One of the most famous novels of the 19th century was partly set in Torquay. The novel was The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins.
William Wilkie Collins (1824-1889) was a novelist, playwright and author of short stories. He wrote 30 novels, more than 60 short stories, 14 plays, and over 100 essays.
Wilkie was a lifelong friend of Charles Dickens and a number of his works were first published in Dickens’s journal All Year Round. In 1859 All Year Round published the concluding installment of A Tale of Two Cities and, immediately following it, the opening installment of a new novel with no author ascribed.
This was Wilkie’s The Woman in White (1859) which went on to be published in book form in 1860. It is considered to be among the first mystery novels and one of the first ‘sensation’ novels. In 2003, The Woman in White was named as number 23 in “the top 100 greatest novels of all time”.
The Woman in White was an immediate sensation. This was partly due to Wilkie being a master of the ‘cliff-hanger’, and there are 40 or so of them in the book.
Thackeray sat up all night reading The Woman in White; Gladstone missed a trip to the theatre to finish it; TS Eliot thought it “the greatest of Collins’s novels”; Prince Albert admired it so much that he sent off copies as gifts; and Tolstoy and his wife Sonya read it aloud to each other.
The serialisation inspired a series of imitators. Manufacturers produced Woman in White perfume, Woman in White cloaks and bonnets, and music-shops displayed Woman in White waltzes and quadrilles. Sinister-looking cats were called Fosco after the novel’s villain, while babies came to be named after the main protagonist Walter.
The story line is around the identity of the Woman in White and a conspiracy to lay hands on an inheritance.
During the narrative the hero decides that everyone,
“would benefit by a short residence first in the genial climate of Torquay. The great object, therefore, was to engage lodgings at that place, affording all the comforts and advantages of which they stood in need, and the great difficulty was to find an experienced person capable of choosing the sort of residence which they wanted. In this emergency the Count begged to inquire, on Sir Percival’s behalf, whether I would object to give the ladies the benefit of my assistance, by proceeding myself to Torquay in their interests.”
Wilkie was familiar with Torquay. His first job was at the tea merchant shop of the Antrobus family. The family had a house in Torquay where his mother stayed in 1845. Wilkie also visited the town on a sailing trip in 1856, berthing on 2 July in a boat called RYS Coquette.