Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White is generally regarded as the first of the ‘sensation novels’. Serialized in 1859-60 in Charles Dickens’s All the Year Round, and subsequently published in book form in 1860, it is considered a classic of the genre and also an early example of detective fiction. This article looks at the role of Frederick Fairlie, focusing in particular on how his character embodies the concerns of a typical sensation narrative.
In terms of structure The Woman in White is an epistolary novel, being comprised of a range of related documents. Although the epistolary form was not new – there are several well-known novels predating The Woman in White which employed the device – it was Collins’s innovations within the form which proved so groundbreaking. For instead of organizing his narrative as a series of letters, typical of the eighteenth century epistolary novels, such as Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, he instead utilized the epistolary form to convey a range of first person narrative viewpoints from the perspectives of several major and minor characters.
Although Frederick Fairlie is certainly not the central protagonist in The Woman in White, Collins still chooses to relate a small section of narrative from his perspective. In this section, Fairlie meets Count Fosco, arguably the arch villain of the story. He describes himself to the Count as being ‘nothing but a bundle of nerves dressed up to look like a man’ (p.356). Fairlie’s nerves are a defining feature of his character and are mentioned frequently. For example, the novel’s heroine, Marian Halcombe, is described in one scene from her section of the story as shouting at Fairlie and slamming his door to express her exasperation with his self-centered attitude, hoping that she ‘shattered Mr Fairlie’s nervous system for the rest of the day’ (p.185). Fairlie’s exaggerated nervous state is reminiscent, in fact almost parodic, of Roderick Usher, from Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’. If sensation fiction’s chief objective is to excite the reader’s nerves, then Fairlie could be argued as being a representation of the reader within Collins’s narrative.
Fairlie’s nervous character is also related to issues of gender. Due to his nervous state he identifies himself as an invalid and has chosen to shut himself away in a remote apartment of his home, Limmeridge House. On encountering him there, the hero of the novel, Walter Hartright, considers Fairlie’s look as ‘singularly and unpleasantly delicate in its association with a man’ (p.39). His description of Fairlie’s effeminately small feet and little womanish bronze-leather slippers go further to associate him with female characteristics.
The theme of confinement is also central to the narrative and manifests itself in several scenes. Fairlie’s self-imposed seclusion could be viewed as an example of confinement. In selfishly shutting himself away with his art treasures and refusing to involve himself with the lives of other characters, his actions anticipate the role of one of the novel’s most significant locations, the asylum, where Anne Catherick, the eponymous woman in white, has escaped from, and Laura Fairlie, Frederick’s niece, finds herself wrongfully incarcerated as a result of Count Fosco’s devious machinations.
Frederick Fairlie may be a relatively minor character within the story but his appearance and behaviour have an important relationship with the broader issues and themes of Collins’s novel. His nervous character is inherently linked to the aims and effects of sensation fiction.