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.)