Photo: Pearl and Shel (Perla e conchiglia), by Giuseppe De Nittis, 1879 (Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images) Insets: The Woman in White; Marilyn (Courtesy of Marilyn Lightstone)
Marilyn Lightstone Reads “The Woman in White”
When Victorian writer Wilkie Collins serialized his story in Charles Dickens' magazine, it spawned a new genre called the "sensation novel" / BY Athena McKenzie / April 22nd, 2022
When English author Wilkie Collins first published The Women in White in 1860, typical Victorian novels revolved around love and marriage. Collins focused his writerly lens on the seamier side of life, creating a new genre dubbed the “sensation novel.” These reads were precursors to the modern-day thriller, recounting irresistible stories of murderers, bigamists, adultery, poisonings and villainy.
There’s no denying the novel embraces the dramatic, and keeps raising the intrigue after its famous opening, which features a haunting encounter with the mysterious woman in white. There’s a secret society, an illegitimate birth, a great inheritance, identity theft, death by fire, fake marriage, foreign agents, bribery, blackmail and conspiracies.
Collins was a friend of Charles Dickens and The Woman in White originally appeared as serialized installments in Dickens’ weekly magazine All the Year Round. Told through letters and diary entries, each chapter ends on a cliff-hanger, leaving readers eager to continue. It was an immediate hit, both in serial form and when it was reprinted as a book. Prince Albert, consort of Queen Victoria, gave copies as gifts, and the novel even inspired merchandise such as Woman in White perfume, cloaks and bonnets.
Given its subject matter, the novel has appealed to many ambitious filmmakers through the years, resulting in numerous adaptations for the big and small screen. The 2018 BBC television series was hailed for its modern sensibility while maintaining the novel’s gothic creepiness.
The Woman in White continues to captivate readers, and writers. Pulitzer-prize winning author Jennifer Egan calls it one of the best thrillers she’s ever read, featuring one of the great literary villains, the Count of Fosco.
This is the character the Duchess of Cornwall recently named as a dream dining companion from the world of literature. What’s a dinner party without a little conflict?
Hear Marilyn Lightstone bring this sensational novel to life on her podcast “Marilyn Lightstone Reads.”