The Woman in White (novel)

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The Woman in White
The Woman In White - Cover.jpg
Cover of first US edition
Author Wilkie Collins
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre Mystery novel, Sensation novel
Publisher All the Year Round
Publication date
26 Nov 1859 – 25 Aug 1860
OCLC 41545143
Preceded by The Dead Secret
Followed by No Name

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 the hero, 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,[1][2] 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",[3] and the novel was listed at number 77 on the BBC's survey The Big Read.[4]


  • Walter Hartright—A young teacher of drawing; something of an Everyman character, and distinguished by a strong sense of justice.
  • Frederick Fairlie—A wealthy, but hypochondriac land-owner: the uncle of Laura Fairlie, and distinguished principally by his mock-politeness toward all other characters.
  • Laura Fairlie—Mr. Fairlie's gentle, guileless, pretty niece: an heiress and an 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.[5]
  • 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 a close personal friend.
  • Sir Percival Glyde, Baronet—Laura's fiancé and then husband; able to appear charming and gracious when he wishes, but often abrasive otherwise.
  • 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 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 a 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, directs a mysterious and distressed woman dressed entirely in white; but later learns 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 realises 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, and Marian advises Walter to leave Limmeridge. Anne later sends a letter to Laura, warning her against her betrothed, Sir Percival Glyde, Baronet; and Walter, upon conversation with Anne, 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, 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 which would allow him to use her marriage settlement of £20,000; and when this fails, Glyde reveals to Fosco the resemblance between Laura and Anne, and Fosco plots to exchange Laura for the terminally-ill Anne, and thus claim Laura's fortune through a pretence of her death. Marian overhears part of this plan; but becomes soaked by rain, and contracts typhus.

While Marian is ill, Laura is tricked into travelling to London, and the plan is accomplished. Anne Catherick dies 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 and bribes the nurse, and Laura escapes. Walter has meanwhile returned from Honduras, and the three live incognito, among plans to restore Laura's identity. During his research, Walter discovers that Glyde 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 was the illegitimate child of Laura's father, and himself suspects that Anne died before Laura's trip to London; but is unable to prove the date of Laura's journey. 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 safe-conduct from England. 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[edit]

A major impetus of the plot is the disadvantageous position of married women in law at the time. Laura Glyde's interests having been neglected by her uncle, her fortune (of £20,000, then an enormous sum of money) by default falls to her husband on her death. This provides ample motive for the plot 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.[6]

Critical reception[edit]

The novel was extremely successful commercially, but contemporary critics were generally hostile.[6] Modern critics and readers regard it as Collins' best novel:[6] 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".[7]



Film and television


Computer Games

  • "Victorian Mysteries: Woman in White" created by FreezeTag Games (2010)


  1. ^ Wilkie Collins (26 November 1887). "How I Write my Books". The Globe. 
  2. ^ "Mr Wilkie Collins in Gloucester Place". Number 81 in 'Celebrities at Home', The World. 26 December 1877. 
  3. ^ McCrum, Robert (12 October 2003). "100 greatest novels of all time". London: Guardian. Retrieved 27 October 2012. 
  4. ^ "BBC – The Big Read". BBC. April 2003, Retrieved 18 October 2012
  5. ^ The Woman in White, notes by John Sutherland, ISBN 0-19-283429-0
  6. ^ a b c Symons, Julian (1974). Introduction to "The Woman in White",. Penguin. 
  7. ^ Peters, Catherine (1993). The King of Inventors. Princeton University Press. 
  8. ^ "The Woman in White". Samuel French Ltd. Retrieved 2 October 2012. 

External links[edit]