… and this is all in a novel from the mid-19th century.

The Woman in White asks all sorts of questions about how stable our identity is, how much our identity is a product of what other people think of us, how difficult it is to maintain our originality, and how we can never be sure who is lying about their identity. And all of those questions and issues are still absolutely relevant today.

Oh, and, as a bonus—this novel is considered the first mystery novel. That's right: it takes the brain-scorchingly difficult question of identity and turns it into a dang mystery. Hey, that sounds about right to us: there's nothing more mysterious than trying to figure out what our fellow humans on this weird blue planet are actually all about.

So the next time you're puzzling over what it means when your new friend sends you a Snapchat of a decapitated Barbie on a park bench—Is he a serial killer? Is he joking? Is he sending a coded message?—you might feel better thinking about the fact that the very first mystery novel pondered questions of how actions reveal identity… and whether appearances are always deceiving.

The Woman in White Resources

WEBSITES

Wilkie Collins on Victorian Web
Awesome collection of material about Collins, including reviews, biographical material, and essays on his works.

Wilkie Collins Biography
Here's a brief biography of Collins, covering his career and his personal life (which was pretty freaking entertaining).

Publishing History of The Woman in White
This is a cool page that gives a rundown of the book and has lots of images of the various covers of the novel over time.

Collins E-texts
Lucky for us, a ton of Collins's novels have been converted into e-text format, so there's a lot of material to choose from on the site.

Wilkie Collins Twitter
Yes, really. To celebrate the 150th anniversary of The Woman in White, Collins enthusiast and scholar Paul Lewis started up a Twitter feed.

Woman in White 150th Anniversary Project
Read The Woman in White the way the Victorians did on this site, which breaks up the novel into its original installment pieces from the periodical All the Year Round. Have fun with those cliffhangers!

The Wilkie Collins Pages
Here's a tribute page to Collins with a lot of links.

Wilkie Collins Chronology
Boom—here's a detailed chronology of Collins's life and work.

Collins and Dickens
Cool rundown of the relationship between BFFs Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins, with pictures and primary sources, such as private letters. Juicy!

Wilkie Collins Bibliography
Check out this detailed bibliography, including books by and about Collins.

The Woman in White: The Play
This site is about the theatrical adaptation of The Woman in White, which debuted in 1860 and was revived in 1870.

MOVIE OR TV PRODUCTIONS

The Woman in White (1948)
Check out TCM's site for info about the 1912, 1917, and 1929 productions, too. (It was a popular book to adapt, that's for sure.)

The Woman in White Miniseries (1982)
Here's the IMDB page for the 1982 miniseries version.

The Woman in White Miniseries (1997)
The IMDB page for yet another adaptation of The Woman in White, this time a 1997 TV version.

VIDEO

The Woman in White Musical Preview Trailer
The Woman in White with singing? Why not? Check out YouTube for other clips from the musical.

IMAGES

Wilkie Collins at the U.K.'s National Portrait Gallery
This has lots of portraits of Collins at various ages, lookin' sharp.

Wilkie Collins Photographs
Check out these photographs of Wilkie Collins, rocking some specs and a killer mountain-man beard.

The Woman in White Cartoon
Here's an 1861 cartoon spoofing The Woman in White from Harper's Magazine.

The Woman in White Theater Poster
A cool (and pretty famous poster) from one of the theatrical adaptations of The Woman in White.