Sunday, 22 November 2009

Women in White


I've been nudged back into thinking about 'The Woman in White' again, in part because of catching snatches of the new serialization of the Wilkie Collins' novel on Radio 4, and also because my younger son has been reading Edgar Allan Poe (a gothic writer who seems to lead to mysterious women in white, whether mad or bad or dying or dangerous). And I was reminded of something that I wrote about in 'My Mother's Wedding Dress', which is that the woman in white has become such a familiar title -- not least because the original novel has been turned into a long-running West End musical -- that it's easy to forget how powerfully unsettling the phrase must once have been. Collins had some difficulty in coming up with the title for his novel, which was to be serialised in Dickens’ magazine, “All the Year Round” – despite the fact he had already written the opening chapter, including its eerie encounter on a moon-lit road with a “solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in white” – but when he did decide upon it, in August 1859, and sent it to Dickens for his approval, Dickens replied: “I have not the slightest doubt that The Woman in White is the name of names, and very title of titles.” '

As it happens, Dickens had already described a woman in white of his own, some years earlier, in 1853, in an autobiographical essay entitled “Where We Stopped Growing” in his magazine, Household Words. She was a figure from his London boyhood, he wrote, seen always on Berners Street; “whether she was constantly on parade in that street only, or was ever to be seen elsewhere, we are unable to say. The White Woman is her name. She is dressed entirely in white, with a ghastly white plaiting round her head and face, inside her white bonnet. She even carries (we hope) a white umbrella. With white boots, we know she picks her way through the winter dirt. She is a conceited old creature, cold and formal in manner, and evidently went simpering mad on personal grounds alone – no doubt because a wealthy Quaker wouldn’t marry her. This is her bridal dress.”'

The wind is howling outside as I write this, and I have just come home via the old toll-gate on Spaniards Lane, that runs through Hampstead Heath. On a dark night such as this one, it isn't difficult to imagine the figure of a woman in a white dress, flitting between the shadows of the trees...

(By the way, if you are tempted to re-read 'The Woman in White', try to find the Oxford edition, with an introduction and notes by John Sutherland -- he is such a good guide to it.)

13 comments:

kairu said...

In Asian ghost stories, women are always seen in long white gowns (white being the color of death and mourning), their hair unbound. In college, my roommate (who was from Hong-Kong, and raised on these ghost stories) always found the sight of me (back then I had hair past my waist) with my hair down unsettling, even though I never wore white. It was a joke between us.

It's been ages since I read The Woman in White (seems strange that it is a musical now), but it seems to be the perfect story to revisit while the rain streams down outside, the wind howling at my windows.

Gondal-girl said...

Great post Justine - have missed reading you ( since baby was born) makes Miss Havisham loom up in my mind...how is Coco coming along...

Karen, Surrey said...

I read Woman in white for O level and loved all that mystery, faces at the window, sculking in the shrubbery. I am sure I have it here somewhere and it probably is one to reread at some point.

Serenknitity said...

'The Woman in White' is now on my ever-increasing list of must-reads (along with your new Chanel book, naturally). Interesting also to see where Miss Havisham comes from. I thought of her the other day whilst freeing my hall mini-chandelier from strings of cobwebs.

Coincidentally, passing the toll at Spaniards yesterday I remarked how it does make the imagination conjure highwaymen and ghostly figures. The whole of Hampstead has me thinking swishing crinolines and bonnets peering into shop windows.

oxford-reader said...

I tried reading The Woman in White earlier in the year, and couldn't get into it. With the rain lashing my window and gusts blowing me along I think now would be the perfect time to read it.

Sarah Standalone said...

The phenomenon of a women in white must cross cultural boundaries, as I have just read Love In The Time Of Cholera and toward the end whilst Fermina and Florentina are on the riverboat a woman in white waving a handkerchief signals to the boat to come and pick her up. The Captain then explains that she is the ghost of a drowned woman who is trying to lure them off course. So it seems a woman is a suspect creature whether clothed in white, black or scarlett. I haven't read The Woman in White, I have added it to my list.

savidgereads said...

Ooooooh we had blogendipity yesterday as my post was on The Woman in White too. I have been reading lots and lots of Sensation Novels over the last few weeks and this was and still is my favourite. Though I do have East Lynne to read this week!

Justine Picardie said...

What fantastic comments you have all left. Congratulations to Gondal-girl (what's the name of your baby?).
Fascinating cross-cultural references from Kairu and Sarah... I've always been interested in white as a colour of mourning, as with medieval European queens.

Gondal-girl said...

Hi Justine - have sent you an email. Not sure if the address works - feel free to update me at gondalgirlATgmail.com

enid said...

I loved Woman in White and as I have just returned from grey London to hot Cape Town I agree that it is a book best read in winter - have we invented a new genre - seasonal reads ? I have a friend who only wears white - her whole wardrobe is white and I find that quite strange.

Karen, Surrey said...

Seasonal reads. What a great genre. Jane Eyre definitely winter I think. As is Jamaica Inn and Tess of the Durbevilles.

Carmina said...

my girlfriend told me about this book and she encouraged me to read it and I told her that I will read it after I finish reading Sildenafil Citrate which I found it entertaining

realbadman said...

I just loved this book from start to finish. This is what a book should be – something that makes you think about it when you can’t get to it and excited to pick it up again. Bravo Mr Collins!! I can’t wait to read more of your work.


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