Friday, June 13, 2014

"Both Literal Masterpieces of Sensational Fiction"

THE WOMAN IN WHITE.
By Wilkie Collins (1824-89).
Serialized 1859-60 in All the Year Round; book publication 1860.
Online HERE.
THE MOONSTONE.
By Wilkie Collins (1824-89).
Serialized 1868 in All the Year Round; book publication 1868.
Online HERE.
As early as the 1920s, there was some concern that once-highly regarded Victorian authors would end up "forgotten" by the public. Even those of us living in the early 21st century can remember Scott, Thackeray, Dickens, the Brontes, and Wells, thanks to their works being continually reprinted, but what about Mackenzie, Kingsley, Reade, and Trollope, for example?

The author of one article feared that a formerly popular "sensation" novelist would suffer such a fate:
[Excerpts] . . . Another almost equally prolific contemporary of Trollope's appears to be even more forgotten; and yet I refuse to believe that even the present generation has never heard of Wilkie Collins, and can find no pleasure in The Moonstone and The Woman in White, which are both literal masterpieces of sensational fiction. Indeed, the former is in my humble opinion the best story of its kind ever written.  . . .
[About The Woman in White] . . . Yet, to me, great novel as it undoubtedly is, it lacks the artistic construction of The Moonstone . . . all the other characters in the book [The Woman in White] pale before the incomparable FOSCO,—I love to write his name in capitals as he would have written it himself,—surely the most perfect, as the most attractive, of all that large family of foreign villains in fiction, of which he was to be the progenitor.  . . .
. . . Fosco was an undoubted scoundrel, but the author contrived to make him a very attractive one. It is curious, no less than regrettable, that the reputation of so prolific a writer as Wilkie Collins should rest almost entirely on these two books, though they in themselves are surely a sufficient monument; for I cannot recall any of his others that repay perusal. — Percy Stephens, "Some Forgotten Victorian Novelists," THE LIVING AGE (March 17, 1923; see pages 654-655)
Scene from the 1948 film version of The Woman in White
According to the following piece, Percy shouldn't have worried:
. . . 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.  . . . 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.
. . . 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.  . . . — Jon Michael Varese, "The Woman in White's 150 Years of Sensation," THE GUARDIAN BOOK BLOG (26 November 2009)
Resources:
- See Allan Griffith's posting about The Moonstone on his VINTAGE POP FICTIONS weblog HERE.
- Says Wikipedia:
The Moonstone introduces in novel form, as opposed to Poe's short story form, a number of elements that were to become classic attributes of the twentieth-century detective story:
~ English country house robbery
~ An "inside job"
~ Red herrings
~ A celebrated, skilled, professional investigator
~ Bungling local constabulary
~ Detective enquiries
~ Large number of false suspects
~ The "least likely suspect"
~ A rudimentary "locked room" murder
~ A reconstruction of the crime
~ A final twist in the plot

Categories: Detective fiction, Literature

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