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The Woman in White: A Detective Sensation

The modern detective novel grew from several historical roots, and The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins, figures prominently along its timeline. Collins’ novel contains supernatural elements, and it is both a sensation novel and a detective novel. Thus, to me it fits best as a transitional novel between the sensation novel and the modern detective novel. The supernatural is featured in Collins’ The Woman in White, with the ghostlike Anne Catherick floating through the plot, and both Count Fosco and Anne Catherick casting the mesmerizing influence on other characters in the novel.

Collins’ novel is a sensation novel. Vanity Fair, in 1872, identified Collins as “‘the Novelist who invented Sensation’”, ushering in “’sensation fiction’” (quoted by Bachman and Cox 9). Sensation focused on issues of “modern life”, most importantly secrets and thrills, including such topics as crime (10), and, specific to A Woman in White, identity (11). Another aspect of sensation fiction was the focus on plot, and in his introduction to the revised edition, Collins agreed plot rather than character was the focus of his novel (13).        

The Woman in White is also a detective novel, featuring Walter Hartright with his pure (right) heart, as the amateur sleuth protagonist encountering red herrings along the path to solving crime. The Newgate novels of the 1830s and 40s focused on criminals in society (Flint 221). Sensation fiction came along, flowing in the British tide of the upheaval of traditions and the immense changes of the 1950s and 60s, as well as life in big cities where neighbours could be from any class and hide any number of secrets (Flint 20). The 1860s were a time when people lapped up the scandal in their newspapers that was printed because there was more newspaper space upon which to print the details than there had been in the past (Flint 226). Kate Flint points out “British fictional detectives developed alongside” the creation of innovations in policing (238), such as the Police Act of 1829, and the creation of a special criminal investigation department in 1842 (239). The lines became blurred between fictional accounts and real accounts, with Flint crediting Charles Dickens for basing his fictional works on nonfiction detective accounts. She also mentions Collins’ later novel, The Moonstone, as another work that may have been based on fact. She points out that both Dickens and Collins contributed to the creation of the plots and the characterization of a detective as the protagonist, and that their involvement shows that the sensation novel and the detective novel are closely connected (239).

Collins incorporated supernatural, ghost, sensation, and crime elements in his creation of The Woman in White. Aspects of the plot may even be borrowed from crime stories, thereby tying his work in with crime drama. Collins claimed to have used crime stories written by Maurice Mejan as inspiration for the plot (Bachman and Cox 13). In his plot Collins uses ghostly images and mesmerism to heighten the suspense, but Hartwright solves questions of identity through scientific rather than supernatural means, by discovering the evilness of Sir Percival Glyde and Count Fosco. Through his creation of an amateur sleuth looking to find the truth behind other characters within a novel of sensation that also contains apparent supernatural elements, Collins created a novel that paved the way for the modern detective novel.

Works Cited:

Bachman, Maria K and Don Richard Cox. “Introduction”. The Woman in White,by Wilkie Collins, edited            by Maria K. Bachman and Don Richard Cox, Broadview Editions, 2006, pp. 9-37.

Collins, Wilkie. The Woman in White, edited by Maria K. Bachman and Don Richard Cox, Broadview                Editions, 2006, pp. 47-617. 

Flint, Kate. “Sensation”. The Cambridge History of Victorian Literature, Cambridge, 2012, pp. 220-242.



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