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 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 art teacher, meets a mysterious and distressed woman dressed in white. He helps her on her way, but later learns that she has escaped from an asylum. Next day, 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 and whose name is Anne Catherick. The mentally disabled Anne had lived near Limmeridge as a child and was devoted to Laura's mother, who first dressed her in white.

Walter and Laura fall in love. Laura, however, has promised her father that she will marry Sir Percival Glyde. Marian – knowing that Laura loves Walter in return – advises Walter to forget his love, and leave Limmeridge. Anne, after sending a letter to Laura warning her against Glyde, meets Walter, who becomes convinced that Glyde was responsible for putting Anne into 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. Walter also leaves England, joining an expedition to Honduras. After their honeymoon, Sir Percival and Lady Glyde return to his house, Blackwater Park in Hampshire; they are accompanied by Glyde's friend, Count Fosco (who is married to Laura's aunt). Marian is also living at Blackwater and learns that Glyde is in financial difficulties. Glyde unsuccessfully attempts to bully Laura into signing a document which would allow him to use her marriage settlement of £20,000. Glyde reveals to Fosco the resemblance between Laura and Anne, and Fosco and Glyde plot to switch the identities of Laura and the terminally-ill Anne, so that Anne's death can be passed off as Laura's and Glyde can inherit. Marian crawls out onto a roof and eavesdrops on Glyde and Fosco, and it begins to rain. Marian becomes soaked, and later falls into a fever which turns into typhus.

While Marian is ill, Laura is tricked into travelling to London. Her identity and Anne's are then switched. Anne Catherick dies naturally and is buried as Laura; Laura is drugged and "returned" to the asylum as Anne. When Marian visits the asylum, hoping to learn something from Anne, she finds Laura, supposedly suffering from the "delusion" that she is Lady Glyde. Marian bribes the nurse and Laura escapes. Walter has meanwhile returned from Honduras, and the three live together in obscure poverty, determined to restore Laura's identity. During his research, Walter discovers that Glyde was illegitimate, and therefore not entitled to inherit his title or property. He has attempted to cover this up by forging an entry in the marriage register, a serious criminal offence. Believing Walter either has discovered or will discover his secret, Glyde attempts to destroy the register entry, but in the process sets the church vestry on fire and perishes in the flames. Confronting Anne's mother, Walter discovers that Anne was the illegitimate child of Laura's father, which accounts for their resemblance. Walter suspects that Anne died before Laura's trip to London (in which case the plot would fail) but is unable to prove the date of Laura's journey. However on a visit to the Opera with Pesca, it becomes clear that Fosco belongs to (and has betrayed) an Italian secret society of which Pesca is a high-ranking member who could order his assassination for the betrayal. Fosco seeks to flee the country, but Walter confronts him – having first taken precautions against Fosco's killing him – and forces a written confession from Fosco, in exchange for letting him leave England unhindered. Laura's identity can thus be legally restored. Fosco escapes, only to be killed by another agent of the secret society in Paris. Walter and Laura have married earlier, and on the death of Frederick Fairlie, their son becomes the Heir of Limmeridge.


  • Walter Hartright—A poor young man who earns his living as a humble drawing teacher. When he goes to Limmeridge house to be the drawing master and restore art he falls in love with the beautiful, tempting, and virtuous Laura Fairlie. Laura being already engaged, Marian, her sister, warns Walter to stay away. In the end Walter ends up marrying Laura.
  • Frederick Fairlie—A fanciful, selfish invalid, owner of Limmeridge House in Cumberland; he is also Laura's uncle. His irresponsibility in handling matters concerning Laura's welfare as her guardian is one of the key factors that lead to the success of Count Fosco's plan. He dies in the end.
  • Laura Fairlie—Mr Fairlie's gentle, pretty niece, an heiress and an orphan. She loves Walter but is committed to marrying Sir Percival Glyde.
  • Marian Halcombe—Laura's 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")—A young woman said to be of disordered wits. She's an illegitimate daughter of Laura's father.
  • Mrs Catherick—Anne's unsympathetic mother, who is in league with Sir Percival Glyde in committing her daughter to the asylum. She had a brief affair with the late Mr Fairly (Laura's father) before he got married.
  • Sir Percival Glyde—Laura's fiancé and then husband, he is an unpleasant baronet with a secret. He is able to appear charming and gracious when he wishes, but his true character appears soon after his marriage to Laura. Walter later discovers that his secret is that his inheritance of his title and estate was unlawful because his parents had never married and therefore he was a bastard child, and to obtain it he forged a false marriage register entry.
  • Count Fosco—Sir Percival's closest friend, his full name is revealed to be Isidor Ottavio Baldassare Fosco. A grossly obese Italian with a mysterious past, he is eccentric, bombastic, urbane, but also unfathomably intelligent and menacing. He takes especial interest in little animals, and keeps many birds 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, cold and in thrall to her husband and his schemes. She caters to the Count's every whim.
  • 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.

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 only 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]