In Praise of Spiders

Caleb Crain

  • The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
    Vintage, 609 pp, £5.99, October 2007, ISBN 978 0 09 951124 3

To slip the leash in the 19th century, it was usually enough to move without leaving a forwarding address, and that was how some in the working class shook off inconvenient debts and marriages. Most in the bourgeoisie lacked the option, however, because they valued their social identity too highly to sacrifice it, not to mention the property associated with it. Their fantasies of release had to be extreme in order to be plausible: what if I went insane? What if everyone thought I was dead? What if there were another person with my name and one of us took the other’s place? What if my legal identity turned out to be a sham because my parents were never really married? If all else failed, there was always laudanum, which blurred the edges very nicely.

It was in these improper fantasies that the novelist Wilkie Collins found his raw materials. In his world, the tags are always falling off the luggage. The narrator of Basil (1852) has been ‘obliged in honour to resign’ his surname, because his father has literally torn his page out of the family history. In The Woman in White (1859-60) – recently reprinted by Vintage without any notes or even Collins’s own prefaces – the uncanny resemblance of two women makes them vulnerable to identity theft, incarceration in a lunatic asylum, and poisoning. The heroine of No Name (1862-63) discovers after her parents’ death that she has no right to the name she had been using. The two heroes of Armadale (1864-66) happen to share a name, because one of their fathers dispossessed the other of his, along with his inheritance; in revenge, the second father then committed the imposture of pretending to be the first. And a crime seems to take place without a criminal in The Moonstone (1868), because the natures and actions of some of the characters are hidden, in one case from the man in question himself. In almost all these books, the story is driven forward by a subtle villain, expert in the small deceptions that attach people to their names and detach them from their interests. Provoking excitement, redirecting attention, impersonating other people and playing on mental associations, the villains deploy skills that resemble those of Collins himself.

William Wilkie Collins was born in 1824, with a large, deformed head and tiny feet, to a governess who had wanted to be an actress and a painter whose pursuit of wealthy sitters had turned him into something of a snob. The actor William Macready once regretted the senior Collins’s ‘submissive menial-like tone’. Perhaps in compensation, the son grew up to flout English propriety by relishing sauces, wearing bright colours, living in sin, and asking nearly everyone to address him by his middle name.

He started his nonconformism young, according to his biographer Catherine Peters. At the age of 13, he had an affair in Rome with a married woman while on vacation with his family, or so he later claimed. At 17 he was placed as an apprentice in a tea importer’s office, where over the course of five years he proved himself lacking in ‘industry and perseverance’ in business matters, to borrow from his description of Frank Clare, the worthless young love interest in No Name, and began to write and publish fiction. At 22, as his father was dying, he was sent to read law at Lincoln’s Inn; he spent his time there working on his second novel manuscript. On his father’s death he set the novel aside to write a two-volume memoir of him, and its critical and commercial success launched him as a writer. He published a Gothic novel soon after (set during the fifth-century invasion of Rome, it had actual Goths in it), and in 1851 Charles Dickens distinguished him with an invitation to act in his amateur dramatic troupe. Dickens had a starring role, and Collins was to play his valet, but Collins didn’t mind.

Soon the two were slumming and probably whoring together. Collins suffered in later life from a disease that he called ‘rheumatic gout’, which Peters suspects may in fact have been Reiter’s syndrome, a kind of reactive arthritis often associated with sexually transmitted disease. In any case, he and Dickens became fast friends, more and more intimate as Dickens grew estranged from his wife. Travelling together to France, Italy, Switzerland and north-west England, they became familiar with each other’s foibles. Dickens complained in letters of Collins’s moustache, his ‘code of morals taken from modern French novels’ and his slovenliness. ‘I am perpetually tidying the room after him,’ Dickens wrote. Peters suggests that Collins took quiet revenge by making finickiness a signal trait in Percival Glyde, one of the villains in The Woman in White. Overall, however, Collins seems to have found Dickens worth putting up with. In 1856 he was put on the staff of Dickens’s magazine Household Words, and his best novels were written during their friendship. When Collins’s addiction to laudanum, which had been prescribed for his supposed rheumatic gout, nearly derailed the writing of No Name, Dickens offered to finish it for him. (Collins declined.)

Collins had slept in his mother’s bed until he was four. In 1859, at the age of 35, he at last moved out of her house and began to live more or less openly with Caroline Graves, a beautiful young widow. Not long before, she had been running a marine junk shop. She liked to present herself as a gentleman’s daughter, which she was not. They were never married, though Collins paid for the education of Graves’s daughter, who grew up to be his amanuensis, and he provided for both mother and daughter in his will. It was in this ménage that Collins wrote The Woman in White. A friend’s son later claimed to have heard that Graves was the model for the novel’s title character. Supposedly, when Collins first met her, she was wandering a London street in distress late at night in a white dress. A melodramatic and unlikely story, in Peters’s opinion. The novel’s plot, on the other hand, did have a basis in reality. Collins found it in a collection of French true-crime stories, which he later described as ‘a sort of French Newgate Calendar’, bought while in Paris with Dickens.

I won’t say what the crime was, because suspense is the chief motivation for reading The Woman in White. It has often been considered a low motivation. In Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forster wrote that a story was not so much the backbone of a novel as its tapeworm, and suggested that the proper way to concede that a novel ought to tell one is ‘in a sort of drooping regretful voice’. It is doubtful that Collins felt the same ambivalence, though to disguise his enthusiasm for such a low literary vice he took care to blame his compelling stories on his villains. In his novels, evil makes everything happen. The virtuous merely struggle against the story’s progress, fluttering wanly and often a bit stupidly, like moths in a web. The reader’s sympathy drifts naturally to the spiders.

In The Woman in White, for example, the ostensible hero is Walter Hartwright, an upstanding young drawing instructor. He is hired to teach two half-sisters, and on arriving at their home has a brief moment of animal passion when he first sees one of them, Marian Halcombe, from behind. He goes into raptures over her derrière, a part of the female body that, according to Peters, fascinated Collins all his life. Once Marian turns around, however, Walter discovers her ‘almost swarthy’ face, which carries traces of a moustache, and he loses interest. Later, he falls for the other half-sister, Laura Fairlie, who has a crooked nose, an uneven smile and a weak chin. None of these traits sounds quite as compelling, and the reader suspects him of lacking the courage of his erotic convictions.

He certainly lacks a sense of humour. ‘Surely I hear some horrid children in the garden – my private garden – below?’ Laura’s guardian and uncle, Frederick Fairlie, says to Walter when they meet. A valetudinarian, he begs Walter to lift the blind and check for them, as one might check for termites or mould. ‘Shall I confess it, Mr Hartright? I sadly want a reform in the construction of children.’ Fairlie’s tone may prefigure Wilde, but it’s lost on Walter, who merely resents being asked to lift the blind. ‘Haughty familiarity and impudent politeness,’ he sniffs. Late in the novel, when a wicked old woman writes to Walter that she is so pleased with him that if she were younger she would let him kiss and fondle her, a pleasure she assures him he would have accepted in her salad days, he sputters about her ‘shameless depravity’ and ‘atrocious perversity’. When Henry James complained of the novel’s ‘general ponderosity’, he may have had Walter partly in mind.

By contrast, nothing is lost on Walter’s enemy, Isidor Ottavio Baldassare Fosco, count of the Holy Roman Empire. The name is false, which may be why he likes to flourish it. (‘You are face to face with Fosco!’ he boasts to Walter at their showdown.) Like a 21st-century American, he eats desserts in large quantities, drinks sugar water and is monumentally fat, but he is light on his feet and plunges into work with gusto. Walter, when he first sees him, confesses himself unprepared ‘for the horrible freshness and cheerfulness and vitality of the man’. Fosco is proud of his refined sentiments: ‘I am a man of the antique type!’ he boasts to Glyde, his fellow conspirator. Fosco always knows the right thing to say: ‘I am afraid you are suffering today,’ he tells Frederick Fairlie. Fosco is always enjoying himself: ‘Have a bonbon?’ he says, placing a box of them on the table. And Fosco considers himself above convention, rather like his creator. When Collins dismissed ‘the Clap-trap morality of the present day’ in an 1866 foreword to Armadale, he was echoing his villain. ‘Your moral clap-traps have an excellent effect in England,’ Fosco tells Walter, after he has begun droning on in his claustrophobically virtuous way. ‘Keep them for yourself and your own countrymen, if you please.’

There is an epicurean streak in many of Collins’s villains. In Basil, Mr Mannion is a connoisseur of tea. In Armadale, Lydia Gwilt boasts that the only man she cares about is Beethoven. In No Name, Mrs Lecount has a thing for reptiles. ‘So refreshing to the touch,’ she informs the heroine. Fosco is no exception. Unlike Hartright, he has no trouble appreciating Marian; neither her moustache nor his wife deter him. ‘Admirable woman!’ he proclaims, after she tries to thwart him. ‘Stupendous effort!’ Marian, for her part, confesses to ‘a strange, half-willing, half-unwilling liking for the Count’, even though she sees, more clearly than any other character, how he wins it from her. ‘He can manage me,’ Marian observes. Despite herself, she admires ‘his tact and cleverness in small things’. Laura likes flowers, so he picks them for her. His wife is jealous, so he picks them for her as well. Marian takes herself seriously, so that’s how Fosco talks to her. And Glyde likes to bluster, so Fosco volubly admires his high spirits.

It is natural to like someone who takes pains to be pleasing. Animals, who are only natural, therefore love Fosco. His cockatoo, ‘a most vicious and treacherous bird towards every one else’, nuzzles its top-knot against his double chin. His canaries come when called. His pet white mice crawl over him happily, though the sight makes Marian think of vermin feeding on a corpse. ‘He looks,’ Marian confides to her diary, ‘like a man who could tame anything.’ Indeed, Fosco boasts to Glyde that a single principle suffices for the management of animals, children and women: ‘never to accept a provocation’. He omits men from his list, probably to avoid calling Glyde’s attention to the fact that he, too, is being managed. Like Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew, who makes a point of seeming to misunderstand Katharina’s attempts to voice her resistance, Fosco knows the value of making rebellion seem impossible in language as well as in fact. He always presents himself as only wanting what’s best for his victims. When Marian discovers him stalking her, for example, he merely explains that ‘the pleasure of accompanying you was too great a temptation for me to resist.’

Rereading The Woman in White is an unsettling experience. It’s hard to believe that one didn’t know the first time through what the villains were up to. It’s hard, in fact, even to remember that one didn’t know their secrets, because the clues seem so obvious the second time, and the solution so inevitable. But the effort of remembering helps to make Collins’s talent visible, as well as its resemblance to Fosco’s.

The trick is in Collins’s ability to hold in mind both his secrets and what it is like inside a mind that doesn’t know them, and to leverage the one against the other. Consider, for example, the famous early scene in which Walter is approached by the woman in white on a road near Hampstead Heath. She asks him to help her get a cab into the city. It’s night, she’s alone, and she seems innocent. The scene is narrated by Walter, as later scenes are narrated by other characters in the novel – a device of great convenience to an author who wants to keep secrets from his readers, since characters can’t be expected to tell the reader what they themselves don’t know. Walter hems and haws:

What could I do? Here was a stranger utterly and helplessly at my mercy – and that stranger a forlorn woman. No house was near; no one was passing whom I could consult; and no earthly right existed on my part to give me a power of control over her, even if I had known how to exercise it. I trace these lines, self-distrustfully, with the shadows of after-events darkening the very paper I write on; and still I say, what could I do?

Of course he helps her. What Victorian man of feeling wouldn’t? But there’s something odd here, not apparent on a first reading, about the slant that Walter puts on his anxiety in the telling of it. From the hints he drops about ‘the shadows of after-events’, it would be natural for a reader to infer that Walter, in yielding to his generous impulse, is about to commit a terrific imprudence, and that later he’ll wish that he had turned the mysterious woman over to the authorities. But in fact Walter never has cause to regret having helped the woman in white. The scrupulosity here is a feint. It isn’t Walter’s feint; he’s not the sort who would misdirect a reader’s sympathies. The novelist is showing his hand.

The mystification works as more than a red herring. It contributes to an atmosphere in which no one feels entitled to pursue what he wants or avoid what he fears without second-guessing himself – an atmosphere that soon envelops the reader. How do you know the woman in white isn’t dangerous? You don’t, if Walter, who is telling you the story, doesn’t even know if he can trust himself. (When Walter and Glyde become romantic rivals, Walter goes so far as to worry that he might be tempted to believe unkind things of Glyde for selfish reasons.) The reader is soon aquiver with attention. Does it matter that Marian’s desk looks tidier than she remembers having left it? Does it matter that one of the servants chuckles at the death of a runaway spaniel? When a person is deprived of the compass of his feelings, a small failure of observation may lead to disaster.

In The Woman in White, claims of insight are literally delusional. The only character who feels she really knows what anyone else is up to is an escapee from a lunatic asylum, who dreams that ‘two rays of light’ arch from her eyes into Glyde’s ‘inmost heart’. All interiority is flat, the better to obscure the difference between the fake and the genuine. When the mask drops from Collins’s villains, they’re more entertaining than his heroes, who seem merely well behaved, but they’re not quite round. It puzzles Walter that the bad Fosco falls in love with the good Marian, and he resorts to the suggestion that ‘the best men are not consistent in good – why should the worst men be consistent in evil?’ But the mystery isn’t as deep as Walter thinks it is. Fosco needn’t have any goodness to fall in love; even bad men sometimes let their affections catch up with their sexual appetites.

For contrast, consider Henry James’s villains. They, like Collins’s, have secrets, but the revelation of them is felt by the reader as a recognition; one’s understanding of the characters undergoes a kind of consolidation. For example, in The American, just before Christopher Newman’s lover gives him up, he has such a moment with her family: ‘He felt, as soon as he entered the room, that he was in the presence of something evil; he was startled and pained, as he would have been by a threatening cry in the stillness of the night.’ Even in surprise, Newman’s sensibility is being further refined. The nature of his lover’s family is something that he feels, and his feelings are things that he trusts, even in their imperfection.

Tastier than revelation is the treat of losing oneself. Entirely against their will, Walter, Marian and Laura end up living together under an assumed name, pretending to be siblings in rented rooms in East London. The ménage bears an uncanny resemblance to that of the second half of Melville’s Pierre (1852) – the hero moves to urban bohemia to live out a rescue fantasy with two women, one dark and the other fair, in chaste superiority to society’s misunderstanding, and struggles to make a living from his art – and a similar miasma of incest and polygamy hangs over it.

But Collins writes to entertain, not to disillusion, and so in his telling the ménage is an idyll. This is where Collins bets a bourgeois reader would like to run to, if he could free himself of his name and responsibilities. No snuff-coloured waistcoats, no table manners and two girls for every boy. Since the ménage comes about because of the nefarious doings of Fosco and Glyde, the reader’s vicarious enjoyment isn’t burdened by the sin of having wished for it. In real life, by moving in with Caroline Graves, Collins had chosen an idyll like it for himself, and with the passage of time his life came to resemble his art even more closely. In 1864 he met a servant called Martha Rudd and began sleeping with her as well as Caroline. Caroline married another, younger man in 1868. Peters speculates that she was angling to make Collins jealous and that he declined to accept the provocation. The marriage soon dissolved, and she moved back in with Collins in 1871. Martha, meanwhile, continued to bear him children until 1874. The eldest was named Marian. In Basil, the likeable rascal Ralph is reformed by a mistress whom he refers to as ‘the morganatic Mrs Ralph’. By the end of his life, Collins was joking in letters about his ‘morganatic family’, the best part of the joke being, no doubt, that he had two of them.

The second family were also provided for in his will, and the children educated at his expense. But he was never married. In his books the ceremony is almost always a catastrophe. During Basil’s it rains, and his attention wanders. The heroine of No Name nearly kills herself to avoid hers but in the end stands ‘with tearless resignation in her place before the altar’. A private eye pronounces ‘It was done!’ of a marriage in Armadale, and Marian says, woefully, ‘It is all over,’ of the central marriage in The Woman in White. ‘Is there nothing about Love?’ a youngster considering elopement asks her lover, as they jointly consult a law book. ‘Not a word,’ he replies. ‘He sticks to his confounded “Contract” all the way through.’ In the end, the only thing more confining than having a name, Collins seems to have felt, was giving yours to someone else.