The Woman in White is Wilkie Collins‘ fifth published novel, written in 1859. It is considered to be among the first mystery novels and is widely regarded as one of the first (and finest) in the genre of “sensation novels“.
The story is sometimes considered an early example of detective fiction with protagonist Walter Hartright employing many of the sleuthing techniques of later private detectives. The use of multiple narrators (including nearly all the principal characters) draws on Collins’s legal training, and as he points out in his Preamble: “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”. In 2003, Robert McCrum writing for The Observer listed The Woman in White number 23 in “the top 100 greatest novels of all time”, and the novel was listed at number 77 on the BBC‘s survey The Big Read.
- Walter Hartright – A young teacher of drawing, something of an everyman character, and distinguished by a strong sense of justice.
- Frederick Fairlie – A wealthy hypochondriac land-owner: the uncle of Laura Fairlie, distinguished principally by his mock-politeness toward all other characters.
- Laura Fairlie – Mr. Fairlie’s gentle, guileless, pretty niece: an heiress and orphan.
- Marian Halcombe – Laura’s elder half-sister and companion; not attractive but intelligent and resourceful. She is described as one “of the finest creations in all Victorian fiction” by John Sutherland.
- Anne Catherick (“The Woman in White”) – An eccentric young woman distinguished by her insistence on white clothes; an illegitimate daughter of Laura’s father.
- Jane Catherick – Anne’s unsympathetic mother; in league with Sir Percival Glyde in committing her daughter to the asylum. Depicted as an unpleasant character.
- Vincent Gilmore – Lawyer to the Fairlies and close friend.
- Sir Percival Glyde, Baronet – Laura’s fiancé and then husband; able to appear charming and gracious when he wishes but often abrasive.
- Count Fosco – Sir Percival’s closest friend; his full name is Isidor Ottavio Baldassare Fosco. A grossly obese Italian with a mysterious past: eccentric, bombastic, urbane but intelligent and menacing. He keeps canaries and mice as pets. The Count greatly admires Marian for her intellect, so much so that he is willing to compromise several weak points in his plan (such as allowing Marian to retrieve Laura from the asylum) for her sake.
- Countess Fosco – Laura’s aunt: once a giddy girl but now humourless and in near-unbroken obedience to her husband.
- Professor Pesca – A teacher of Italian and good friend of Walter. The professor finds Walter the Limmeridge job, introducing him to Laura and Marian and proves to be Fosco’s unexpected nemesis.
Walter Hartright, a young art teacher, encounters and gives directions to a mysterious and distressed woman dressed entirely in white, lost in London; he is later informed by policemen that she has escaped from an asylum. Soon afterward, he travels to Limmeridge House in Cumberland, having been hired as a drawing master on the recommendation of his friend, Pesca, an Italian language master. The Limmeridge household comprises the invalid Frederick Fairlie, and Walter’s students: Laura Fairlie, Mr. Fairlie’s niece, and Marian Halcombe, her devoted half-sister. Walter realizes that Laura bears an astonishing resemblance to the woman in white, who is known to the household by the name of Anne Catherick: a mentally disabled child who formerly lived near Limmeridge, and was devoted to Laura’s mother, who first dressed her in white.
Over the next few months, Walter and Laura fall in love, despite Laura’s betrothal to Sir Percival Glyde, Baronet. Upon realizing this, Marian advises Walter to leave Limmeridge. Laura receives an anonymous letter warning her against marrying Glyde. Walter deduces that Anne has sent the letter and encounters her again in Cumberland; he becomes convinced that Glyde originally placed Anne in the asylum. Despite the misgivings of the family lawyer over the financial terms of the marriage settlement, which will give the entirety of Laura’s fortune to Glyde if she dies without leaving an heir, and Laura’s confession that she loves another man, Laura and Glyde marry in December 1849 and travel to Italy for six months. Concurrently, Walter joins an expedition to Honduras.
After six months, Sir Percival and Lady Glyde return to his house, Blackwater Park in Hampshire; accompanied by Glyde’s friend, Count Fosco (married to Laura’s aunt). Marian, at Laura’s request, resides at Blackwater and learns that Glyde is in financial difficulties. Glyde attempts to bully Laura into signing a document that would allow him to use her marriage settlement of £20,000, which Laura refuses. Anne, who is now terminally ill, travels to Blackwater Park and contacts Laura, saying that she holds a secret that will ruin Glyde’s life. Before she can disclose the secret, Glyde discovers their communication and becomes extremely paranoid, believing Laura knows his secret and attempts to keep her held at Blackwater. With the problem of Laura’s refusal to give away her fortune and Anne’s knowledge of his secret, Fosco conspires to use the resemblance between Laura and Anne to exchange their two identities. The two will trick both individuals into traveling with them to London; Laura will be placed in an asylum under the identity of Anne, and Anne will be buried under the identity of Laura upon her imminent death. Marian overhears part of this plan but becomes soaked by rain, and contracts typhus.
While Marian is ill, Laura is tricked into traveling to London, and the plan is accomplished. Anne Catherick succumbs to her illness and is buried as Laura, while Laura is drugged and conveyed to the asylum as Anne. When Marian visits the asylum, hoping to learn something from Anne, she finds Laura, who is dismissed as a deluded Anne when she claims to be Laura. Marian bribes the nurse, and Laura escapes. Walter has meanwhile returned from Honduras, and the three live incognito in London, formulating plans to restore Laura’s identity. During his research, Walter discovers Glyde’s secret; he was illegitimate, and therefore not entitled to inherit his title or property. In the belief that Walter has discovered or will discover his secret, Glyde attempts to incinerate the incriminating documents; but perishes in the flames. From Anne’s mother (Jane Catherick), Walter discovers that Anne never knew what Glyde’s secret was. She had only known that there was a secret around Glyde and had repeated words her mother had said in anger to threaten Glyde and then later got the idea into her head that she knew the secret. The reason that Glyde’s parents never got married was that his mother was already married to an Irish man, who left her. While he had no problem claiming the estate, he needed a marriage certificate between his parents to borrow money. So he went to a church in a village, where his parents had lived together and where the pastor, that had service there had died a long ago, and added a fake marriage into their church register. Mrs. Catherick had helped him getting access to the register and was awarded a golden watch with chain and an annual payment.
With the death of Glyde, the trio is safe from persecution, but still, have no way of proving Laura’s true identity. Walter suspects that Anne died before Laura’s trip to London, and proof of this would prove their story, but only Fosco holds knowledge of the dates. Walter figures out from a letter he got from Mrs. Catherick’s former employer, that Anne was the illegitimate child of Laura’s father. On a visit to the Opera with Pesca, he learns that Fosco has betrayed an Italian nationalist society, of which Pesca is a high-ranking member. When Fosco prepares to flee the country, Walter forces a written confession from him, by which Laura’s identity is legally restored, in exchange for a safe-conduct from England. Laura’s identity is restored and the inscription on her gravestone replaced by that of Anne Catherick. Fosco escapes, only to be killed by another agent of the society. To ensure the legitimacy of his efforts on her part, Walter and Laura have married earlier; and on the death of Frederick Fairlie, their son inherits Limmeridge.
Themes and influences
The theme of the story is the unequal position of married women in law at the time. Laura Glyde’s interests have been neglected by her uncle and her fortune of £20,000 (then an enormous sum of money) by default falls to her husband on her death. This provides the motive for the conspiracy of her unscrupulous husband and his co-conspirator Fosco. In his later Man and Wife, Collins portrays another victim of the law’s partiality, who takes a terrible revenge on her husband.
The novel was first published in serial form in 1859–60, appearing in Charles Dickens‘ magazine All the Year Round (UK) and Harper’s Weekly (USA). It was published in book form in 1860.
The novel was extremely successful commercially, but contemporary critics were generally hostile. Modern critics and readers regard it as Collins’ best novel: a view with which Collins concurred, as it is the only one of his novels named in his chosen epitaph: “Author of The Woman in White and other works of fiction”.
Film and television
- “Victorian Mysteries: Woman in White” created by FreezeTag Games (2010)