Preface to La Femme en Blanc

The french edition of The Woman in White

Wilkie Collins wrote a preface for all his books, often writing a new preface as his books came out in new editions. In foreign translations the preface was almost invariably omitted. But the French edition of The Woman in White - published in Paris in 1861 as La Femme en Blanc(1) - not only has a preface, but it was specially written by Collins as an address to his French readers. Parts of it are similar in content to the preface he wrote for the first English edition in 1860 (2). But it is longer and more detailed and concludes with a stirring tribute to French novelists. The early part of it about the structure of the story, echoes the second, third, and fourth paragraphs of the novel. Strangely it seems to have been overlooked by Collins's biographers. It is translated and reprinted in full here for - as far as I know - the first time.

The French preface is dated June 1861 and was written at Wilkie's address at Harley Street, where he had moved eighteen months earlier and where he finished writing the monthly parts of The Woman in White (3) in the first half of 1860. The book - and presumably the preface - was translated into French by Wilkie's friend Émile Forgues. He had written about Wilkie's talent in a long piece in Revue des deux Mondes (4) in November 1855. It contains long extracts from Basil (5) and Hide and Seek (6) translated into French by Forgues. He then translated the first French edition of one of Wilkie's books Le Secret (7) (The Dead Secret (8)) under the pseudonym Old Nick which was published by Hachette in 1856. Collins was so pleased with this translation that he dedicated his next book The Queen of Hearts to Forgues. In that dedication he wrote

"I was by no means surprised to find my fortunate work of fiction -- not translated, in the mechanical sense of the word -- but transformed from a novel that I had written in my language, to a novel that you might have written in yours." (9)

Although the preface itself seems to have remained un-noted by scholars, parts of it were used - some in quotes, some not - by Louis Dépret in a chapter on Wilkie Collins in his Chez les Anglais (10)published in 1879. The information in that chapter was referred to by both Nuel Pharr Davis (11) and Catherine Peters (12) in their biographies of Wilkie Collins.

La Femme en Blanc was first published late in 1861. Writing from Harley Street to his mother on 12 December 1861 Wilkie says

"The French translation of The Woman in White is published in two handsomely printed Volumes - and the French critics are very civil - so are letters from French readers. You like a title, don't you? What do [you] think of a French Duke, writing to me in raptures? Ha! ha! ha! "

Text of the preface to La Femme En Blanc (1861)
English translation
Preface to the first English book edition (1860)
Preface to the first one-volume English edition (1861)

(1) Wilkie Collins, La Femme en Blanc tr.E. D. Forgues [Émile Daurand Forgues], Hetzel, Paris 1861
(2) Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White, Sampson Low, 3 vols London 1860
(3) All The Year Round, London, II-III, Nos.31-70, 26 November 1859-25 August 1860
(4) Émile Daurand Forgues, 'Études sur le roman anglais' in Revue des Deux Mondes, nouvelle période, 2e série, XII, 1 November 1855
(5) Wilkie Collins, Basil: A Story of Modern Life, Richard Bentley 3 vols. London 1852
(6) Wilkie Collins, Hide and Seek, Richard Bentley, 3 vols. London 1854
(7) Wilkie Collins, Le Secret, tr. Old Nick [Émile Daurand Forgues], Hachette, Paris 1 vol. 1858
(8) Wilkie Collins, The Dead Secret, Bradbury & Evans, 2 vols. London 1857
(9) Wilkie Collins, The Queen of Hearts, Hurst and Blackett, 3 vols. London 1859
(10) Louis Dépret, Chez les Anglais, Hachette, Paris 1879, pp249-264 esp. 250-251 and 259-260
(11) Nuel Pharr Davis, The Life of Wilkie Collins, Urbana, University of Illinois Press 1956, p257, 265
(12) Catherine Peters, The King of Inventors, Secker and Warburg, London 1991. p481

All material on these pages is Paul Lewis 1997, 1998