Women in White: A Quick View from Literature and Life

When I think of women in white, coming from a Western culture, I think of brides. However, women in white in literature and culture are not just brides. Specifically, this blog visits Wilkie Collins’ 1860 The Woman in White; Lucy Westenra from Bram Stoker’s 1897 Dracula; the Lady in White from Isles of Shoals lore; Cassy and Emmaline from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and the Cuban protest group, Ladies in White.

The Woman in White cover Signet Classic paperback 1985
Cover of The Woman in White featuring illustration by Edward Gorey.

Wilkie Collins, a friend and contemporary of Charles Dickens, is sometimes said to have written ‘the first mystery’ with The Woman in White, although I’ve heard that said about Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders on the Rue Morgue. Anyhow, I love the following passage from The Woman in White, an interesting literary technique building suspense and ending with humor:

“My first glance round me, as the man opened the door, disclosed a well-furnished breakfast-table, standing in the middle of a long room, with many windows in it. I looked from the table to the window farthest from me, and saw a lady standing at it, with her back turned towards me. The instant my eyes rested on her, I was struck by the rare beauty of her form, and by the unaffected grace of her attitude. Her figure was tall, yet not too tall; comely and well-developed, yet not fat; her head set on her shoulders with an easy, pliant firmness; her waist, perfection in the eyes of a man, for it occupied its natural place, it filled out its natural circle, it was visibly and delightfully undeformed by stays. She had not heard my entrance into the room; and I allowed myself the luxury of admiring her for a few moments, before I moved one of the chairs near me, as the least embarrassing means of attracting her attention. She turned towards me immediately. The easy elegance of every movement of her limbs and body as soon as she began to advance from the far end of the room, set me in a flutter of expectation to see her face clearly. She left the window–and I said to myself, The lady is dark. She moved forward a few steps–and I said to myself, The lady is young. She approached nearer–and I said to myself (with a sense of surprise which words fail me to express), the lady is ugly!” Walter Hartright, The Woman in White (Signet Classics, 1985)

Aw, the first “butter face”, perhaps? No matter. She turns out to be one of the best people in the story and I’m glad the author didn’t like stays (essentially corsets), which I poke a little fun at in https://wanderinabox.com/2023/01/05/corsets-a-step-back-in-time-with-hankrietta-grunt/. Also, Collins says a lot of nice things about women, and the character he just described, I found refreshingly intelligent and level-headed in the book.

Now, on to New England legend and lore:

Oil painting depicting a copy of Childe Hassam's Moonlight, 1907, with modifications including a woman on an island and sailing ship.

The Lady in White, haunting Appledore Island of the Isles of Shoals, located off the coasts of Maine and New Hampshire, USA. First seen around 1826 by a man recovering from illness, she supposedly said, “He will come again.” Some say she awaits her husband, either Blackbeard the pirate or his comrade, Captain Scot. She is depicted here, a tiny figure in a dark cloak over her nightgown, in an oil painting by K. Wszolek, with modifications after Childe Hassam’s Moonlight, 1907. Two charming books about the Isles of Shoals include Among the Isles of Shoals, Celia Thaxter, published in 1873 as a tourist guide, and An Island Garden by the same author, 1894, the same year as her death, all too soon.

Another lady in white–Lucy Westenra, whom I’ve mentioned before in my post https://wanderinabox.com/2022/10/06/10-questions-for-count-dracula/. I seem to come back to Stoker’s Dracula frequently! Part of an entry from Mina Harker’s diary:

“Whatever my expectation was, it was not disappointed, for there, on our favorite seat, the silver light of the moon struck a half-reclining figure, snowy white. The coming of the cloud was too quick for me to see much, for the shadow shut down on the light almost immediately; but it seemed to me as though something dark stood behind the seat where the white figure shone, and bent over it.” (Signet Classic, 1965)

And the daring and creative ghostly escape of Cassy and Emmaline from their cruel, drunk master Legree in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin:

“By a singular coincidence, on the very night that this vision appeared to Legree, the house-door was found open in the morning, and some of the Negroes had seen two white figures gliding down the avenue towards the high-road.” (Barnes and Nobles Classics, 2003)

Conducting some quick research on the internet, I came across a Cuban protest group called the Ladies in White, Damas de Blanco, dressed all in white as a symbol of peace and speaking out for jailed and ‘disappeared’ dissidents of Cuba: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ladies_in_White.

So, ladies in white, haunting literature and life! Thank you for visiting Wander in a Box, and keep reading, keep learning!

Published by Morra Rose

I love the links between life and literature, and couldn't get by day-to-day without a little humor. Here's my place to share thoughts and discoveries in bite-sized pieces, illustrated by my sister Morra Morron. Enjoy!

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