On his way to London before taking a job referred to him by an excitable Italian acquaintance, Walter Hartright comes across a distraught woman dressed all in white, late at night on a lonely road. Hartright sees she’s agitated and walks with her to where she can get a cab to her friend’s house. They don’t introduce themselves. Farther down the road, he overhears police asking about the woman he helped. They’re concerned because she escaped from an insane asylum. He debates with himself whether he did the right thing but continues to his lodgings in London and later to his job in Limmeridge House in Cumberland as a drawing teacher to one Laura Fairlie and her half-sister, Marian Halcombe.
The house is owned by wealthy, whiny, hypochondriac Frederick Fairlie, the brother of Laura’s deceased father. Laura is beautiful and wealthy. Walter is struck by a resemblance she bears to the woman in white. Marian is intelligent and full of moxie. She’s also ugly and poor, therefore destined to be an old maid.
Laura and Walter fall in love, though they never express it. Walter is mindful of their relative standings in society. Marian catches on—she is the bright one, after all—and tells Walter to leave for both Laura’s sake and his own. Laura is engaged to be married. Yeah, he’s an old geezer, but he’s also a baronet. Laura made a deathbed promise to her father, and she’s going to keep it. No reason for her father wanting that promise is ever given. Before she marries, she receives an anonymous letter warning her about her affianced, Sir Percy Glyde.
Walter leaves, though he stays in touch with Marian until he takes a punishing job in Honduras. Laura marries and goes abroad with Sir Percy to Italy, where they meet up with her estranged aunt, the sister of her father and Frederick Fairlie. She’s married to an Italian, Count Fosco. Laura looks forward to the wedding trip, not only for sightseeing but as means of family reconciliation.
Oh, the trials and tribulations that lie ahead for Walter and Laura! More than once, all hope seems lost. When Walter met the unfortunate woman in white, he little imagined uncovering secrets of false and hidden identities, violent nationalist Italian secret societies, or witnessing those he loves being deceived, drugged, and hidden away, never mind fortunes and lives lost. He employs many of the methods later literary detectives would use to solve mysteries: interviewing often reluctant witnesses and searching through old documents to build a legal case. Before he leaves for Central America, he believes he’s being followed. Marian thinks he’s being silly.
The novel is long. Most print editions run about seven hundred pages. The narration switches between different voices, almost, at times, as if the characters are giving testimony in court. Some sections are diary excerpts.
Just the same, the story is not difficult to follow, in part because author Collins has given each character a unique voice. The reader gets multiple views. This device enhances certain aspects of the story. For example, Count Fosco, an enormously fat man, presents himself as courteous and as a great admirer of Miss Halcombe. He understands her intelligence. However, the Count is also ruthless. Both he and Sir Percy have returned from abroad in dire financial straits (“embarrassed” in the term of the time) and are desperate to access Laura’s considerable fortune. The reader is aware of this, but the housekeeper at Sir Percy’s estate, Mrs. Michelson, sees only the gentleman in Fosco. Her statement painting him only as the most attentive and caring Christian man adds to the creepiness of the story.
There are twists and turns that Walter takes most of the book uncovering: secret illegitimate children, switched identities, intercepted letters, and drugged tea.
This is often regarded as Collins’ best novel and the first “sensation” novel. It centers on the idea that at the time (c. 1860), women gave up nearly all property rights when they married.
The “sensation” novel, a creature of the nineteenth century, drew on gothic and melodramatic traditions and often involved crime. Long-held secrets are revealed. One favorite trespass in such works is bigamy, intentional or not, though this does not occur in this book. Sorry to disappoint. Some were based on a true crime. According to Wikipedia, The Woman in White was probably based, at least in part, on the case of one Louisa Nottidge, whose family feared she’d come under the undue influence of a religious zealot and had her locked in an asylum. As did the woman in white, she escaped.
Although a cry for protecting the property rights of women, it is, paradoxically, deeply misogynistic. A woman’s worth is determined not by her capability or intelligence but by her desirability as a sexual partner. One aspect of desirability is passivity. Laura is pretty but generally useless and has to be taken care of by Walter and Marian. On the other hand, Marian is intelligent and unafraid, but she’s ugly. Her job is to help Walter take care of Laura. Perish the thought she should ever think of finding a life of her own. Otherwise, Marian would be… scary.
Having said that, I have to add that along with its faults, this book is quite engaging. The reader cares about the characters, wants to see the protagonists prosper and the bad guys get theirs in the end. While not wishing to excuse the misogyny or the ethnic stereotyping concerning Italians in particular, I have to say these are part of the times. Expecting a nineteenth-century establishment figure to understand current sensibilities is unrealistic.
The book has also been adapted for theater and movies several times. It makes for a good—if long and involved—tale. It’s a good quarantine read. Get off Netflix for a bit, brew some tea, and curl up with a cozy blanket. It may be a while.
William Wilkie Collins was a good friend of Charles Dickens. He is not best known for his novels The Moonstone and The Woman in White. He also wrote more than thirty books, a hundred articles, short stories and essays, and at least a dozen plays.
He wanted nothing to do with marriage but set up housekeeping with two different women simultaneously for many years.
Title: The Woman in White
Author: Wilkie Collins (1824-1889)
First published: first appeared in serial form 1859-1860 All Year Round in the UK and Harper’s Weekly in the US. It was published in book form in 1860