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On its publication in three-volume form in August 1860 (after its triumphant nine-month serialisation in All The Year Round) The Woman in White enjoyed huge success, sparking off what today we would call a sales mania and a franchise boom. As Wilkie Collins’s biographer Kenneth Robinson records:

While the novel was still selling in its thousands, manufacturers were producing The Woman in White perfume and The Woman in White cloaks and bonnets, and the music shops displayed The Woman in White waltzes and quadrilles. Dickens was not alone in his enthusiasm. Thackeray sat up all night reading it. Edward FitzGerald read it three times, and named a herring-lugger he owned Marion Halcombe ‘after the brave girl in the story’. The Prince Consort admired it greatly and sent a copy to Baron Stockmar.

Nuel Davis, in his life of Collins, goes so far as to claim that The Woman in White was probably the most popular novel written in England during the 19th century. This is demonstrably untrue (Robert Elsmere and Trilby outsold Collins’s novel by many times), but it is quite likely that it was the best-seller of the decade.

Among the chorus of applause there was one discordant voice. The Woman in White received a devastating review in The Times (then, as now, the country’s newspaper of record) on 30th October 1860. In the review E. S. Dallas proved – by close scrutiny of dates in the crucial Blackwater Park episodes – that the events described in the novel could never have happened. The Woman in White was, Dallas demonstrated, “impossible”. With this crucial fact in mind Dallas dismantled the plot machinery of The Woman in White with the ruthless precision of a prosecuting counsel exploding a shaky alibi.

The details of Dallas’s criticism are less important than its general thrust. What he was doing, and doing brilliantly, was subjecting a work of fiction to the criterion of falsifiability, in terms of its internal logic and structure.

Collins took Dallas’s criticisms immensely seriously. He wrote to his publisher the next day, instructing that no more copies of The Woman in White must be put out, until he should have an opportunity to revise the text: “The critic in The Times is (between ourselves) right about the mistake in time.. We will set it right at the first opportunity”, he confessed. The mistake was duly set right in the ‘New’ 1861 one-volume edition.

From John Sutherland, Is Heathcliff a Murderer? Puzzles in 19th Century Fiction.  Reproduced by kind permission of Oxford University Press.

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