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  • Tracing Traumatic Memory in The Woman in White:Psychic Shock, Victorian Science, and the Narrative Strategy of the Shadow-Bildungsroman
  • Natalie Huffels (bio)

While the sensation novel's murderous plots, secret crimes, and alluringly evil villains may still have the power to disturb and fascinate modern readers, Victorian reviewers located the genre's power in its contemporary quality, what Henry Mansel called its "proximity" (487): while "Livy's narrative of the secret poisonings carried on by nearly two hundred Roman ladies" inspires little reaction, "we are thrilled with horror ... by the thought that such things may be going on around us and among us" (489). According to Victorian critics, the sensation novel undermined expectations about the health, sanity, and moral uprightness of friends and neighbours, thereby unsettling familiar interpretive modes.1 Wilkie Collins's most famous sensation novel, The Woman in White, certainly follows this pattern as the seemingly respectable Sir Percival Glyde plots to steal the fortune of his wife, Laura, by locking her up in a lunatic asylum under another woman's name. Laura's friends and family initially repress all suspicion of Percival, and their interpretive complacency and wilful blindness to signs of his depravity are no doubt responsible for much of the novel's creeping horror.

Yet Laura's mysterious experiences in the asylum are perhaps even more haunting than Percival's actions, and unlike Percival's secret guilt, Laura's secret trauma is never revealed. The ostensibly benign and peaceful country asylum in which she is locked away destroys her identity and leaves her with severe cognitive impairment. After Laura's half-sister, Marian Halcombe, rescues her, her memory loss and emotional fragility prevent her from ever discovering the details of what happened there. Laura suffers a variety of symptoms that modern clinicians have associated with psychological trauma, and the novel's structure and narrative techniques, including the obsessive use of doubles and a repetitive structure filled with gaps, resemble those that modern psychoanalytic theorists have identified as characteristic of trauma narratives.2 Considering the sensation novel's strategy of rendering suspicious the contemporary and proximate, however, Collins's depiction of Laura's traumatic experience may be [End Page 42] examined more productively in the context of theories of mental functioning that had currency when the novel was written.3

Collins took an interest in contemporary scientific ideas and debates, and in the prefaces and postscripts to several of his novels, he implies that his bizarre and thrilling plots are based on scientifically verifiable facts that his extensive research and reading make him uniquely qualified to represent.4 A familiarity with nineteenth-century medical and philosophical writing on memory and cognition illuminates a web of psychologically informed imagery and vocabulary in The Woman in White, and Collins makes particularly persistent use of medical and philosophical writing on "double consciousness" and the doctrine of Associationism in depicting shocked and wounded characters. I argue that the novel relies upon these contemporary psychological models but that it also draws attention to the contradictions between and within them, dramatizing ideological tensions by embodying incompatible scientific and philosophical discourses within individual characters. Instead of hiding inconsistent contemporary beliefs within separate and internally consistent philosophical and medical frameworks, Collins throws them all together to suggest the multiple possibilities for interpretation of character and incident that are essential to the paranoid tone of the sensation novel.5 The novel mimics the conventions of contemporary domestic novels and Bildungsromane, thereby raising readers' expectations that Laura will be diagnosed and cured, and that she will live happily ever after. Yet by combining competing models of selfhood from contemporary medicine and novels, Collins undermines both realms' explanatory and interpretive power. Collins therefore achieves his ominous effect by threatening his readers' optimistic faith not only in their neighbours, but also in the models of the psyche and identity being articulated in medical and novelistic discourses.


The Woman in White superficially imitates the conventions of dominant Victorian novelistic genres, while using contemporary scientific discourse to undercut the ideological assumptions upon which such conventions are based. Many nineteenth-century Bildungsromane epitomize a Lockean belief in the importance of cohesive memory to selfhood...


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pp. 42-61
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