Victorian Literature Critical Précis

Published: 2021/11/08
Number of words: 1240

Critical Précis:

Sensational Sisters: Wilkie Collins’s ‘The Woman in White’, Leila Silvana May
The Sensationalization of Masculinity in ‘The Woman in White’, Rachel Ablow

Collins’s The Woman in White demarcates the revolutionary Victorian narrative where the fossilization of traditional stereotypes is juxtaposed with Gothic horror and psychological realism. Collins greatly explores and experiments with the Victorian phenomenon of ‘sensational fiction’, eroding established gender roles and parameters and replacing them with rewritten potentials, which his characters actively embody.

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Henry Mansel castigated the new ‘Sensation Novel’ as “preaching to the nerves instead of the judgement”.[1] The controversial temperament surrounding sensationalization invited many critical responses, in this case, concerning the conspicuous gender roles. Leila May’s and Rachel Ablow’s accounts respond to the gender agencies that are posed in Collins’s narrative, illuminating how they were accepted and/or refuted and highlighting their effect and function within the primary text.

Critic Anna Maria Jones stated sensational fiction “seeks to expose the hidden significance of the ordinary”.[2] This notion is plethorically cited in Ablow’s The Sensationalization of Masculinity in ‘The Woman in White’ as she asks why provocative problems are treated as solutions under the cover of a masculine presence? Walter Hartright is the axis about which this essay pivots. By mapping Walter’s mental and psychological aggrandizement, from his inaugurative nervous susceptibility to the stabilization of his self-mastery, Ablow highlights the necessity for both knowledge and understanding. Ablow’s askance attitude towards this phenomena suggests that knowledge without understand formulates gaps including, ‘How was Walter able to recognise Laura?’ She argues a masculine presence does not and should not, in its own right, justify or validify a problematic situation. Meaning, the answer, ‘He loved her’ is a weak sympathetic grounding for any speculation on the subject. Indeed, Ablow touches upon the male ideology to state understanding does not need to be emotionally sympathetic, or simply ignored, in order for a sensational fiction to properly function. It is argued that if and when this attitude occurs narrative problems change their form and begin masquerading as solutions.

Ablow’s exposition elucidates Jones’s theory concerning sensational fiction. The very ability to ask the question, ‘How was Walter able to recognise Laura?’ exposes a hidden significance that can be found throughout Victorian, as well as pre-Victorian, literature. For example, social concepts and ideas that would have been treated with habitual conjecture, or viewed as ‘ordinary’, now face being challenged and analysed with scrutiny. Overall, Ablow’s essay brings to light the inherent presuppositions towards masculinity within The Woman in White and examines the issues that arise subsequently.

The tenacious notion of sensationalization within gender is also addressed in May’s Sensational Sisters: Wilkie Collins’s ‘The Woman in White’. Focusing primarily on the sororal bond between Laura and Mariam Halcombe, May examines the Victorian ideal of the nuclear family. She deconstructs its many components to highlight that it can be reformed in multiple ways due to the considerable gender overlaps and the salient blurred line between Walter’s role as a brother and as a lover.

The paradigm of the nuclear family, whilst by no means exclusive to the Victorian era, was venerated highly during this period. However, May highlights Collins’s bold narrative structure as not by any means conformative to this dominant ideal. Indeed, Walter refers to the narrative as a ‘strange family story’ and May draws upon this statement by asking whether it is the story or the family that is ‘strange’? Critics Marie-Luise Kohlke and Christian Gutleben highlight in their work Neo-Victorian Families: Gender, Sexual and Cultural Politics, “the very ideological elevation of the Victorian [nuclear] family endowed its repeated failure to shelter and protect with melodramatic and sentimental potential, [was] readily exploited by Victorian artists and writers for shock value and affective appeal, as well as social criticism.”[3] May attributes Collins as part of the Victorian writers mentioned through his depictions of family disturbance and discontentment with desires, bonds and family networks.

This family disturbance, as previously mentioned, can be evidently seen in the male/female role reversal between Mariam and Walter. May illuminates Walter’s passive voice and inactivity and contrasts it with Mariam’s masculine appearance and assertive demeanour. She then goes on to highlight Walter as the role of the brother within the family and the potentially incestuous nature of his and Laura’s relationship. However, the focal point of the essay is upon the sisterhood, or the sororal bond, and how it alone is the means for which these relationships are transgressed and subverted.

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As in Ablow’s essay, the potent ‘problem versus solution’ theme is also palpable in May’s writing. Ablow’s notion of masculine superiority in the novel is considered thoughtfully by May as a concept that does not necessarily need to be owned by a man. May poses underlying questions concerning, ‘How do we (the reader) perceive gender influences?’, ‘ Do these influences traverse between male and female?’ and ‘What effects are produced as a result?’ She suggests if the problem is initially perceived incorrectly then an incorrect solution will inevitably follow, for example, leading to a brother-sister bond between Mariam and Walter instead of the actually more evident brother-brother relationship.

The on-going dialogues of these two essays highlight the complex and intricate nature surrounding the sensationalization of gender within, not only The Woman in White, but also the wider Victorian era as a whole. I feel these essays make remarkable companions to Collins’s text as they clearly explain and unforgivingly dissect the gender agencies at hand. They are capable of opening the mind to alternative but persuasive modes of thought, resulting in an impatient desire to re-read the primary source. The essays complement each other in regards to Collins’s Woman in White as both bring attention to Collins’s realistic psychological portraiture, subtle characterization and ingenious plot structure, culminating in the single recurrent desire of uncovering what lies beneath the many layers Collins created in his great sensational novel.


Ablow, Rachel, ‘Good Vibrations: The Sensationalization of Masculinity in ‘The Woman in White’’, NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, (2003) 37, pp. 158-180.

Jones, Anna Maria, Problem Novels: Victorian Fiction Theorizes the Sensational Self, (Columbus, OH: The Ohio State University Press, 2007).

Kohlke, M. and Gutleben, C., Neo-Victorian Families: Gender, Sexual and Cultural Politics, (New York City, NY: Rodopi, 2011).

Mansel, Henry, ‘Sensation Novels’ in The Victorian Art of Fiction: Nineteenth-Century Essays on the Novel ed. Rohan Maitzen (Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2009), pp. 189-210.

May, Leila Silvana, ‘Sensational Sisters: Wilkie Colins’s ‘The Woman in White’’, Pacific Coast Philology (1995) pp. 82-102.

[1] Henry Mansel, ‘Sensation Novels’ in The Victorian Art of Fiction: Nineteenth-Century Essays on the Novel ed. Rohan Maitzen (Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2009), pp. 189-210 (p.189).

[2] A. M. Jones, Problem Novels: Victorian Fiction Theorizes the Sensational Self, (Columbus, OH: The Ohio State University Press, 2007), p. 4.

[3] M. Kohlke and C. Gutleben, Neo-Victorian Families: Gender, Sexual and Cultural Politics, (New York City, NY: Rodopi, 2011), p. 17.

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