Consolidating the narrative series into a novel means, for Wilkie Collins, insisting that the novel’s formal “experiment” doesn’t boil down to “mere novelty of form.”

With this, Collins makes the diegesis into a kind of virtual armature — a “chain of events” — along which characters take up “positions.” Narrative continuity depends, here, on a vocal relay: one character stops narrating and another starts. Embraced by the sequence they construct, “they all take up the chain in turn, and carry it on to  the end.”

Whose turn is it to tell the story? What determines who “take[s] up the chain”?

A voice named “Walter Hartright,” subsidiary to but also something of an implanted proxy for the voice that explains the “experiment” in the preface,  explains in the first section of the “First Epoch” :

As the Judge might once of heard it, so the Reader shall hear it now. No circumstance of importance, from the beginning to the end of the disclosure, shall be related on hearsay evidence. When the writer of these introductory lines (Walter Hartright, by name) happens to be more closely connected than others with the incidents to be recorded, he will describe them in his own person. When his experience fails, he will retire from the position of narrator; and his task will be continued, from the point at which he has left it off, by other persons who can speak to the circumstances under notice from their own knowledge, just as clearly and positively as he has spoken before them.

Thus, the story here presented will be told by more than one pen, as the story of an offence against the laws is told in Court by more than one witness — with the same object, in both cases to present the truth always in the most direct and most intelligible aspect; and to trace the course of one complete series of events, by making two persons who have been most closely connected with them, at each successive stage, relate their own experience, word for word.

It is, then, one’s proximity to and “connection” with events that grounds one’s claim to assume the narratorial position. Of course, this might immediately open onto the problem of how to determine what makes one “connection” closer than another. Also, how to build suspense if one’s narrative principle depends on disclosure of events at the closest possible proximity. Wouldn’t this logic compel the narrative to begin with testimony from the Woman in White herself? In any case, it opens the temporal dynamics of narrative relay for questioning — shouldn’t we shift more frequently, even within a scene, to adjust to the flux of each character’s relative proximity to events? A scene could fragment rapidly, rather than at the collected, almost leisurely, and obviously formalized pace set by the promise to “retire from the position of narrator” when “experience fails.”

The 1861 preface elaborates on the 1860 preface’s claim that the experiment “afforded my characters a new opportunity for expressing themselves.” In 1861, Collins again theorizes that links in the chain come to appear to appear through self-expression — the “human interest” of each character’s “recognisable realities” based on a mimetic relation where readers take interest in “men and women … for the perfectly obvious reason that they are men and women themselves.”

Yet, when Collins addresses the inadequacy of critical paraphrase,  an inhuman interest comes into play. Most basically, it’s a problem of compression: reviews collapse the  “hundreds of little ‘connecting links'” that makes the story seem real. Although “of trifling value in themselves,” these links are “of the utmost importance in maintaining the smoothness, the reality, and the probability of the entire narrative.”

One thinks one takes interest in the “recognisable realities” of a man or woman’s voice. What makes those voices seem real (hence interesting) is, however, an indiscernible (or at least unrecognized) series of much smaller links. Vocal “positions” link up a chain of events that nonetheless supervenes on — derives its appearance of consistency from — the distribution of low-level chains of details.

Molecular details go unrecognized because they’re spread too thin for paraphrase. Nevertheless, they appear within the lines of every voice, smoothing and consolidating the polyglossia into a single “chain of events.”

Mere form — details valueless in themselves but infrastructurally crucial — turns out to be what lubricates the machinery of appearance in the novel — that is, the machinery of “human interest” that sets the law for narrative sequence.


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