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Feminized Correspondence, the Unknown Public, and the Egalitarian Professional of Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White

  • Laura Rotunno
Chapter
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Part of the Palgrave Studies in Nineteenth-Century Writing and Culture book series (PNWC)

Abstract

Victorian social commentator and journalist James Grant, as early as 1838, said of Ted Underwood, a famous begging-letter writer: ‘Had he turned his attention to novel-writing, instead of to the profession of begging-letter imposter, there is no saying how high his name might at this moment have stood in the current literature of the country.’1 Grant tapped into the fear arising from egalitarianism afoot in the Victorian literary world: that it would invite and institute manipulators into the profession. David Copperfield and The Woman in White differ in their reactions to such a claim for begging-letter writers and their ilk. Dickens’s David Copperfield betrays a desire to celebrate all who write with relative aesthetic sophistication and social consciousness, no matter their class rank. The novel even toys with the idea of deeming all such writers literary professionals. However, David Copperfield also maintains that the Victorian literary world is not yet fully open to those marginalized voices, not even to those capable of producing true art. The funereal cast surrounding David, the established literary professional, does not necessarily bode imminent or egalitarian change for the Victorian literary world.

Keywords

Lower Class Literary Professional Woman Writer Letter Writer Postal Plot 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 7.
    Tamar Heller, picking up on the wealth of biblical references — ones especially apocalyptic — as well as the letter’s anonymity, links Anne’s letter with the anonymous letters associated with the radical dissenting political movements of nineteenth-century Britain; see Tamar Heller, Dead Secrets: Wilkie Collins and the Female Gothic (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), 124–5.Google Scholar
  2. E. P. Thompson, ‘The Crime of Anonymity’, in The Essential E. P. Thompson, ed. Dorothy Thompson (New York: New Press, 2001), 378–431Google Scholar
  3. 10.
    Alison Case’s chapter on The Woman in White and Dracula, in Plotting Women: Gender and Narration in the Eighteenth-and Nineteenth-Century British Novel (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999)Google Scholar
  4. 11.
    William Wills, The Theory and Practice of the Law of Evidence (London: Stevens and Sons, 1894), 105.Google Scholar
  5. 13.
    While not focusing on the use of disdained epistolary genres, John Kucich focuses on Collins’s characters’ use of transgressive actions and, particularly, their ‘movement between aesthetic privilege and hackwork ... [their] location between high and low culture’ to forward socially ameliorative projects; John Kucich, The Power of Lies: Transgression in Victorian Fiction (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994), 111.Google Scholar
  6. 15.
    Marlene Tromp, The Private Rod: Marital Violence, Sensation, and the Law in Victorian Britain (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000), 97.Google Scholar
  7. 16.
    William R. McKelvy, ‘The Woman in White and Graphic Sex’, Victorian Literature and Culture 35 (2007): 287–308CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. 22.
    At an early point in the composition of The Woman in White, Collins positioned himself to confirm the positive evidentiary power of letters. A manuscript survives to show that Collins planned that Mrs Michelson’s, the housekeeper’s, letters would prove that Glyde and Fosco not only faked Laura’s death but also secretly incarcerated her in a mental asylum. Letters could have been the deus ex machina which wrapped up this sensational plot. Collins, however, rejected this plot line. John Sutherland pragmatically explains this rejection: ‘The disadvantage of this scheme seems to have struck Collins almost immediately; it was too efficient. He still had over a third of his novel to spin out. These letters would not permit the kind of postponement and winding up of suspense he required’; John Sutherland, ‘Two Emergencies in the Writing of The Woman in White’, Yearbook of English Studies 7 (1977): 148–56CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. 24.
    Jonathan Loesberg, ‘The Ideology of Narrative Form in Sensation Fiction’, Representations 13 (Winter 1986): 115–38CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. 30.
    Ellen Wood, East Lynne, ed. Andrew Maunder (1861, Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2002), 304.Google Scholar
  11. 32.
    Positioning Marian within the detective rather than the legal or criminal tradition, Nina Auerbach enthusiastically asserts that Marian ‘must be fiction’s first female detective’, but also writes,’ she stands out as that Victorian anomaly, the strong woman whose nature finds its substance in extremity’; Nina Auerbach, Woman and the Demon: The Life of Victorian Myth (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982), 138Google Scholar
  12. 33.
    Douglas MacGowan, Murder in Victorian Scotland: The Trial of Madeleine Smith (Westport: Praeger, 1999), 13.Google Scholar
  13. 35.
    Lisa Surridge (Bleak Houses: Marital Violence in Victorian Fiction (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2005))Google Scholar
  14. 39.
    Bram Stoker, Dracula, ed. Glennis Byron (1897, Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 1998), 419.Google Scholar
  15. 44.
    Lyn Pykett, The ‘Improper’ Feminine: The Women’s Sensation Novel and the New Woman Writing (London: Routledge, 1992), 8.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. 47.
    Ann Gaylin, ‘The Madwoman Outside the Attic: Eavesdropping and Narrative Agency in The Woman in White’, Texas Studies in Literature and Language 43 (Fall 2001): 303–33CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. 54.
    Justin MacCarthy, ‘Novels with a Purpose’, Westminster Review 26.1 ( July 1864): 24–49Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Laura Rotunno 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Laura Rotunno
    • 1
  1. 1.Penn State AltoonaUSA

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