Decorated initial 'W'he opening section of D.A. Miller’s “Cage aux folles: Sensation and Gender in Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White” addresses a history of scholarship that deems physical sensation a site “outside of meaning” (Miller 147). Miller argues for the relevance of sensation itself, insisting that the sensation novel implicitly reads its own performative dimension. The sensation novel forges a connection between text and reader as physical sensations move beyond the pages to seize the reader’s body. As Miller writes, “the novel makes nervousness a metonymy for reading, its cause or effect. No reader can identify with unruffled characters . . . we identify with nerve-racked figures like Walter and Marian who carry forward the activity of our own deciphering” (151). He locates nervousness as a critical, participatory readerly response to the story as well as the “justification” for the act of reading itself, “insofar as [nervousness] validates the attempt to read, to uncover the ground for being nervous” (151).

As the sensation novel maps out and manipulates our own physiological responses to it, our reading process is split into two, physical and cognitive, and we must choose, at key moments, between our desire for factual knowledge and our desire for sensory experience. As we gain enough information to piece together the fragmented story, argues, Collins resists our "solving" the novel's secrets by gesturing to other possible secrets we might uncover. In turn, we willingly “surrender our privileged position as readers to whom all secrets are open by 'forgetting' our knowledge for the pleasures of suspense and surprise” (206). Our desire for sensation, in other words, makes us willing to discard knowledge. If nervousness offers a "metonymy for reading,” it is because sensation links our bodies inextricably to the reading process, making us anxious to uncover the cause of our nervous state but hesitant to end our stimulating physical response to the text.

Yet, as our bodies' responses naturalize sensation, they also risk nullifying textual meaning, shifting our preference to embodied experiences and away from anything we could access through language. Sensation risks making the body and its reactions a site entirely outside of speech — though not without meaning. The sensation novel, in Miller’s view, demands that we analyze our own physically-motivated reading as a part of the function of the text itself. As nerves affect our own interpretations (or willingness to interpret), they throw our status as readers into upheaval — our nerves make us suspicious (in both senses of the word) and suspicion supplants our rational judgment of facts and characters (161). Moreover, our detached, “safe” readerly status is troubled by our participatory physical response to the text (162-3). continues, throughout the rest of his chapter, to read power and authorship as embodied, gendered, and sexualized elements of Collins’ sensation novel. He identifies male homosexual anxiety — an anxiety driven, in part, by sensation itself, with its hints of “‘male’ adventurism” and “‘female’ helplessness” (163) — in the prevalence of female madness and female incarceration, and he deems several plot points in The Woman in White as orchestrations to maintain hegemonic gender roles. Whether or not we prioritize the characters’ potential underlying sexual dynamic in our reading of Collins’ sensation novel, it is clear that the ambivalent experience of sensation affects both reading and writing, throwing the reader into a state of nervousness, complicity, and paranoia that render characters’ sufferings more real to us and indicate immense possibilities within every moment of the novel that cannot be expressed — “not in any words” (Collins 75).

Marian feels driven to write her experiences as thoroughly as possible, confessing, at times, even her hesitancy to confess: “I must record” (175); “How can I write about it? — and yet, I must write” (192); “I am almost afraid to confess it, even to these secret pages” (217). How does this impulse distinguish Marian from the other narrators in The Woman in White? How, and why, does Marian’s narrative differ from the journal-keepers in Byatt’s Possession? Considering that Collins’ The Woman in White posits all narrative as testimony, how does narration-as-testimonial affect the degree to which we trust (or doubt) our narrators?

How does silence function in Woman in White? Why isn’t Laura a narrator? Why does speech so often fail Walter at moments of emotional intensity (61, 72, 75, 81, 104, etc.)?

In Miller’s reading, Fosco’s invasion of Marian’s diary disrupts our own sense of safety and privacy (162). At the shock of Fosco's sudden presence in the diary we identify with Marian as we are taken by surprise: "our readerly intimacy with Marian is violated, our act of reading adulterated by profane eyes, made secondary to the villain's reading and indeed dependent on his permission" (164). However, argues, we also identify with the violator, since our "intimacy" with Marian has consisted of invading her privacy throughout the course of our reading experience. In our active reading of violated, objectified subjects we bring those subjects into being, constituting them as violated and objectified; we are complicit because, in reading, we take characters’ privacy away. Then again, the journal itself is made public - the entire text is offered up to the Law and to us as jury, presumably with Marian’s permission. To what extent are we complicit in the violation of Marian’s diary? Who is its audience? Why is its invasion the most exciting moment in the novel?

Marian’s fever occurs when she collapses the distance between narratorial moment and narrated events (writing as things happen, without reflective distance; literally, writing feverishly during her fever). How does Marian’s fever reflect the nineteenth century consensus that sensation novels, though immensely enjoyable, are ultimately bad for their reader (146)? When Marian “writes herself into a fever” (150), does it signal the transformative power of the female writer, or the ultimate failure of the female writer, or perhaps both?

Works Cited

Collins, Wilkie. The Woman in White. London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1999.

Miller, D.A. “Cage aux folles: Sensation and Gender in Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White.” The Novel and the Police. Berkeley: UC Press, 1988. 146-191.


Victorian  Web Wilkie Collins

Last modified 11 April 2010