Master of vice

They are famous for their sensational plots and their casts of doppelgängers and freaks. But the novels of Wilkie Collins have never been successfully adapted for the stage, says Matthew Sweet. So how has Andrew Lloyd Webber tackled 'The Woman in White'? And can his new musical ever do justice to this strange and shocking tale?
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One of the great moments in Victorian fiction involves a plate of fondant fancies, two pieces of string, a hefty female transvestite in hobnail boots and a Byronic beauty whose athletic torso is some compensation for the complete absence of his legs.

One of the great moments in Victorian fiction involves a plate of fondant fancies, two pieces of string, a hefty female transvestite in hobnail boots and a Byronic beauty whose athletic torso is some compensation for the complete absence of his legs.

The novel is The Law and the Lady (1875). The author is Wilkie Collins. The scene takes place in an upper room of a grand suburban house owned by Miserrimus Dexter, an amateur artist and truffle-connoisseur who, when he's not speeding around in his wheelchair declaring himself to be Napoleon or Shakespeare, is hopping around on his hands like R2D2.

The heroine of the book, Valeria Woodville, a young newly-wed trying to prove her missing husband innocent of murder, rolls up chez Dexter to find the master of the house engaged in the gleeful torture of his thick-armed maidservant. "The unfortunate Ariel," she narrates, "was standing before a table, with a dish of little cakes placed in front of her. Round each of her wrists was tied a string, the free end of which (at a distance of a few yards) was held in Miserrimus Dexter's hands. 'Try again, my beauty,' I heard him say, as I stopped on the threshold of the door. 'Take a cake.' At the word of command, Ariel submissively stretched out one arm towards the dish. Just as she touched a cake with the tips of her fingers, her hand was jerked away by a pull at the string, so savagely cruel in the nimble and devilish violence of it, that I felt inclined to snatch Benjamin's cane out of his hand, and break it over Miserrimus Dexter's back."

For readers accustomed to the notion that the heroines of 19th-century fiction only faced dilemmas as troubling as whether to go the hunt ball or marry the curate, the novels of Wilkie Collins can come as a bit of a shock. Armadale (1866), for instance, is the story of two young men - both named Allan Armadale - linked by a plot that involves a prophetic dream, a glass of poisoned lemonade, a lunatic asylum which gasses its own patients, and a replica of the Strasbourg Clock. Poor Miss Finch (1872) assembles, under one roof, a hairy-handed German oculist, the widow of a South American revolutionary, a congenitally blind woman and a pair of identical twin brothers, one of whom has turned himself blue by drinking silver nitrate to cure his epilepsy. Heart and Science (1888) introduces its readers to Dr Benjulia, a skeletal vivisectionist, inordinately fond of tickling young girls, who keeps a monkey inside his coat.

Even the relatively experienced reader of Collins can be forgiven the occasional double take at his appetite for the peculiar. I can remember the amazement I felt, sitting in the Bodleian library and slicing away at the pages of an unread first edition of The Two Destinies (1876), when the protagonist of the story, a depressive young man named George Germaine, was shipwrecked in the Shetlands and treated to a bizarre cabaret turn from a feline chorus line and a woman with a pathological aversion to daylight. "If I were to draw the curtains and look out of that window," explains Miss Dunross, "I should feel the acutest pain all over my face." Then she raps out a command to her servant: "Open the door to the cats' room and bring me my harp." George watches in amazement as his hostess uses a whistle to summon a phalanx of cats into the sick-room, which then proceed to dance around her in formation as she plucks out an old Scottish air. "The music changed, and the whirling cats began to leap. One perched itself at a bound on the pedestal of the harp. Four sprung up together, and assumed their places, two on each of her shoulders. The last and smallest of the cats took the last leap, and lighted on her head." Nothing like that ever happens in Middlemarch.

And yet, Collins's fiction was not a minority interest. His work appeared in mainstream magazines and newspapers. He aimed to address the broadest possible readership, a constituency "beyond the pale of literary civilization - a public unknown, as an audience, to the distinguished writers of our time." He only once suffered from censorship: when The Law and the Lady was running in the Graphic - a mass-circulation illustrated newspaper - the editor excised a paragraph in which Miserrimus Dexter leapt from his wheelchair and forced himself upon Valeria Woodville. (His lawyers, however, soon rectified the omission, persuading the paper to restore what Collins referred to as "the castrated passage" at the end of a subsequent instalment.) The rest of his output - with its freakish villains, effeminate heroes and muscular heroines - caused him few problems. Victorian popular taste was attuned to his passion for the perverse and the outré, and ensured that his books sold in enormous quantities and commanded eye-watering advances. (The firm of Smith and Elder, for example, coughed up £5,000 for the rights to publish Armadale - roughly equivalent to £255,000 in today's terms.)

And for all their oddness, Collins's novels were not escapist fictions. They brought Gothic horrors down from the crumbling castles favoured by Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis and relocated them to recognisably suburban and domestic settings. "The secret theatre of home," he called it. Ruskin was content to wrinkle his nose at the suburbs; to ridicule the pretensions of their inhabitants for attempting to plot out their herbaceous borders and patches of shrubbery in imitation of the gardens at the Crystal Palace. But for Collins, the red-brick pseudopodia that were stretching out from the bodies of British cities offered more grotesque possibilities. Armadale positions its deadly sanatorium on the fringes of Hampstead Heath, where the surgery affords views of "fields and trees, doomed but not yet destroyed by the builder". Dr Benjulia works behind the featureless brick wall of a private vivisectory somewhere on the outskirts of London, where no one can hear him sink his scalpel into his stock of unfortunate dogs. ("He has built his house," we're told, "in a desolate field in some suburban neighbourhood that nobody can discover.") The hero of Basil (1852) stumbles upon his own destruction when he stalks a 15-year-old girl from the bus stop to her home on a half-finished street north of Regent's Park. (The newness of the house, he notes, "would have given a nervous man the headache, before he had been in it a quarter of an hour.") Had Collins had access to the Wimpey Homes prospectus, he would have pored over it as if it were a book of Piranesi drawings.

The Woman in White (1860) is the novel upon which Collins's reputation still stands. It has no folk-dancing cats or blue-skinned twins, but it does assemble a creditably strange cast of characters: Count Fosco, a monstrously fat Italian count with a passion for bonbons and white mice; his wife, Madame Fosco, forever busy rolling cigarettes for her husband with a dinky little Rizla machine; Anne Catherick, a wild-eyed unfortunate on the lam from a lunatic asylum; Professor Pesca, a dwarfish academic with Mafia connections; Frederick Fairlie, a limp-wristed art collector who spends most of his time sequestered with his Rembrandt etchings and his French valet; Marian Halcombe, a heroine with a voluptuous figure, a contempt for restrictive underwear and an upper lip graced with a luxuriant sprout of hair.

The novel generated its own merchandising industry: loyal admirers could dab Woman in White perfume behind their ears, wrap up in Woman in White cloaks and bonnets, dance to Woman in White quadrilles and waltzes. Prince Albert sent a copy of the book to Baron Stockmar. William Gladstone cancelled a night at the theatre to finish it. The poet Edward Fitzgerald - translator of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam - read it three times and considered naming his herring-lugger "after the brave girl in the story". Respectable gentlemen wrote to Collins, asking to be put in touch with the original for Marian Halcombe, intending to make a proposal of marriage. A few years later, Oscar Wilde chose "Fosco" as his undergraduate nickname.

Collins wallowed in this success: "It is soothing the dying moments of a young lady," he boasted, in a letter to his mother. "It is helping (by homeopathic doses of a chapter at a time) to keep an old lady out of the grave - and it is the first literary performance which has succeeded in fixing the attention of a deranged gentleman in his lucid intervals! The other day I reckoned up what I have got by it thus far. One thousand four hundred pounds - with the copyright in my possession, and the disposal of all editions under the extravagant guinea-and-a-half price, in my hands. Cock-a-doodle-doo! The critics may go to the devil."

Similar calculations are probably being made in the backrooms of the Palace Theatre, London where a musical version of The Woman in White is currently being rehearsed. The play is a collaboration between Andrew Lloyd Webber (who doubtless shares Collins's attitude to the critics), the playwright Charlotte Jones (author of Humble Boy), and the lyricist David Zippel (whose CV accommodates two Oscar nominations, an Olivier award and a Tony). To make space for the new production, Lloyd Webber's Really Useful Theatre Company has banished the record-breaking Les Miserables from the Palace to the smaller Queens Theatre - a house around the corner where, generally speaking, turkeys go to die. Michael Crawford, probably the world's most expensive musical-theatre star, has been lured to London for the first time since he created the title role in Phantom of the Opera, to take on the role of Count Fosco. Maria Friedman has been booked to slip into Marian Halcombe's corsetless frock. The show's signature image - a mysterious female figure rendered like an Atkinson Grimshaw painting projected through a magic lantern - began adorning buses, billboards and broadsheet pages four months before the scheduled opening night.

David Zippel, like Collins and Cole Porter, studied law but never practised. Before Lloyd Webber drafted him in to put words in the mouths of the play's protagonists, he knew Collins only through The Moonstone (1868). "Wilkie Collins and Dickens," he reflects, "were probably the first writers to create page-turners, where you really couldn't wait to find out what happened to the characters next. I hope that we'll achieve that with our show. We've tried to be as scrupulously clear and honest as Wilkie tried to be. The characters are smart and witty, and for a lyricist that's a particular joy. You fall in love with Marian and you find Fosco fascinating because they're bright and interesting and not cookie-cutter characters. And that gives you a chance to express yourself, to use beautiful language."

Lloyd Webber, Jones and Zippel are not the first to bring Collins's novel to the stage. In October 1860, the author returned from a holiday in Paris to find that an adaptation of The Woman in White was about to open at the Surrey Theatre, an aggressively lowbrow institution which specialised in melodramas involving clifftop leaps, hairbreadth escapes and dancing gypsies. ("I will certainly go and hiss," he told his publisher, Edward Marston, "unless the manager makes a 'previous arrangement' with me.") Collins kept his lawyers on a leash, however: none of the pirate stage versions of his novel were profitable, and he had no intention of being forced to concede this fact in court. ("The obvious retort to this," he admitted to the drama critic of the Daily News, "is, then, 'What have you to complain of?'") Even Collins's own attempt to adapt the book for the theatre met with only limited success. When the play opened at the Olympic Theatre in 1872, the reviews and receipts were excellent. But when George Vining, the actor playing Count Fosco, took the piece on a tour of the provinces, nobody came. "Vining gives up the tour," wrote Collins, in dismay. "You will have the agreements to burn in a few days - the performances under his direction not having even produced money enough to pay for the drawing of the agreements!!! Pleasant, isn't it?"

The new version of The Woman in White is, the posters say, "freely adapted" from the original. "We haven't reinvented the book," insists Zippel, "we've just taken liberties with it." So the famous moonlit meeting between the book's hero, Walter Hartright, and the spectral Anne Catherick, has been relocated from the suburbs of London to the platform of a Cumbrian railway station. The plot has gained a scene in a casino and a character called the Corn Dolly Girl. There's no trace of the multi-narrator structure employed by Collins. Walter no longer runs away to Honduras for the middle third of the book. Fosco's wife has not survived - but the Count's pet rodents will make it to the boards, and have even been allocated understudies. "I hope we've succeeded in honouring the spirit of Wilkie Collins, because that was certainly our intention," enthuses Zippel. I suspect Collins wouldn't have cared that much, as long as there was a nice big cheque in it for him. "Well," says Zippel, "we're not honouring him to that extent."

The Woman in White can bear a little jiggering - the precise mechanics of the plot were elusive even to Collins, who was forced to admit that the reviewer in The Times had correctly identified an almighty cock-up in the story's chronology. But there are signs that some of the less conventional aspects of the novel have been softened by Lloyd Webber and his team. Unless Michael Crawford has had his head in the biscuit tin all summer, Count Fosco's Pavarotti-ish corpulence will not be in evidence. (The recent BBC adaptation did the same by casting a svelte Simon Callow - no longer the wobbly figure who bobbed about in the pond in A Room with a View - and demonstrated that a skinny count is no menace at all.) Walter Hartright has been toughened up: a rather ineffectual figure in the book, Zippel sees him as "a classic hero. Everything he does comes from a genuine desire to do the right thing." (Personally, I've always been rather suspicious of him - but as he is in effect the novel's editor, marshalling the disparate pieces of testimony that form its narrative, we are denied any impartial account of his character.) And Marian has been shorn of her moustache. "In the book it's only one line," argues Zippel, making the case that the theatre audience would find a heroine with facial hair something of a distraction. He may be right - Marian's mannish features are mentioned in the opening chapters, and we are free to forget them from thereon - but it does seem a pity to jettison one of the story's most Collinsian oddnesses.

Judging by the quantities in which his novels sold, Collins's readers delighted in the queer and pathological elements of his fiction. They liked the heroines to be tough and assertive and their heroes to be compromised, feminised figures. To enumerate the failings of Franklin Blake, hero of The Moonstone, would ruin the book for anyone who hasn't read it. Oscar Dubourg, the male lead of Poor Miss Finch, is a mimsy aesthete with a cheese allergy who downshifts to the Sussex countryside to pursue his hobby of chasing vases with gold. (After taking a beating from a gang of burglars, he adds epilepsy to his portfolio of infirmities.) The twin heroes of Armadale are given to declaring their love for each other and collapsing in fainting fits. George Germaine in The Two Destinies is diagnosed with a debilitating mental illness: "His nerves have broken down," pronounces his doctor, "and his brain is necessarily affected by whatever affects his nerves." Ovid Vere, the hero of Heart and Science, falls unconscious as he proposes to the heroine, and absents himself from the plot for a health cure in Canada, professing "long railway journeys, in my present state, will only do me harm." (Like Walter Hartright in The Woman in White, he bails out just as the forces of darkness are gathering around the female characters.) Collins's admirers seem to have concurred with Gwendolen Fairfax in The Importance of Being Earnest: "Once a man begins to neglect his domestic duties he becomes painfully effeminate, does he not? And I don't like that. It makes men so very attractive."

West End audiences are not known for their devotion to the perverse. The coach party crowd might adore the pre-packaged, lipstick'n'leather kinkiness of Chicago, or the pantomime prostitutes of Les Miserables, but more demanding subjects - deformity, mental illness, ugliness, obesity, emasculation - don't put pound signs in producers' eyes. (There's a hard commercial reason why The Elephant Man - The Musical only ever made it as far as a gag in Mel Smith's movie The Tall Guy.) But Andrew Lloyd Webber's theatre addresses roughly the same audience that Collins was pursuing in the 1850s - one "unknown to the distinguished writers of our time." The punters who bus in from the suburbs to see one of his shows are not the same crowd that washes up at the National when it stages the latest Stoppard or Pinter - but they are the natural heirs to Collins's reading public. The morbidity and eccentricity that was such an essential component of the novelist's work, however, is harder to detect in most mainstream art-forms of 21st-century Britain. Evidence, perhaps, that modern popular taste is much more conservative than its 19th-century equivalent.

There's a simple way in which the creators of the musical version of The Woman in White might give the lie to this assertion. For one matinee performance, they should let Maria Friedman get out the spirit gum, glue something suitably hairy to her top lip, and play Marian Halcombe from under a moustache. If the audience grumbles, Lloyd Webber, Jones and Zippel will be proved right. If the audience applauds - or if a proposal of marriage is left in Friedman's stage door pigeonhole - then they should schedule a meeting for early next morning to discuss their next show and its big production number, for which they will need a plate of cakes, two pieces of string, a transvestite maidservant and a legless Byronic beauty with a thing about truffles.

'The Woman in White': Palace Theatre, London W1 (0870 895 5579), previews from Saturday, opens 15 September