“Alternations of Light and Shade”: Spectroscopy and The Woman in White

ESSAY by Jonathan Baker


In an eerie passage in The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins describes a daytrip to the lakeshore, giving particular attention to the effect that the peculiar light lends to the scene. Collins notes that “the rapid alternations of shadow and sunlight over the waste of the lake, made the view look doubly weird and gloomy” (203). As we shall see, due to recently popularized technological innovations, the words “alternations,” “shadow,” “sunlight,” “view,” and “doubly” might have resonated differently with the Victorian reader than the reader of today. Scholars such as Robert J. Silverman have detailed the importance of stereoscopes in mid-nineteenth century English life, but the relationship between stereoscopy and Victorian fiction has rarely been addressed. The popular technology of stereoscopy brought about new questions about the nature of vision and eyesight in Victorian England, and the debates instigated by these questions appear even in a text as seemingly unconcerned with contemporary science as Collins’ novel of adventure and intrigue.

In the 1850s, the stereoscope was at the center of the popularization of science in Victorian England. Invented by Sir Charles Wheatstone in 1838, the device placed two almost identical drawings side-by-side, allowing the viewer to combine the images into a single, three-dimensional image. However, Wheatstone’s stereoscope was clumsy, and in 1849 David Brewster, a scientist and enthusiastic supporter of the equally new technology of photography, invented the lenticular stereoscope, an improved design which allowed stereoscopic photographs to be viewed in parlors across England. In 1856, three years before The Woman in White began serial publication, the British photographic chemist Robert Hunt noted, “The stereoscope is now seen in every drawing room; philosophers talk learnedly upon it, ladies are delighted with its magic representations, and children play with it” (Qtd. in Silverman 730). For Wilkie Collins, the stereoscope—and the images it produced—would have been a familiar sight.

Figure 1: The Brewster lenticular stereoscope, 1849.

Figure 1: The Brewster lenticular stereoscope, 1849.

Stereoscopic photography complicated a Victorian world in which vision and the function of the eye were given much moral weight. At the beginning of the century, the Christian apologist William Paley had put forward the complex workings of the eye as evidence of a Creator. Later, in the series of Bridgewater Treatises written to align Christian faith with (or defend it against) the burgeoning new ideas in science, Peter Mark Roget claimed that vision was “calculated[…] to exalt our ideas of the Divine Intelligence” (32). And it followed that, if the eye was blessed by God, the ability of the eye to discern truth was God-given; God would not create a faulty instrument. Thus, natural theology placed a high moral value on the evidence before the eyes, and when new technologies such as photography and stereoscopy were invented, their close mimicry of binocular vision led natural theologians to view the new technology with suspicion.

In The Woman in White, knowledge gained through sight is equated with the meritorious notions of safety and comfort. Early in the novel the young hero Hartright, having only recently arrived at Limmeridge, observes that “It was a strange sensation to be sleeping in the house, […] and yet not to know one of the inmates, even by sight!” (31). Even a passing familiarity with the faces of these “inmates” would eliminate some of his discomfort at their anonymity. Similarly, a character’s inability to see clearly is often a sign that evil is afoot, and the dread of being seen is often palpable, as when the heroine, Marian, is eavesdropping on the nefarious Count Fosco and his conspirator Sir Percival:

When I ventured to look up at the window itself I found that the top of it only was open, and that the blind inside was drawn down. While I was looking I saw the shadow of Madame Fosco pass across the white field of the blind–then pass slowly back again. Thus far she could not have heard me, or the shadow would surely have stopped at the blind, even if she had wanted courage enough to open the window and look out? (291)

The novel is rife with references to the importance of being able to see—and see clearly—so it is appropriate that we view the novel in terms of the popular technologies of the time that were concerned with refining the act of seeing, namely the increasingly sophisticated photography that attended the popularization of the stereoscope, and the stereoscope itself.

The invention of photography complicated nineteenth century ideas about the nature of eyesight, and popular fiction began to reflect the confused and changing science of vision. Many Victorians were quick to embrace the new technology of photography, believing it perfectly able to represent the world. However, some Victorians saw photographs as elaborate falsehoods; they were suspicious of the new medium, believing it to be a more artful deception than other modes of pictorial representation such as painting or drawing. For these skeptics, despite photography’s pretensions at realism, these images were incomplete and devoid of the enigmatic quality of truth.  This idea of an image or vision lacking a certain something occurs when Hartright first meets the beautiful and haunting Laura. He finds in her

something wanting […] The impression was always strongest […] when she looked at me; or, in other words, when I was most conscious of the harmony and charm of her face, and yet, at the same time, most troubled by the sense of an incompleteness which it was impossible to discover. Something wanting, something wanting—and where it was, and what it was, I could not say (49).

Photographic portrait subjects were often placed in clamps or braces in order to keep them still for the several minutes necessary to capture their image, and this need for stillness precluded them from making any facial expressions. Thus, photography was able to capture the “harmony and charm” of a face, but often failed to capture a smile—or any emotion—thus leaving the viewer with the impression of “something wanting.” Of course, the “something wanting” to which Hartright refers is Laura’s resemblance to her double, a subject I will take up later.

Figure 2: “Photography was able to capture the ‘harmony and charm’ of a face, but often failed to capture a smile.” Ca. 1850s Ambrotype.

Figure 2: “Photography was able to capture the ‘harmony and charm’ of a face, but often failed to capture a smile.” Ca. 1850s Ambrotype.

Early photographic technology also converted the world into images consisting of black and white, light and shadow. The moral aspects of the characters in the book certainly reflect a black and white world—the “good” characters, like Laura Fairlie, seem never to have sinned in their lives, while the villainous Count Fosco is rotten to the core. But, in addition to this moral starkness, the world in which these characters dwell often consists of a black-and-white visual texture; Count Fosco has “gray eyes” and “fine black clothes,” (191, 480) Sir Percival’s estate bears the murky and shadowy name of “Blackwater,” and in the watercolor Hartright paints of Laura upon meeting her, her hat casts a “soft, pearly shadow” over her face (191, 47). In the encounter with Anne upon which the novel hinges, Hartright returns home on the “white winding paths” admiring “alternations of light and shade” where he encounters a woman with a “colourless” face and “bonnet, shawl, and gown all of white” (22-23). Through photography and spectroscopy, the Victorian reader would have had frequent encounters with images of such stark contrast.

Photography also produced an urge in the user to freeze moments in time—in essence, to slow down or capture the world. The elderly valetudinarian Mr. Fairlie is continually opening and closing his eyes which, like camera shutters, become useless if too much light is allowed in, as when he asks Hartright, “Do you mind my closing my eyes while you speak? Even this light is too much for them,” and then later cries, “Don’t let the sun in on me!” (40-41) It is perhaps no coincidence that Mr. Fairlie keeps “two photographers incessantly employed in producing sun-pictures of all the treasures and curiosities in his possession” (176). In his slavish attempts to freeze the world through photography, the man himself has begun to mimic, bodily, the cameras around him.

While photography changed the ways in which Victorians viewed their world, the advent of stereoscopy further complicated ideas about the nature of vision, and echoes of the effects of these complications can be seen in Collins’ novel. While a camera reproduced the world with one lens, or “eye,” the stereoscopic camera used two lenses, mimicking the binocular nature of human vision. David Brewster’s lenticular stereoscope had created a huge sensation at London’s Great Exhibition of 1851, and because many Victorian homes contained stereoscopes by the time Collins began writing The Woman in White, Victorians would have had frequent opportunity to contemplate the nature of binocular vision. And the stereoscope again prompted many writers to note the “perfect” nature of God’s ocular creation. As a correspondent for the Illustrated Daily News raved about the stereoscopic photographs at The Crystal Palace, “[W]e have taken by the Daguerreotype the very picture from each [eye], and have made them tell their secret. Our double vision is but perfect vision” (Qtd. in Silverman 155). When not being viewed through the stereoscope, stereoscopic photographs looked simply like a double copy of the same photograph. Victorians would have been constantly “seeing double” when inserting and removing stereoscopic slides. But the stereoscopic photographs were not exact doubles – they were taken from two slightly different angles. This angle is what creates the three-dimensional effect, just as the separation of human eyes produce three-dimensionality. So the viewing of slightly altered double images was common, and would have been easily converted into a literary device by Victorian authors such as Collins.

Figure 3: Stereoscopic image of “Dorothea” by Sculptor John Bell. Ca. 1850s. The slight difference in angles is virtually imperceptible, and the images appear to be doubles.

Figure 3: Stereoscopic image of “Dorothea” by Sculptor John Bell. Ca. 1850s. The slight difference in angles is virtually imperceptible, and the images appear to be doubles.

Moreover, the nature of the stereoscopic camera, and the nascent photographic technology that supported it, was such that often one of the photographs developed more crisply and clearly, or less darkly, than the other. Therefore, the phenomenon of viewing doubled images in which one of the pair was more pure—whiter—would have been readily familiar to early readers of The Woman in White. Hence when Laura tells of meeting Anne Catherick, saying,

[I]t came over my mind suddenly that we were like each other! Her face was pale and thin and weary—but the sight of it startled me, as if it had been the sight of my own face in the glass after a long illness,” it registers as a moment of stereoscopic vision brought to life (244). Again and again, the visual discrepancy in the comparison between Anne Catherick and Laura Fairlie is stated in terms of brightness and shadows, as when Hartright claims, “To associate that forlorn, friendless, lost woman [Anne], even by an accidental likeness only, with Miss Fairlie, seems like casting a shadow on the future of the bright creature who stands looking at us now (57).

Figure 4: Stereoscopic image of “Dorothea” by Sculptor John Bell. Ca. 1850s. Discrepancy in photographic quality leads to a paler, more washed-out girl on the left. Note the greater difference in angle of perspective than in the earlier photos.

Figure 4: Stereoscopic image of “Dorothea” by Sculptor John Bell. Ca. 1850s. Discrepancy in photographic quality leads to a paler, more washed-out girl on the left. Note the greater difference in angle of perspective than in the earlier photos.

Of course, the variation in quality between spectroscope photographs was only a more subtle form of an idea brought forth by photo negativity. But with the newer technology of ambrotype (or amphitype), which had replaced the older and less easily produced daguerreotype, it was easy to place a card into the photo case—or remove the backing—and see the negative effect. In fact, ambrotypes were sometimes framed with the negative image next to the positive. Anne Catherick is described in the novel as looking identical to Laura Fairlie, but with positive qualities replaced with negative ones: energy is replaced with fatigue, felicity with melancholy, and so forth. Hartright avows that

[t]he delicate beauty of Miss Fairlie’s complexion, the transparent clearness of her eyes, the smooth purity of her skin, the tender bloom of colour on her lips, were all missing from the worn weary face that was now turned towards mine […] If ever sorrow and suffering set their profaning marks on the youth and beauty of Miss Fairlie’s face, then, and then only, Anne Catherick and she would be the twin-sisters of chance resemblance, the living reflections of one another (87).

Figure 5: 1850s Ambrotypes showing positive and negative effects.

Figure 5: 1850s Ambrotypes showing positive and negative effects.

Anne Catherick and Laura Fairlie can therefore be seen, in a metaphysical sense, as photo negatives of one another. Further examples of this type of contrast in the novel include the giant, evil Italian Count Fosco and the tiny, noble Italian Professor Pesca or the handsome, blond Philip Fairlie and his dark, sickly brother Frederick. The negative effect can even be seen within a single character when Count Fosco says, “I combine in myself the opposite characteristics of a Man of Sentiment and a Man of Business” (533).

The nature of binocular vision proved that to truly see an object, to observe its true, three-dimensional nature, one must view it from two different angles. A great debate ensued with the advent of stereoscopic technology about how far apart the lenses in the stereoscopic camera should be. It was discovered by Antoine Claudet and others that large objects such as statues and buildings, when photographed from a good distance, could be brought more into relief than would be possible with the naked eyes by placing the camera angles farther apart than the two-and-a-half-inch average of the human skull. Thus the stereoscope improved, in its way, on human vision and made images seem more real than reality. Of course, natural theologians were, for the most part, distrustful of an instrument that “improved” on what they saw as one of God’s most sublime creations, the human eye. But the novelty of these three-dimensional spectroscopic views was undeniably breathtaking, and many scientists, such as David Brewster, oscillated between praising and condemning (sometimes within the same paragraph) the wider-angle technique. The use of the new wide-view method reached a crescendo of sorts in 1858 when Warren De la Rue used the wobbling motion of the moon, known as “libration,” to produce a three-dimensional stereoscopic view of the moon’s surface: “the view is such as would be seen by a giant with eyes a thousand miles apart,” Sir John Herschel exclaimed about the images (Qtd in Silverman 750).

At any rate, the debate served to spotlight the idea that an object or scene could be brought more into relief, could be seen more clearly, when viewed from multiple angles. If an object is brought into so much relief, and becomes so much more real, when viewed from two angles, imagine how real that object would look if we were able view it from five or ten angles, as if we had ten eyes. With the stereoscope in mind, and the possibility of viewing a single object from divergent aspects, the literary world was prepared for the narrative technique of The Woman in White—a novel in which the action is “viewed” by the reader from the perspectives of several characters in succession.


Figure 6: 1850s ambrotype. A Brewster-style lenticular stereoscope rests on the table behind the woman.

Figure 6: 1850s ambrotype. A Brewster-style lenticular stereoscope rests on the table behind the woman.

In Victorian England, new and different technologies often became wildly popular, fashionable enough to invade the domestic world of the drawing room. With the proliferation of these stylish new technological devices, ancient presuppositions as fundamental as the unifying nature of eyesight began to be reinvented, and these changes filtered through the culture until they emerged, sometimes hidden, in popular forms of discourse such as the crime novel. We gain a new understanding of this bewitching book when we imagine The Woman in White being read beneath a flickering lamp in a parlor on a rainy London evening in 1859; beside the enraptured reader there stands an old cloth-covered table, and upon that table there sits the most modern of contraptions: a spectroscope.

* * *

Collins, Wilkie. The Woman in White: A Novel. Harper & Brothers, 1893. Print.

Roget, Peter Mark. The Bridgewater Treatises on the Power, Wisdom and Goodness of God, as

Manifested in the Creation. Treatise V.: Animal and Vegetable Physiology. London:

William Pickering, 1834. Print.

Silverman, Robert J. “The Stereoscope and Photographic Depiction in the 19th Century.”

Technology and Culture 34.4 (1993): 729-756. Web. 2 Feb. 2012.


Jonathan Baker grew up on the High Plains of West Texas. A former professional stand-up comedian, he received his master’s degree from the University of Chicago in 2012. He currently works in the editorial department at W.W. Norton. He lives in Brooklyn.