The Bluebird Book Club requires another entry as we launch from each gothic winter day to the next here in London town. No one seems to want to do anything other than curl up on the chaise longue of life, draw the shutters and settle back with a good yarn at the moment. The icy winds and dark nights are making hermits of us all. At Bluebird Towers we have just brewed the Darjeeling, a riotous cake has been stumped up with the helpful addition of Dorsetshire apples and we invite you into our gas-lit drawing room reading club for a slab of gothic Victoriana. What shall we thrill ourselves with this January afternoon? A ghostly tale of shock and madness, oh yes, that’ll cheer you up, dear Bluebird followers! Draw nearer the fire. Do you take sugar?
I first read The Woman in White back in 2002 and it blew my fucking mind. When published in 1859 it was a trailblazer of the genre known as sensation fiction and it totally kicks everything up the butt. Everything. Thackeray couldn’t put it down, the crazy old loon. Gladstone had tickets to the theatre and forgot to go as he was too busy reading it. Prince Albert started giving copies of the book to all of his friends as Christmas presents, but then he was a German so we can’t really trust anything he did. M E Braddon, an author we have focused on before here at Bluebird, tried to imitate this novel with many of her own, but she never quite clinched it. The Woman in White is a bona fide, Class A, 24 carat gold, Derby Day winner. A grim, sinister country house? Check. A series of unreliable and suspicious characters? Check. An asylum? (What Victorian novel would be a novel without one?) Check. A modern, inspirational heroine who is forced to tackle a man’s power and control as a woman? Check. A deep family secret that threatens to destroy an entire family? Check. A car chase? Check. All right – no car chase. I just wanted to check you were concentrating at the back.
There is skullduggery, blackguards, tomfoolery, arch aristocrats, madness, illness, peculiar Italians and a drawing master who has the hots for his pupil. If this set up seems slightly cliched and melodramatic by today’s standards, remember this novel was the first one of its kind to present the characteristics above. And who is the Woman in White anyway? Aha. I would be spoiling something wonderful for you if I told you and if you have not read this entertaining yarn, nor were unfortunate enough to see Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical of the same name. I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you, but sufficed to say it’s a book that causes a feverish, obsessive reading in a bid to find out the truth. In addition, for those of you with a keen mystery eye, it’s one of the first detective stories ever written, setting into motion a new literary “type”, the brave, detective renegade, a character type of which Miss Marple and Sherlock Holmes are direct descendants. In this book it is a strong, lone, spinster woman who is forced to become amateur detective to save herself and her sister battling against any number of difficulties and obstacles from outside the home and within.
The advent of the multiple narration in which characters “write” their own chapters in a series of interviews and diaries, puts the reader in direct association with the narrative and the characters, without the usual nineteenth century safety net of the strong authorial voice and, although this is a technique that Wilkie Collins’s friend Dickens had used with Bleak House six years earlier, it is still rather unusual in the mid-Victorian canon. But what it reveals is the most important aspect of the Victorian sensation novel : Collins is intent on revealing the corruption, moral decay and danger inherent in that most English of desirable objects : the middle class provincial home. It doesn’t matter how many factories you’ve curtailed into existence in the Midlands, or whether you’ve been earning philanthropy marks in your life as a respectable banker : the shadow of murder and corruption and madness lurks behind every single William Morris wallpapered wall, and the contagion of insanity is, it appears, catching. No one is ever more than an itinerant player in life, in Collins’s novels, a player walking through a peculiarly English landscape of plots of mismanaged inheritances, wrongful imprisonments and people being incarcerated in nuthouses. The law is an ass, ever faithful to its own long purse. The women in his novels tend to inhabit liminal spaces; women intent on puncturing holes in the dividing line between public propriety and feminine domesticity, women who are manly and fail to conform to the feminine ideal and flagrantly immoral women who get up to all sorts, frankly.
Giggling yet? I admit, it doesn’t sound like that much fun. And I know what you’re thinking – you there, at the back of the class, ink-stained elbow leaning on your defaced wooden desk – “This is a LONDON blog. Have you just gone culturally supercilious on us? We want sparkly, happy LONDON things!” you protest, as you kick your sandaled feet against the wooden floor and gaze longingly outside, anticipating breaktime with its orange squash and bright sunlight and shortbread biscuits nibbled under the climbing frames. Do not fret, kids.
The beginning of the novel opens on Hampstead Heath – that urban piece of magnificent rural wildness that is so beloved of George Michael and birdwatchers. Our first narrator is striding over to his family homestead having spent too much cash recently (Amazon.com splurge over Christmas?) and been reduced to staying in his mother’s “Hampstead cottage” for the foreseeable future. Whilst a Hampstead cottage in today’s London could seriously be categorized as a des-res, in 1859 it seems to be a bit embarrassing. I mean, he’s a bit of a bitch about it. Anyway, on he marches for supper. At supper in his mother’s awful, horrid, downmarket and utterly uncool Hampstead cottage, he is delighted to find his old Italian friend, Professor Pesca, in residence. Pesca knows of a drawing master’s job that has come up and instantly recommends our narrator for the post. They drink sherry and do nineteenth century stuff with pianos, and then our narrator walks home towards Camden Town. But what exactly happens at the place on the Finchley Road “where four roads meet”? He collides with a mysterious woman dressed head to toe in white and who is being pursued by two chaps in a brougham with horses, who race forward, in blatant disregard for the traffic calming measures outside the Swiss Cottage Odeon. All right, the Swiss Cottage Odeon wasn’t there in the olden days, but I find it nigh impossible to imagine a part of London I know very well into another age, i.e. to re-imagine it in it’s Victorian splendour. As far as I can tell, the Woman in White first makes her appearance at the junction of Finchley Road, Avenue Road, Belsize Road and probably…er..another road which, as one time long term resident of the area, I find I cannot identify. Frognal? West End Lane? Where has she been – in Waitrose? Or merely having a shufti around the O2 Centre, weeping around the dull aquariums, and searching for a long lost squire or governess in the multiplex cinema?
I tried to shove my head back – back through decades and on and on and I wonder if anyone’s mind can truly do this – through the greying 1980s, the tower blocks ricocheting up in the 1960s, the transient, European wartime population of the region scattering up through the 1950s, back through to the 1930s and the vast monolith of the Odeon being constructed in the middle of one of North London’s most dissatisfying one way systems, back through the 1920s with its austere apartment blocks, onwards through suburban Edwardiana until there is nothing but hush and quiet as there are no stations or tubes on the main Finchley Road. Back even further, to the smell of camphor and the squish of horse shit underfoot, to the custardy yellow of gas lights and the dark red fortresses of Avenue Road houses of the 1880s, to the absence of proper pavements and the musty mist of Victorian fogs set against the rattle of the carriage, to the dark red omnibus that trundles over cobbles and hay through the mid-evening gloam… And then BANG! Suddenly a branch of “Amy’s ‘Ardware” store and a brash branch of “Costa” appear in my mind’s eye, and I’m suddenly startled back into the real world of 2012 again. No sooner has Wilkie Collins painted his scene than my frontal lobe wants to paint it out again, and, disturbingly, put in a traffic cone where a Victorian top hat used to be. Our London, the city we pass through, curse at, love and loathe with equal abandon and which has, astonishingly, been voted the best city on the planet this week (who voted? Pigeons?) can’t be nudged aside in our mind with all the other cultural London’s that compete – Dickens’s London, Shakespeare’s London, Sherlock Holmes’s London, Martin Amis’s London – Stop STOP! Too many Londons. My brain is tired. I don’t know where I am – or when I am.
That said, and back to The Woman in White, this is not a London novel. Most of it is set in Northumberland. And you can’t get further from London than that, otherwise you topple off the top of the country. It glides beautifully along and I must demand you read it forthwith. Should you enjoy it I thoroughly recommend Sarah Water’s Fingersmith which deliriously takes all of the literary conventions of the gothic sensation novel, reconfigures them, exploits the reader’s expectations of the genre and turns it all upside down before you know it – an ingenious read.
Meanwhile, dearest Bluebird readers, I instruct you: Get a bar of chocolate and a big mug of tea and settle in for these January nights : go forth and read The Woman in White.
For more to whet your appetite, here is an interesting article from The Guardian, writing on the 150 year anniversary of the novel’s publication : http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2009/nov/26/woman-in-white-150-years-sensation
Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this. This blog is updated every Thursday.