Summary of The Woman in White

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The Woman in White book summary

Literary Classic

  • Crime
  • Victorian literature

What It’s About

More than Just Sensation Fiction

In order to restore his love’s stolen identity, the young drawing master Walter Hartright turns master detective. With The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins created one of the finest examples of the sensation novel – a hugely popular genre of the 19th century. It made Collins a rich man overnight and remains to this day one of his best-known and most popular novels. The combination of a masterfully constructed storyline and a diverse set of characters entertains and keeps the reader in suspense. Yet The Woman in White is more than just a sensation novel – its socio-critical undertones question the restrictions Victorian society placed on woman and the limitations the 19th-century class system imposed on them.

Take-Aways

  • The Woman in White was Wilkie Collins’s first and most notable literary success. It is one of the first examples of the sensation novel – a hugely popular genre of the 19th century.
  • Beautiful and wealthy Laura Fairlie is married to fortune-hunting Sir Percival Glyde. With the help of the cunning Count Fosco, Sir Percival stages Laura’s death to get her money. Laura’s half-sister Marian and their drawing master Walter Hartleigh set about restoring Laura to her rightful place.
  • The novel made Collins one of the highest-paid authors of his time. The Woman in White’s first print run sold out on the day of publication.
  • Collins was a close friend and collaborator of Charles Dickens.
  • The Woman in White has critical undertones, in particular concerning the rights of women in Victorian times and the limitations of class.
  • Collins is a master of suspense. He maintains tension throughout a complex storyline.
  • All elements of the novel have dramatic function and are essential to the denouement of the plot.
  • Collins is an outstanding stylist and a sensitive psychological observer.
  • For many years, Collins couldn’t decide whether to become a painter or a writer.
  • “This is the story of what a Woman’s patience can endure and what a Man’s resolution can achieve.”

Summary

Midnight Encounter

Artist Walter Hartright takes a position as drawing master for two young ladies at Limmeridge House, a large estate in the Lake District in the north of England. On the evening before his departure, Walter visits his mother and sister in Hampstead Heath. He decides to walk back home across the heath, where a young woman dressed entirely in white stops him to ask for directions to London. She seems upset, and Walter offers to accompany her. She accepts, but only on the condition that he will let her leave when and how she decides. Walter promises, and they continue on their way. Walter tells her that he is leaving London for Cumberland in the morning, and to his surprise, he finds that the woman knows Limmeridge House and has good memories of the place and the family there, in particular the late Mrs. Fairlie. As they reach the edge of London, Walter manages to get a carriage for the woman, and they part ways. Only ten minutes later, two men in an open carriage pass Walter. They stop a policeman, and Walter overhears them asking him whether he has seen a woman dressed in white. They tell him she has escaped from an asylum.

At Limmeridge House

Walter travels to the Lake District and takes up the position as drawing master for the intelligent and resolute Marian Holcombe and her beautiful and gentle half-sister Laura Fairlie. The two women are orphans, daughters of the same father but different mothers. They now live with their eccentric and self-centered bachelor uncle Mr. Frederick Fairlie, who considers himself to be an invalid and unable to deal with anything that might upset him even slightly. He spends all his time in his darkened room with his coin and art collections, and, apart from a brief initial meeting, Walter doesn’t see him at all during his stay at Limmeridge. The first person Walter meets is Marian, and he spends his first evening at Limmeridge House with her as Laura is not well enough to join them. Their conversation turns to Walter’s mysterious encounter with the woman in white on Hampstead Heath. He tells Marian about the woman’s connection to Limmeridge House and to Mrs. Fairlie, Laura’s mother. Intrigued, Marian agrees to help him find out more about the woman.

Anne’s Story

Marian goes through Mrs. Fairlie’s old letters to her husband to see if she mentions anything that might shed some light on the mysterious woman. Marian finally finds a reference to a Mrs. Catherick and her little girl Anne, who came to the village to look after Mrs. Catherick’s sister. Mrs. Catherick asked Mrs. Fairlie if Anne could attend school while they were staying in the village. Mrs. Fairlie agreed; when she met Anne, she was struck by how similar Anne looked to her own daughter Laura, and she decided to take Anne under her wing. She gave her some of Laura’s old white dresses, and thus started Anne’s obsession with dressing in white – a token of her eternal gratefulness to Mrs. Fairlie for her kindness. From the letter, Walter and Marian also learn that Anne had learning difficulties and a slight mental handicap. They ask Laura if she remembers Anne, but Laura only has vague memories of the time. The investigations grind to a halt.

Star-Crossed Lovers

Over the next few months, Marian, Laura and Walter spend much time together. Laura and Walter begin to fall in love with one another. However, Laura’s father wished for Laura to marry Sir Percival Glyde, a baronet from the south of England. Laura never questioned or resented this arrangement before, but now, as she begins to realize that she has feelings for Walter, her situation becomes increasingly difficult. Marian, seeing how Laura struggles, asks Walter to leave Limmeridge House as soon as possible for both their sakes.

“This is the story of what a Woman’s patience can endure and what a Man’s resolution can achieve.”

Before Walter leaves, an anonymous letter arrives, warning Laura not to marry Sir Percival and urging her to investigate his background. Walter and Marian suspect that Anne is the author of the letter. Walter decides to keep watch at Mrs. Fairlie’s grave at the local cemetery in the hope that Anne might appear. When she does, he asks her why she doesn’t want Laura to marry Sir Percival, but Anne is upset and anxious; her companion Mrs. Clements soon ushers her away. None the wiser, Walter returns to Limmeridge House. A few days before Sir Percival arrives, Walter leaves, heartbroken and concerned about Laura’s fate. He signs up for an expedition to Central America and leaves England shortly after.

The Husband-to-Be

Deeply troubled by Anne’s letter, Marian determines to find out all she can about Sir Percival. She even asks their family solicitor Mr. Gilmore to do some digging, but neither are able to discover anything that might tarnish Sir Percival’s impeccable reputation. When Sir Percival arrives at Limmeridge House, he presents himself as the perfect gentleman, and Marian can’t find any fault with him. Even when she challenges him about his involvement with Anne and her claim that she was being held in the asylum against her will, he explains that the arrangement was made with Anne’s mother, who used to be in service for a member of his family. Seeing how Mrs. Catherick had struggled with her mentally disabled daughter, in particular after her husband had abandoned her, Sir Percival felt an obligation towards her and generously offered to pay for a private asylum. To clear all doubt, he urges Marian to send a letter to Mrs. Catherick to confirm the story, which she does. The reply is short and confirms Sir Percival’s story. The date for the wedding is set, and Mr. Gilmore starts putting together a marriage contract. It is at this point that Sir Percival starts to show his real colors: He insists on being the sole heir to Laura’s fortune in case she dies without having children. Mr. Gilmore, unwilling to set up such a deal, appeals to Mr. Fairlie, but he refuses to get involved and chooses the way of least resistance. Mr. Gilmore is forced to agree to Sir Percival’s conditions for the marriage contract, and Laura obediently marries Sir Percival.

At Blackwater Park

After a six-month honeymoon in Italy, Laura and Sir Percival return to his Blackwater Park estate in Hampshire. Sir Percival has agreed that Marian may live with them, and the two sisters reunite. Laura refuses to talk about her marriage, but it is clear that she is deeply unhappy. Soon Marian realizes that the formerly charming and impeccably behaved Sir Percival is in fact a violent and short-tempered brute, in particular in his dealings with his servants. Two other guests at Sir Percival’s estate are the Count and Countess Fosco. Count Fosco, a corpulent Italian nobleman, is a close friend of Sir Percival’s, and the countess is Laura and Marian’s aunt, Mr. Fairlie’s sister. Laura detests Count Fosco but won’t tell Marian the reason why. Marian herself can’t help but be charmed by him. He is intelligent, well-read and excellent company, and he seems to be the only one with any influence over Sir Percival. However, Marian soon realizes that he is even more dangerous and powerful than Sir Percival. While the latter tries to achieve his goals through violence and rudeness, Count Fosco exerts his power through diplomacy and cunning. He knows exactly how to play his adversaries, and the more often he intervenes with Sir Percival on Laura and Marian’s behalf, the more worried she becomes. Marian urges Laura not to show her dislike of the count.

Money Troubles

Sir Percival is in a lot of debt. He tries to force Laura to sign a document without allowing her to see its contents; she suspects that it has to do with her money, and refuses. Sir Percival is furious and gets aggressive. Count Fosco intervenes and manages to calm his friend. Marian immediately springs into action and writes to Mr. Gilmore’s partner Mr. Kyrle, who has taken on Mr. Gilmore’s clients after the old lawyer’s retirement. She wants to determine Laura’s legal rights in this situation. The reply arrives the next day, advising them not to sign anything. But defying Sir Percival proves to be unnecessary. On her way back from receiving her letter, Marian meets Count Fosco, who tells her that Sir Percival has agreed to give Laura a few more months to decide whether to sign the document or not.

The Plot Thickens

One day, Laura finds Anne waiting for her at a boat house near a lake on the estate. Anne tells Laura that she knows a secret that would allow Laura to leave her husband. Before she can confide in Laura, Anne realizes that someone has been following them and runs away after quickly arranging to meet Laura again. However, when Laura arrives at the boat house the next time, Sir Percival is waiting for her. He turns violent, takes her back to the house and locks her in her room. Again, it is only because of Count Fosco’s intervention that Marian is allowed to see her sister. They decide to write another letter to Mr. Kyrle to get his legal advice regarding Sir Percival’s violent behavior, and they send a second letter to Mr. Fairlie, asking him to allow Laura to come back to Limmeridge House. They ask Laura’s maid Fanny, whom Sir Percival had dismissed in his anger with immediate effect, to take the letters as they don’t trust Count Fosco. The following night, Marian clambers on the veranda roof to eavesdrop on Sir Percival and Count Fosco. She finds that despite their careful planning, Count Fosco has managed to intercept the letters and destroy the letter to Mr. Kyrle. She also learns that both Count Fosco and Sir Percival are after Laura’s money. Their next step is to find Anne so she can’t tell Laura or Marian Sir Percival’s secret. Before she can warn Laura and act, Marian falls ill with a serious cold caused by the rain and the chill while she was crouching on the roof. She falls into a weeks-long delirium.

Count Fosco’s Plan

Count Fosco travels to Limmeridge to persuade Mr. Fairlie to allow Laura to return. The Count suggests that she should stay at his own house in London on the way there. Desperate to get rid of the talkative Italian, Mr. Fairlie agrees. Back at Blackwater House, Marian is still fighting for her life. In a cunning ploy, Count Fosco and Sir Percival move her to an unoccupied part of the house while she is delirious. They then tell Laura that Marian has left for Limmeridge Park and is currently waiting for her to follow at Count Fosco’s house in London. Laura doesn’t trust them but agrees to travel to London. Days later, she is confirmed dead and is buried in Limmeridge, and Sir Percival and Countess Fosco inherit Laura’s fortune.

Walter’s Return

After a year in Central America, Walter returns to England and learns of Laura’s death. Deep in mourning, he travels to Laura’s grave in Limmeridge – only to meet Marian and Laura. Marian tells him what happened after Laura’s departure to London. Shortly after Marian recovered from her illness, she learned that Laura had died. Determined to discover Sir Percival’s secret, she went to the asylum to which Anne had been returned to speak to the woman. However, when she entered the room, she found that the person she thought would be Anne was none other than Laura. Marian managed to bribe the nurse and escaped with Laura. They went to Limmeridge to prove to Mr. Fairlie that his niece was alive, but he refused to accept her – the trauma of her time at Blackwater had changed her almost beyond recognition.

Undercover

Walter, Marian and Laura take on false names and move to a small apartment in a run-down part of London. Walter swears that he will do everything he can to restore Laura to her rightful place and identity. Together with Marian, he starts putting together a written account of what has happened. From Mrs. Clements, they learn how Count Fosco tricked Anne into coming to his house, where he introduced her to his household as Laura – Lady Glyde. When Anne died suddenly, everyone in the household believed that it had been Laura, who all the while had been sequestered away in the asylum under Anne’s name. Their efforts, however, are in vain: When Walter takes their findings to Mr. Kyrle, the solicitor tells him that their case wouldn’t stand up in a court of law as Laura is unable to remember much about her journey to London or the days before Count Fosco and Sir Percival committed her to the asylum. The only thing that could help Laura recover her identity would be to prove that she traveled to London after the real Anne had died. However, neither Laura nor the housekeeper of Blackwater House, Eliza Michelson, can remember the date.

Sir Percival’s Secret

Despite their attempts to stay incognito, Walter soon learns that Sir Percival’s agents are following him. He refuses to be intimidated and continues in his quest. He visits Mrs. Catherick to ask her about Sir Percival’s secret, in the hope that it might give him the opportunity to blackmail Sir Percival into confessing to his evil deed. Mrs. Catherick isn’t pleased to see Walter; nonetheless, she invites him in. While she refuses to tell him anything, in a bout of anger, she lets slip a bitter comment about Sir Percival’s family on his mother’s side. Walter decides to follow this lead and check the marriage registers at the local church. He finds that Sir Percival’s parents were never married, meaning that his claims to Blackwater and the title are false. However, before Walter can retrieve the register as proof, Percival, in a desperate attempt to keep his secret, enters the church to burn the book. Percival starts a fire, but then becomes trapped in the building and burns to death.

A Chink in the Armor

The loss of the register and Percival’s death mean that Walter and Marian still have no way to prove that Laura traveled to London after Anne was confirmed dead. In a last, desperate attempt to restore Laura’s identity, Walter goes after Count Fosco. Aware that he is taking on a powerful and cunning foe, Walter talks to Marian about making Laura his wife, so he is better able to protect her. Also, with Laura gaining strength and becoming more like her former self each day, she rediscovers her love for Walter. The two marry. In preparation for taking on Count Fosco, Walter and Marian collect every small detail they can about their foe. Walter is perplexed that Count Fosco has never returned to his beloved Italy even though his behavior and talk suggest that he misses his home country terribly. Walter wonders if he has found a weak spot in Count Fosco’s armor.

Taking on Count Fosco

One evening, Walter follows Count Fosco to the opera, bringing along his good friend Professor Pesca, who is Italian as well. Walter hopes that Pesca might recognize the count and thus shed some light on his countryman’s background, but Pesca is adamant that he has never seen the count before. However, Count Fosco’s reaction to seeing Pesca is astounding: He freezes in fear and leaves the opera in a rush during the intermission. Walter questions his friend as to what might have caused Count Fosco’s reaction. Reluctantly, Pesca reveals that he is part of a secret brotherhood and that it is likely that the count is part of it as well. Pesca and Walter suspect that Count Fosco might have betrayed the brotherhood and now lives in fear of being executed as a traitor by one of the other members. Walter has to act quickly. He decides to go to the count’s house and, as a safeguard, sends a letter containing Fosco’s address to Pesca with instructions to open it in the morning should Walter not have returned by then. Walter finds the count packing, ready to leave England. He forces Fosco to write a full confession, including the exact dates of Anne’s death and Laura’s arrival at his house in London. The next morning, Count Fosco and his wife leave, but they don’t get far. On a work trip to Paris, Walter learns that a huge man was found drowned in the Seine. He visits the morgue and learns that the dead man is indeed Count Fosco. It seems that the brotherhood found him after all.

“There, in the middle of the broad, bright high-road… stood the figure of a solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in white garments.”

Walter, Laura and Marian return to Limmeridge, and Mr. Fairlie acknowledges his mistake and confirms Laura as his niece. Laura’s name is removed from the gravestone and replaced with Anne’s. A year later, Laura and Walter have a son. Mr. Fairlie dies a few months later from a stroke.

About the Text

Structure and Style

There is no omniscient narrator in The Woman in White. Instead, the novel collates the viewpoints of different people who give their own perceptions and interpretations of events and people. This often results in conflicting reports, requiring the reader to decide whom to believe. The family lawyer, the housekeeper, and various other characters in the story also provide written reports. These are arranged in chronological order, and the reader uncovers Sir Percival and Count Fosco’s evil plot together with Marian and Walter. The novel covers three time periods: The first runs from Walter’s initial encounter with the woman in white and his time at Limmeridge through to Laura’s wedding and departure. The second part, told mainly from Marian’s perspective, covers the events at Blackwater up to Laura’s apparent death. The final section follows Walter in his investigation to the happy ending at Limmeridge. Collins’s sensitivity and mastery of psychological insight allow him to create characters full of personality and depth, each with their own voice and language – whether it’s the polished tone of the upper-class or the colloquial dialects of the common person. In the same way, he manages to convey the distinct atmospheres of different places – whether it is the ease and beauty of Limmeridge or the oppressive and threatening mood of Blackwater.

Interpretation

  • The Woman in White is a highly structured and considered work. Every detail – characters, motives and events – has a dramatic function and is directly relevant to the uncovering of the complex and multilayered plot.
  • While the main character Walter Hartright isn’t a professional detective such as Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Walter’s investigative approach is equally methodical.
  • The Woman in White isn’t only a classic example of a sensation novel, but is also deeply socio-critical. The expectations and conventions of Victorian society and the different social classes provide not simply the background in front of which the novel plays out. Rather, they are integral elements to the plot.
  • The position and rights of women is a central theme in The Woman in White. Laura falls victim to the patriarchal system of Victorian Britain that disenfranchises women, to the extent that she dies a social death. Similarly, the previously rebellious and eccentric Countess Fosco becomes a docile and doting wife to her overbearing husband. Both these characters stand in stark contrast to the intelligent and courageous Marian.
  • Restrictions and limitations imposed by class and gender weave their way through Collins’s novel. While Marian’s character – and Count Fosco’s open and deep admiration of her – as well as Walter’s marriage to Laura offer glimmers of hope for the emancipation of women and the breakdown of class barriers, in the end, neither is really achieved.
  • Collins creates multilayered and ambivalent characters, which don’t fit easily into any mold. Thus, even though Count Fosco is the evil mastermind of the novel, Marian can’t help but find him fascinating and charming. Similarly, Walter desperately tries to save Sir Percival’s life when the man is trapped in a burning church.
  • The novel juxtaposes and contrasts reason and emotion. While Walter and Marian recognize Laura because of their emotional bond with her, proving her existence to the rest of the world requires hard facts. However, it is their attachment to and love for Laura that motivates them to approach their task in a rational and methodical way.

Historical Background

Sensation fiction was a hugely popular genre in the mid-19th century. Collins’s The Woman in White, together with Ellen Wood’s Lynne and Mary Elizabeth Bradden’s Lady Audley’s Secret was fundamental to the establishment of this genre. Its trademarks were themes of deception, crime and illicit passion, often happening behind the closed doors of seemingly respectable households. Sensation fiction catered to the emerging mass market of middle-class readers. Authors weren’t necessarily keen to have their works associated with the term – despite many recognizing the mastery that went into assembling an excellent plot.

The genre developed out of the Romantic Gothic tradition, famous for its themes of horror, the uncanny and inexplicable and peppered with old crumbling castles, graveyards, aristocratic villains and vulnerable heroines. All these elements played into the sensation novel, and The Woman in White is a prime example. Its narrative technique and content follow in the footsteps of its immediate predecessors, including, for example, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847), James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818).

The emergence of sensation fiction coincided with the commercialization of the novel, which serialized publication in periodicals as well as lending libraries such as Mudie’s helped create. Also, British booksellers W.H. Smith started offering cheap reprints at station stalls.

The Woman in White also slots into the emergence of the detective novel, following authors such as Edgar Allan Poe, whose short stories are considered the first examples of the detective genre. Poe’s hero Dupin isn’t a professional detective, but a gentleman-detective who solves his cases through logical deduction. It is from this tradition that Arthur Conan Doyle would eventually create the first serial (and professional) hero detective: Sherlock Holmes.

Development

Collins’s inspiration for The Woman in White came from a late-18th century criminal case, in which a woman had been imprisoned in a lunatic asylum and thought dead. Her brother inherited her fortune, and even after her release, she was unable to prove her identity. The opening scene of Collins’s novel may stem from a real encounter: One night, Collins met a distressed woman who said she had escaped from a man who mistreated her.

Collins carefully planned and constructed the plot of his novel. He was known for his conscientious approach to writing, and he wrote and rewrote the text to ensure the sentences were as clear as possible. He was careful to ensure all the legal aspects of the case were accurate, relying on professional advice as well as his own legal training.

Like most 19th-century novels, The Woman in White was initially published in serialized form. It first appeared between November 1859 and August 1860 in the weekly family periodical All the Year Round, founded by Collins’s friend Charles Dickens. In 1860, The Woman in White was published as a three-volume novel, and its first print run sold out on the day of its publication. Six additional print runs followed, and Collins added a new preface to the 1861 edition.

Reviews and Legacy

The Woman in White was an instant success. The British public loved it, and Collins became one of the best-paid authors of his time. His was one of the first and best examples of the sensation novel. After its publication, Surrey Theatre immediately turned it into a stage play, though without Collins’s authorization. Collins himself later wrote a stage version of the novel in October 1871. The novel was translated into several European languages. Its popularity continued well beyond the Victorian period. T.S. Eliot hailed Collins as the inventor of crime fiction – not, as Eliot expressly stated, Edgar Allan Poe. The author Dorothy L. Sayers described Collins’s book as one of the best detective novels ever written.

The Woman in White also resulted in numerous film versions, including three silent films, a 1948 version and four TV series. In 2004, Andrew Lloyd Webber turned it into a musical.

About the Author

Wilkie Collins was born on January 8th, 1824 in London. The landscape painter William Collins was his father. Wilkie Collins spent part of his childhood in Italy, where he received little formal education. At the age of 17, he entered into an apprenticeship with a tea trade company. He then went on to study law and became a barrister – though he never practiced law. Versatile and talented, Collins wavered for many years between wanting to become a painter or a writer. In 1851, he exhibited a painting at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, and in 1850 he published his first novel, Antonina. One year later, he met Charles Dickens, who was to become his mentor and friend. The two traveled the United Kingdom and the United States together and collaborated on many stories. Collins was a prolific writer: He wrote 25 novels and 50 stories, but his most successful works were The Woman in White (1860) and The Moonstone (1868), which gained him great success and admiration from the public. Collins never married but was in relationships with two women at the same time. He had three children with Martha Rudd, who was 20 years his junior. The older Caroline Graves married another man, but after his death returned to Collins. The love triangle continued until Collins’s death. Collins suffered from rheumatism all his life, and he regularly took laudanum, an opiate, to control the pain. After Dickens’s death in 1870, Collins’s addiction to the drug became serious, resulting in hallucinations and the loss of mental faculty. He died of a heart attack on September 23, 1889 and was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery in London.


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