The Woman in White: Tracing a Ghost Story on the Map of London

The Woman in White is a Victorian mystery novel containing a "songline" of a chance slice of London.

Place means nothing without context. It needs to be sung into existence. Do this for a string of places, and you have a songline. This could be a mundane tune (the itinerary of a day's wander through the city), an epic opera (the Odyssey, the mother of all return trips), or both (James Joyce's Ulysses). 

A storied city like London is of course replete with songlines, from ancient ones surviving only as the sediment on which later narratives are built. Others are barricaded against oblivion within the covers of a book. 

The first edition of The Happy Reader — a magazine about the pleasures of being lost in a good book — retraces one such excursion; fictional, but described nevertheless with remarkable accuracy, in Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White. The novel, one of the first in the mystery/detective genre, was serialized in 1859-60 both in Charles Dickens's All the Year Round magazine and in Harper's Weekly before being published in book form. 

The Woman in White uses multiple narrators to tell a tale hinging on switched identities, insanity as a means of social exclusion, and the inequality of Victorian marriage laws. 

(Attention: spoilers ahead)

The story begins in Hampstead, where Walter Hartwright meets a mysterious woman who's dressed all in white. Her name is Anne Catherick, and she's escaped from an insane asylum. She also bears a striking resemblance to Laura Fairlie, a member of the Limmeridge household in Cumberland, where Walter is to teach drawing.

Walter and Laura fall in love, but Laura fulfills a promise to her father to marry Sir Percival Glyde. Walter leaves for Honduras. Heavily indebted, Percival vainly attempts to gain access to Laura's fortune. He then plots to switch her identity with the now terminally ill Anne, so he can pass off her death as Laura's, and inherit her money. 

Laura is then locked up in the asylum as Anne, now with the added delusion that she is Lady Glyde. But she escapes and reunites with Walter, returned from his voyages. He eventually manages to reclaim Laura's true identity, and after they marry, their son becomes the heir to Limmeridge. 

The Woman in White was immensely popular (except with "serious" critics), perhaps because it explored some of the Victorian Age's more profound anxieties: the impermanence and loss of personal identity, the inequality and insecurity of marriage laws, and the paralyzing effect of the class system. 

It was adapted many times for both the stage and the silver screen, notable among them Andrew Lloyd Webber's 2004 musical, and German (Die Frau in Weiß, 1971) and Soviet (Женщина в белом, 1982) movie versions, and even as a computer game (Victorian Mysteries: Woman in White, 2010).

It's now also a London walk — an easy translation from literature to life, as the book “evoked [the walk] in beautiful, but also painstaking detail. The distances between landmarks, the weather, and even the angle and intensity of moonlight are plotted so as to be uncompromisingly true to life, precisely as they would have been on the imagined date.” 

That makes it fairly easy to reconstruct Walter Hartwright's fictional, century-and-a-half-old encounter with the Woman in White. Google Street View provides further help in superimposing the Victorian Gothic tale on today's London. Following the "songline" of Wilkie Collins' novel, visitors to London experience a different aspect of the city from the all too familiar one centered on Big Ben, the Tower of London, and other landmarks in London's so-called "heritage core."

In spite of its meticulous detail, Wilkie probably didn't envision the itinerary described in The Woman in White as a tourist draw. Which makes it an excellent candidate for a guided dérive, a semi-random ramble across a chance slice of London.

Perhaps to be topped off with a visit to Kensal Green Cemetery — 2.7 miles to the west (just under an hour's walk). The cemetery is not mentioned in the book, for it is where Wilkie Collins was buried in 1889. Although the author is perhaps better remembered for The Moonstone, his epitaph mentions only his proudest literary achievement by name: Author of “The Woman in White” and other works of fiction.

Many thanks to The Happy Reader and the Wilkie Collins Society for granting their permission to republish the map and related artwork. Map of the route from Avenue Road to Kensal Green Cemetery taken from Google Maps. Picture of the Wilkie Collins gravestone by James Gracey, reproduced with kind permission (original context here, on Mr. Gracey's horror movie blog Behind the Couch).

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'Upstreamism': Your zip code affects your health as much as genetics

Upstreamism advocate Rishi Manchanda calls us to understand health not as a "personal responsibility" but a "common good."

Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Upstreamism tasks health care professionals to combat unhealthy social and cultural influences that exist outside — or upstream — of medical facilities.
  • Patients from low-income neighborhoods are most at risk of negative health impacts.
  • Thankfully, health care professionals are not alone. Upstreamism is increasingly part of our cultural consciousness.
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  • Climate change is no longer a financial problem, just a political one.
  • Mitigating climate change by decarbonizing our economy would add trillions of dollars in new investments.
  • Public attitudes toward climate change have shifted steadily in favor of action. Now it's up to elected leaders.

Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Elizabeth Warren's plan to forgive student loan debt could lead to an economic boom

A plan to forgive almost a trillion dollars in debt would solve the student loan debt crisis, but can it work?

Photo credit: Drew Angerer / Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren has just proposed a bold education reform plan that would forgive billions in student debt.
  • The plan would forgive the debt held by more than 30 million Americans.
  • The debt forgiveness program is one part of a larger program to make higher education more accessible.
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