Wilkie Collins as a Sensation Novelist

Wilkie Collins, who wroteThe Woman in White in 1861, is often described as a sensation novelist. This term refers to Collins' emphasis in his novels on portraying and analyzing sensation in different forms. In fact, two meanings of the word "sensation" are actually involved in the description of him as a sensation novelist:

Below are listed some excerpts which may help to show how Collins employed the word "sensation in The Woman in White. The first part of this novel is narrated by Walter Hartright, a painter.


Ch 1

Walter, describing a walk through the suburbs of London on a hot night, early in the novel. It is on this walk that he will encounter the mysterious woman in white who will change his life:

I wound my way down slowly over the heath, enjoying the divine stillness of the scene, and admiring the soft alternations of light and shade as they followed each other over the broken ground on every side of me. So long as I was proceeding through this first and prettiest part of my night walk my mind remained passively open to the impressions produced by the view; and I thought but little on any subject -- indeed, so far as my own sensations were concerned, I can hardly say that I thought at all. (p. 19)


Ch 2

Walter, describing his excitement after having met the mysterious woman in white, and after having traveled to take a job as an art teacher in a remote manor house. No one was available to greet him when he arrived, and so he prepared to sleep without having met his hosts:

`What shall I see in my dreams tonight?' I thought to myself, as I put out the candle; `the woman in white? or the unknown inhabitants of this Cumberland mansion?' It was a strange sensation to be sleeping in the house, like a friend of the family, and yet not to know one of the inmates, even by sight! (p. 30)

Walter, the next morning:

The view was such a surprise, and such a change to me, after my weary London experience of brick and mortar landscape, that I seemed to burst into a new life and a new set of thoughts the moment I looked at it. A confused sensation of having suddenly lost my familiarity with the past, without acquiring any additional clearness of idea in reference to the present or the future, took possession of my mind. (p. 30)

Walter, describing his first meeting with Marion, one of his two pupils:

To see such a face as this set on shoulders that a sculptor would have longed to model -- to be charmed by the modest graces of action through which the symmetrical limbs betrayed their beauty when they moved, and then to be almost repelled by the masculine form and masculine look of the features in which the perfectly shaped figure ended -- was to feel a sensation oddly akin to the helpless discomfort familiar to us all in sleep, when we recognise yet cannot reconcile the anomalies and contradictions of a dream. (p. 32)


Ch 3

Walter, describing his first meeting with Laura, his other pupil:

How can I describe her? How can I separate her from my own sensations, and from all that has happened in the later time? How can I see her again as she looked when my eyes first rested on her -- as she should look, now, to the eyes that are about to see her in these pages? (p. 48)

Among the sensations that crowded on me, when my eyes first looked upon her -- familiar sensations which we all know, which spring to life in most of our hearts, die again in so many, and renew their bright existence in so few -- there was one that troubled and perplexed me: one that seemed strangely inconsistent and unaccountably out of place in Miss Fairlie's presence. (p. 50)

Walter, later in their acquaintanceship:

My eyes fixed upon the white gleam of her muslin gown and head-dress in the moonlight, and a sensation, for which I can find no name -- a sensation that quickened my pulse, and raised a fluttering at my heart -- began to steal over me. (p. 59)


Ch 4

Walter, describing his view toward Laura still later in their acquaintanceship:

The poor weak words, which have failed to describe Miss Fairlie, have succeeded in betraying the sensations she awakened in me. It is so with us all. Our words are giants when they do us an injury, and dwarfs when they do us a service.

I loved her. (p. 62)