- The Woman in White
Since The Woman in White was rediscovered in the later twentieth century as a fit subject for serious literary criticism, it has become grist for an unusually diverse range of critical mills. As a bestseller and popular publishing phenomenon in its own time, it has received strong responses from reader-response criticism and New Historicism. As the paradigmatic 1860s "sensation novel" and as a generic bridge between the eighteenth-century Gothic and the later nineteenth-century detective story, it has been investigated by genre criticism. As a magazine serial turned independent bestseller, its pages have been turned by scholars of periodicals studies and publishing history; as a proudly plot-centered fiction, it has helped drive modern narratology. As a sustained engagement with women's lives and legal rights, containing several edgily cross-gendered characterizations, it has been read into the records of feminist criticism and queer theory. As a domestic fiction with characters who suffer in the jungles of Central America and flee the oppression of Italy by foreign overlords, it has been enlisted in the postcolonial canon. The list of scholars who have engaged Collins's novel on these theoretical levels and others is an honour roll of Victorian studies and a virtual ABC (Auerbach, Brantlinger, Czetkovich) of its theoretical innovators.
I believe The Woman in White has more to offer, however, beyond even this role as a Victorian proving-ground for critical theories, beyond even its being an index to them. It may help us address an emerging problem in Victorian studies that is the obverse of our success at theoretical innovation—a trend toward theoretical fragmentation and compartmentalization. The Victorianists [End Page 37] who travel today's increasingly diverse scholarly paths cannot be said to ignore each other, exactly, but much of our work has come to exist in parallel rather than in dialogue, separated not only into its own panel sessions but into its own conversations and even its own conferences. Is this a phenomenon that should worry us? What would greater dialogue between and among our theoretical subspecialties accomplish? Like Walter Hartright in the church vestry at Old Welmingham, we may not know what secret is ready to be discovered until its last unexpected piece falls into place. But in this space I'd like to consider how some of the critical threads Victorianists have spun for The Woman in White, already valuable in themselves, might become more valuable if they were intentionally woven together.
It has often been shown that questions of identity furnish not only the plot of Collins's novel, but much of its thematic content. U.C. Knoepflmacher was among the first to point out that the theft of the identity of Lady Glyde/Laura Fairlie is matched in the novel by a strong thematic concern with how the identities of all Victorian women were constituted and regulated. Later, D.A. Miller showed that Collins is at least as concerned with how the Victorians constructed male identity and sexuality, and scholars including Jonathan Loesberg have observed how central questions of class are to the novel. More recently still, Cannon Schmitt has argued that national identity, foreign and domestic, is one of Collins's chief concerns, and Tamar Heller has demonstrated how Walter Hartright's relationship to his profession—artist and art teacher, and later newspaper illustrator—might offer the central piece of his identity and characterization.
Appropriately mirroring the multiple detective-characters within the work, these scholars all seem to have found individually significant clues to how The Woman in White engages the issue of Victorian identity. In addition to being individually right about the issues they identify, however, they may be cumulatively right in ways we have not yet learned to connect. If we try to see components of identity in the novel, such as gender and sexuality, class, nationality, and profession as pieces of a larger central design rather than as separate readings achievable only from different theoretical perspectives (feminism, queer theory, Marxism, postcolonial theory, cultural studies), different conclusions about their pattern and purpose may emerge. Is it possible to read the...