The Woman in WhiteThe Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Wilkie Collins, is best known for his masterpiece of detective and mystery, “The Moonstone” (1868), often regarded as the first true detective novel, and “The Woman in White” (1860), the archetypal mystery “novel of sensation.” It is generally held that his work perfected the genre of modern detective mystery fiction later to be epitomized in the short story by Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes” and established the detective novel genre later to be adopted by such immensely popular practitioners as Agatha Christie, John Buchan, Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler.


Was then Wilkie Collins’ “Moonstone” the first detective novel in world history, and his “The Lady in White” the first mystery? Always when putting such sweeping questions the possible answers are delimited by how one asks the question and how one defines its key terms—-What is a novel?—-What is a detective novel?—-What is a mystery novel?

If we begin with the broadest inclusive category of “detective fiction” it is obvious that crime, discovery and punishment have been the subject of stories and literature from time immemorial. We might well legitimately regard Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex” as a legitimate claimant to the title of the first work of detective fiction. Oedipus as King is faced with an unsolved crime, the murder of his father the former King and a curse placed upon his kingdom until his murderer is brought to justice. Although Oedipus’s investigation is based on supernatural, pre-rational methods that are evident in most narratives of crime until the development of the rationalism and scientific worldview of the Enlightenment, the narrative has all of the central characteristics and formal elements of the detective story, including a mystery surrounding a murder, a closed circle of suspects, disguised identities unveiled, and the gradual uncovering of a hidden past—-most dramatically resolved in the moment of anagnoresis in which Oedipus realizes that he himself is the killer of his own father, and the lover of his own mother.

If we look to short stories or novellas we may certainly find examples of detective fiction which pre-date Wilkie Collins’ masterpieces, but would also lack the status of novels, or of novels constituitive of the detective genre. Thus, one of the earliest examples of detective fiction is Voltaire’s “Zadig” (1748), which features a main character who performs extraordinary feats of analysis. Another leading example would be E. T. A. Hoffmann’s 1819 short story “Das Fräulein von Scuderi,” which is sometimes cited as the first detective story and a direct influence on Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Arguably, D’Artagnan in the later Musketeers sagas of Dumas, such as “The Man in the Iron Mask” partially fits the model of an intrepid and analytical unraveller of a hidden mystery—the plot of “The Man in the Iron Mask” and his own sworn brothers Aramis and Porthos against the throne of Louis XIV.

True detective fiction in the English-speaking world is generally considered to have begun with the 1841 publication of Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” featuring the first fictional detective, the eccentric and brilliant C. Auguste Dupin,followed by the further Dupin tales, “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” and “The Purloined Letter,”
which Poe referred to as “tales of ratiocination.” The primary concern of the plot is ascertaining truth, and the usual means of obtaining the truth is a complex and mysterious process combining intuitive logic, astute observation, agressive following of leads and perspicacious inference, climaxing in some ideosyncratic burst of revelatory genius.

Less well known or taken into account are some of the works of detective fiction outside the Western Tradition, often considerably predating the Western masterpieces, yet difficult to classify in the same genre due to differences in dynamics. In Chinese Literature The “Gong An Story” (公案小说) is the earliest known genre of Chinese detective fiction. These are generally accounts of the cases handled by an Imperial Magistrate, a district level official who combined in one person the functions of the investigator, prosecutor, judge and jury in criminal cases brought before the Yamen, or local court.

The two most famous of these fictional Magistrates, probably based on historical persons later fictionalized and romanticized, were Bao Gong (Bao QingTian) of the Ming Dynasty and Di Gong, or Judge Dee of the 18th Century Qing Dynasty tales, which became known in the West after being translated by the Dutch Sinologist Robert Van Gulik. Bao Gong is a legendary incorruptable and upright judge who will spare no effort in applying justice in his cases. He was so revered in Chinese folk-culture that in later mythological religious stories after his death he even becomes a judge of souls in Hell, on a parallel with the function of Aecus, Minos and Radamanthus, the great Greek King-Judges who become judges in Hades in the Greek and Western Tradition.

Nevertheless these novels of crime differ significantly from the genre of detective fiction and crime mystery in that, though engaging and enjoyable they lack Poe’s intensive focus of “ratiocination” and plots of discovery compelling the reader to join the Dupin or Holmes-like detective in unraveling the mystery through rationally deciphering clues, guesses, false starts, twists, turns and a surprise ending. The Chinese stories instead focus on:

1)The local magistrate who is usually involved in several unrelated cases simultaneously;
2)The criminal typically is introduced at the very start of the story with his crime and reasons carefully explained, thus constituting an inverted detective story rather than a “whodunnit puzzle” which must be unraveled through suspenseful series of twisting and turning discoveries and events;
3)The stories also have a supernatural element with ghosts telling people about their death and even accusing the criminal;
4)The stories are filled with digressions into philosophy,introduction of dozens or hundreds of related and unrelated characters, and much more, making for very long books that are not necessarily “thrillers” or driving “page turners;”

Arabic Literature contains some notable examples of “Detective Fiction,” though again often limited to shorter stories not developed into the elaborate organic wholeness and extended plotting and character development of the Western classics, epitomized by Wilkie Collins’ “The Moonstone” and “The Woman in White.” Thus in the classic “Arabian Nights” or “1001 Nights Entertainment” which probably evolved from various sources from the 9th Century Caliphate era to be bound together as the immortal tales of Scherezade, we find the story of “The Three Apples.” In that story, a fisherman discovers a heavy, locked chest along the Tigris river and he sells it to the Abbasid Caliph, Harun al-Rashid. When Harun breaks open the chest, he finds inside it, the dead body of a young woman who had been cut into pieces. Harun, incensed at such outrages going on in his own kingdom, then orders his vizier, Ja’far ibn Yahya, to solve the crime and to find the murderer within three days, or be executed if he fails in his assignment. Suspense is generated through multiple plot twists that occur as the story progresses, thus embodying some of the narrative style and archetype of detective fiction.

A main difference between Ja’far and later fictional detectives, such as Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, however, is that Ja’far has no self-driven desire to solve the case. The whodunit mystery is solved when the murderer himself confesses his crime rather than through the successful scientific or imaginative efforts of the detective. The first crime in turn leads to another assignment in which Ja’far has to find the culprit who instigated the murder within three days or else be executed. Ja’far again fails to find the culprit before the deadline, but owing to his chance discovery of a key item, he eventually manages to solve the case through reasoning, in order to prevent his own execution.


Wilkie Collins, (1824–1889) was Dickens’s close friend and colleague in Dickens’ magazines “Household Words” and “All the Year Round,” which serialized most of their novels before they were published as books at the end of the serialization. He is credited with the first great mystery novel, “The Woman in White,” which centers on what we would modernly call “identity theft” for purposes of defrauding a wealthy heiress of her family fortune, is credited with the establishment of the “novel of sensation” or mystery genre. Collins’s later masterpiece detective novel “The Moonstone,” (1868) focusing on the twisting fate of a priceless gemstone from an ancient Indian temple, brought to England as a trophy by an officer of the conquering British army, was called by T.S. Eliot “the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels… in a genre invented by Collins and not by Poe.”

Collins himself, a complex character and son of a prominent artist, lived an unconventional, Bohemian lifestyle, loved good food and wine to excess, wore flamboyant clothes, travelled abroad frequently, formed long-term relationships and had children with two women but married neither, and took, like de Quincy and Coleridge, vast quantities of opium over many years to relieve the symptoms of ill health. He was an accomplished stage actor and playwright, in addition to a novelist, and Collins’s circle of friends included many pre-eminent figures of the day. He knew the major writers such as Thackeray, Trollope, George Eliot and particularly Charles Dickens with whom he regularly collaborated in writing and onstage, as well as a host of minor novelists. His friends and acquaintances included some of the foremost artists, playwrights, theatrical personalities, musicians, publishers, physicians and society figures of the time in London and across Europe. Collins’s unorthodox lifestyle reveals a cynical regard for the Victorian establishment. This view is reflected in his books together with a sense of humour, deep psychological and sociological insight, and a profound understanding for many of the prevailing social injustices of his time, equalling or perhaps exceeding in his social awareness and activism even Dickens himself.

Collins’s works are masterpieces of intricate plotting, yet are informed by deep insight into human psychology, social conditions, character types and a mature appreciation of the human condition. His novels are fully engrossing and a joy to read. His literary reputation suffered for more than a century from being overshadowed by his intimate friend Dickens, often being relegated to a niche writer of the genres of detective, mystery and “sensation” but has recently made a significant comeback as the underlying strengths of his works are being rediscovered, beyond his mastery in plots and mysteries.

Faulkner is often celebrated for introducing “multiple points of view” and diverse narrators of a continuous story, but Wilkie Collins had perfected this treatment long before him. The Woman in White and the Moonstone, as well as “No Name” thus are narrated in successive parts by diverse participants in the story, none of whom is possessed of the whole truth, but who in composite unveil the story and its mysteries in its entirety. Furthermore, the various sub-narrators develop complex personalities and attitudes towards the world and life in addition to serving to further the underlying story, creating a true “polyphonic” experience. In part, this reflected the legal training Collins shared with Dickens but similarly abandoned for literature, in which a court case is put on through the teastimony of multiple, diverse and often contending witnesses. “The Woman in White” thus commences with the “Narrative of Water Hartright,” a sensitive young artist who falls in love with a wealthy heiress,Laura Fairlie, who is forced into a loveless marriage with the villian of the piece, Sir Percival Glyde. Subsequent critical portions of the story are added by the written narratives of Marian Halcombe, her half-sister, her self-centered and insensitive uncle Frederick Fairlie, Mr. Gilmore the family solicitor, and finally the evil genius Count Fosco finally cornered by Hartwright’s investigation and coerced into making his final confession of the crime of stealing Laura’s identity by exchanging it with “The Woman in White” and consigning her fraudulently to an insane asylum to appropriate her fortune in conspiracy with her husband Glyde. Each is well developed with a unique personality and a ideosyncratic narrative voice. Thus Collins fully anticipates the polyphonic innovations of Modernism well before Faulkner, though perhaps not fully equalling Faulkner’s depth of contorted psychology and tragic vision.

“The Moonstone” was a pathbreaker in establishing a number of the key ideas and motifs that have become firmly established classic features of the genre of the modern detective story:

1) Setting: A country Manor House robbery
2) An “Inside Job”
3) Red Herrings
4) A celebrated, gifted, professional investigator
5) Bungling, smug local police
6) Detective inquiries
7) A large number of False Suspects
9) A “Least Likely Suspect”
10) A rudimentary “Locked Room” murder
11) A Reconstruction of the crime
12) A Final Twist in the plot

The Moonstone is a magnificent yellow diamond ‘large as a plover’s egg.’ It was looted at the siege of Seringapatam in southern India in 1799 by Colonel John Herncastle, who seized it from the forehead of a Hindu god. he leaves the diamond, said to carry a curse, to his niece Rachel Verinder.

The Moonstone is presented to Rachel at a dinner party for her eighteenth birthday. The guests include Godfrey Ablewhite, another cousin; Mr Candy, the family doctor; Mr Murthwaite, a celebrated traveller in India; and Drusilla Clack, an interfering “born again” evangelist. The party goes badly. Rachel and Franklin Blake have become fond of each other while she refuses a marriage proposal from Ablewhite. Blake had been followed in London and Murthwaite identifies three Indians seen near the house as high caste Brahmins. Rachel places the diamond in her bedroom cabinet but the next morning it is missing and the novel then focuses on its fate.

The novel, like “The Woman in White” is told through multiple narrators and follows the attempts to recover the Moonstone. The local police failing, a celebrated detective, Sergeant Cuff is summoned from London to investigate the disappearance of the Moonstone, and despite the reluctance of the household to help him in his investigations, he does come up with a theory (kept from us) that proves in the final pages of the book that he is worthy of his reputation. We follow all of the possible suspects, with twists, turns and multiple surprises. Cuff, nearing retirement is as equally interested in his beloved rose gardens as in the crime he is investigating, evidencing a maturity of mind beyond his profession. Collins is adept in creating well-rounded characters who have each their ideosyncratic personalities and are not just the necessary furniture of plot development. I shall not spoil the story by revealing the intricacies of the ending, but promise you that it is memorable. Some novels as you read them leave you with the conviction that you have encountered something great, and for me the Moonstone was definitly one of them.

“No Name” was the third of the trio of great Collins novels I finished, and I was not disappointed. “No Name” tells the story of a pair of sisters from a wealthy family who are deprived of their inheritance on their parent’s death because of the circumstance that their parents had never been legally married due to a prior marriage of the father which had never been disclosed to the children. Despite the father’s attempt to provide for them, the Victorian law disinheriting illegitimate children leaves them “Nameless” and penniless. In part the novel is Collins’ protest against this injustice to “illegitimate” children generally, a protest which yielded significant reforms of this social injustice. The book itself differs from the other two in that it is not primarily a novel of revealed secrets or unsolved crime. Instead it is a contest of plots and counter-plots in the attempt by the younger of the sisters, the plucky Magdalen Vanstone to recover the inheritance of which she has been unjustly but legally robbed after the inheriting relatives unfeelingly wash their hands of the destitute sisters.

A cavalcade of chicanery, plots, assumed disguises, deceits and tricks ensue in which Magdalen is aided by a consummate Confidence Man, Captain Wragge, who aids her cause in a “kamakazi marriage” under an assumed name to the heir to recover the fortune, but in which they must engage in a duel of wits of plotting and counterplotting with the corrupt and viscious housekeeper of the heir, Mrs. Lecount. Their many plots and deceits succeed in the marriage but not in the recovery of the money. Yet, the hand of Providence, or perhaps a “deus ex machina” of a benign author finds a way to bring the unfortunate sisters to a happy ending in an unforseen twist of fate, which may inspire some or slightly disappoint others. In any case Magdalen emerges as one of the memorable resiliant, resourceful, strong and brave female characters of Victorian fiction, alongside the resourceful and also ethically unrestrained Becky Sharp of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. The novel also has been celebrated by modern feminists as a critique of women’s vulnerability and relegation to “unperson” status, except as defined in relation to a man, father or husband, even as to the plight of “namelessness” of the two sisters.

My own work, the contemporary and futurist epic thriller, Spiritus Mundi is also informed by the dynamics of the mystery and detective novel, especially within the spy and espionage environment. Thus a secret terrorist cell plots a bombing of the US Olympic team and then a nuclear detonation in Jerusalem, and the CIA and MI6 struggle to discover the perpetrators, only to find plots behind plots and twists behind twists linked to a threatened great power World War III conspiracy on the defeat of which the fate of mankind hangs.

I highly recommend all of Wilkie Collins’ works as masterpieces of detective and mystery fiction and invite you to look into Spiritus Mundi.

For a fuller discussion of the concept of World Literature you are invited to look into the extended discussion in the new book Spiritus Mundi, by Robert Sheppard, one of the principal themes of which is the emergence and evolution of World Literature:

For Discussions on World Literature and Literary Criticism in Spiritus Mundi: http://worldliteratureandliterarycrit…

Robert Sheppard

World Literature Forum
Author, Spiritus Mundi Novel
Author’s Blog: http://robertalexandersheppard.wordpr…
Spiritus Mundi on Goodreads: http://robertalexandersheppard.wordpr…
Spiritus Mundi on Amazon, Book I:
Spiritus Mundi, Book II: The Romance

Copyright Robert Sheppard 2013 All Rights Reserved

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About robertalexandersheppard

Robert Sheppard , Author, Poet & Novelist Pushcart Prize fof Literature 2014 Nominee Professor of World and Comparative Literature Professor of International Law Senior Associate, Committee for a Democratic United Nations (KDUN) E-mail: Robert Sheppard is the author of the acclaimed dual novel Spiritus Mundi, nominated for the prestigious 2014 Pushcart Prize for Literature in two parts, Spiritus Mundi the Novel, Book I and Spiritus Mundi the Romance, Book II. The acclaimed “global novel” features espionage-terror-political-religious-thriller action criss-crossing the contemporary world involving MI6, the CIA and Chinese MSS Intelligence as well as a "People Power" campaign to establish a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly on the model of the European Parliament, with action moving from Beijing to London to Washington, Mexico City and Jerusalem while presenting a vast panorama of the contemporary international world, including compelling action and surreal adventures. It also contains the unfolding sexual, romantic and family relationships of many of its principal and secondary characters, and a significant dimension of spiritual searching through "The Varieties of Religious Experience." It contains also significant discussions of World Literature, including Chinese, Indian, Western and American literature, and like Joyce's Ulysses, it incorposates a vast array of stylistic approaches as the story unfolds. Dr. Sheppard presently serves as a Professor of International Law and World Literature at Peking University, Northeastern University and the State Intellectual Property Office (SIPO) of China, and has previously served as a Professor of International Law and MBA professor at Tsinghua University, Renmin People’s University, the China University of Politics and Law and at the Law Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) in Beijing, China. Having studied Law, Comparative Literature and politics at the University of California, Berkeley (Ph. D.Program in Comparative Literature), Northridge, Tübingen, Heidelberg, the People’s College and San Francisco, (BA, MA, JD), he additionally has been active as professor of International Trade, Private International Law, and Public International Law from 1993 to 1998 at Xiamen University, Beijing Foreign Studies University, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Graduate School (CASS), and the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing. In the US he serves as a Professor at Kean University, as well as having taught at Bergen Community College and Pillar College in NJ. Since 2000 he has served as a Senior Consultant to the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) in Beijing and has authored numerous papers on the democratic reform of the United Nations system.
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