Author: Wilkie Collins
First Published: 1859-60, in All the Year Round
The below is adapted from an essay I wrote for The Guardian UK online.
Often singled out as the foundation text of “sensation fiction”—a genre distinguished by its electrifying, suspenseful, and sometimes horrific plots, as well as its unsavoury themes of intrigue, jealousy, murder, adultery, and the like—The Woman in White was an immediate sensation in its own right when it began appearing in Dickens’s weekly journal All the Year Round. Margaret Oliphant hailed it as “a new beginning in fiction”, while at the same time Edward Bulwer-Lytton dismissed it as “great trash.” And while Henry James disliked the “ponderosity” of The Woman in White (calling it “a kind of 19th-century version of Clarissa Harlowe”), he acknowledged that the book had “introduced into fiction those most mysterious of mysteries, the mysteries which are at our own doors.”
Despite such drastically mixed reviews, The Woman in White was a mad success with the public, and made no less of a sensation out of its 35-year-old author, Wilkie Collins. In middle-class dining rooms everywhere, discussion turned to the intriguing cast of characters Mr. Collins had invented—mannish, eloquent Marian Halcombe; faithful and angelic Laura Fairlie; sinister, secretive Percival Glyde; and of course Count Fosco, seductive and cunning, with his cockatoo, his canary-birds, and his white mice running over his immense body. Two months in, Dickens was calling the novel “masterly”, and Prince Albert admired it so much that he later sent off copies as gifts.
During its serialisation in All the Year Round (from 26 November 1859 to 25 August 1860), and upon its publication in book form, The Woman in White inspired not only a series of imitators (chief among them Mrs Henry Wood’s East Lynne  and Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret ), but also what John Sutherland has described as a “sales mania and a franchise boom.” Manufacturers produced Woman in White perfume, Woman in White cloaks and bonnets, and music-shops displayed Woman in White waltzes and quadrilles. The poet Edward FitzGerald named his herring-lugger “Marian Halcombe”; cats were named Fosco and thought to look more sinister; and Walter became a fashionable name for babies. As Kenneth Robinson, one of Collins’s earliest biographers, pointed out, “even Dickens had not known such incidental publicity.”
Collins’s storytelling talents were utterly mesmerising for Victorian readers—and they are no less captivating for readers today. He was the master of the “cliff-hanger,” and given the 40 or so of them that strategically punctuate The Woman in White, it’s not difficult to see why this Victorian novel continues to thrill us. Our flesh creeps when Anne Catherick places her hand on Walter’s shoulder; our hearts ache when Marian Halcombe falls ill and Count Fosco violates her diary; our blood curdles when Walter Hartright stands next to his beloved’s tombstone, only to look up and find her standing there. The apparitions that Collins conjures are the ghosts that ensured not just his success but his longevity. They are what have kept readers going back for more during the last 150 years, and they bear testament to the value of Collins’s self-professed, “old-fashioned” opinion that “the primary object of a work of fiction should be to tell a story …”