Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Woman in White, lookalikes, and the ol' switcheroo

The Woman in White contains a pair of lookalike characters.  The “ominous likeness” is introduced early in the novel, as it must be, because the reader needs to be on the alert for the only possible reason for using lookalikes.  At some point, there’s gonna be a switcheroo.  In the service, presumably, of some preposterous scheme.

The novel is told in first-person documents, mimicking firsthand testimony (the “documents” are assembled for a lawsuit that never happens), and much of the fun of the novel lies in seeing events from more than one angle, or, even more fun, discovering how the piece missing from one person’s observation is filled in by someone else.  But the lookalikes are conspicuously absent.  Their story is always told by someone else.

The documentary technique is perfect for the ol’ switcheroo because it leaves all sorts of gaps when the lookalikes are out of the narrator’s, and thus the reader’s, observation.  The savvy reader, trained by Alfred Hitchcock, will pounce at each gap, anytime both lookalikes are offstage.  Ah ha – they switched!  And I attend carefully to every gesture, every stray phrase, of the lookalike who has come back on stage.  No, I guess they have not switched yet, she seems to be the same character she was before.  But here comes another gap –  !

Collins is good at teasing me, allowing for the possibility of several false switches.  His novel branched as I read it.  Perhaps the story could include multiple switches, with the villains and heroes constantly shifting the lookalikes back and forth to confound each other.  Or perhaps – the most devilish possibility – perhaps there is no switch at all, just the looming possibility of a switch.  I ask the reader familiar with the story of The Woman in White to imagine what happens to the last quarter of the novel, and to the end, if the lookalikes never switch places, but the other characters believe that they do.  This is not the novel Collins wrote, but rather one he came very close to writing.  Just a few tweaks, and there it is.  In fact – well, never mind.

I am not particularly familiar with Hitchcock, but I am astounded by how much he has pilfered from The Woman in White, how many devices and clichés he has repurposed.  But I hardly needed Hitchcock to see what Collins was doing, to be on the alert for the lookalike switcheroo.  Contemporary readers must have been just as suspicious.

The Woman in White was serially published  in All the Year Round from November 26, 1859 through August 25, 1860.  All the Year Round was owned and edited by Charles Dickens, and was the home for one of his most popular novels, A Tale of Two Cities, which first appeared in the April 30, 1859 and ended in the November 26, 1859 issue.  That’s right, A Tale of Two Cities ends and is immediately followed by the first piece of The Woman in White (pdf).

Two novels in a row, both with lookalikes switching places.  I speculated a bit about the lookalikes in the Dickens novel.  I particularly appreciated how Dickens laid the foundation for a revelation about why or how the lookalikes look alike, but never bothered to fill in the details.  What difference does it make, after all?  The suggestions are at least as interesting as the answer.  Collins, for whatever reason, provides an answer, the exact same answer Dickens would have given.  I did not need it here either, but there it is.


  1. You should read Hoffmann's The Devil's Elixirs as I am at the time. I've halway through, and there's so far been 4 characters who look exactly like the hero. - I'm sure there'll be some explanation of all this at some point, but then again, maybe not.

  2. Everyone should read The Devil's Elixir!

    What's especially great about it, for the purposes of this post, is that it's a first-person novel where the lookalikes switch places. A good trick.

  3. Umm, are you absolutely sure that Hitchcock pilfered from Collins? Only Vertigo, for instance, which uses the switch, was an adaptation of a novel by the crime writing duo Boileau-Narcejac. So they may have pilfered from Collins - or indeed from any of a number of different European writers who were fascinated by the concept of the double. It had a pretty wide-ranging life in the literature of the fantastic at the end of the 19th century.

    I suppose what I'm getting picky about is the idea that any one artist 'steals' from others, when they may be doing the legitimate thing of exploring a trope or a concept. Or perhaps you are thinking of a specific example that hasn't occurred to me? Quite possible, of course!

  4. No, don't take the words "pilfer" or "steal" too seriously. They are also tropes for later writers to explore. Writers stealing from one another is not only a legitimate, but a necessary activity.

    "Hitchcock" is also a trope, or a synecdoche, standing in for the later tradition of thrillers that have skillfully dismantled and reused every scrap of Collins.