Cover of first US edition
|Genre||Mystery novel, Sensation novel|
|Publisher||All the Year Round|
|26 November 1859 - 25 August 1860|
|Preceded by||The Dead Secret|
|Followed by||No Name|
The Woman in White is Wilkie Collins's 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 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 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, despite Laura's betrothal to Sir Percival Glyde, Baronet. Upon realising 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 believing Laura knows his secret, becomes extremely paranoid 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 travelling 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 travelling 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. Meanwhile, Walter has returned from Honduras, and the three live incognito in London, making 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. The truth was that Glyde's mother was already married to an Irish man, who had left her, and was not free to remarry. While he had no problem claiming the estate, Glyde needed his parents' marriage certificate to borrow money. He therefore went to a church in the village where his parents had lived together and where the vicar (Church of England priest), who had served there, had died long ago, and added a fake marriage to the church register. Mrs. Catherick helped him obtain access to the register and was rewarded with a gold watch and an annual payment.
With the death of Glyde in a fire while attempting to destroy a duplicate of the register, the trio is safe from persecution, but they 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 works out from a letter he received 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 in exchange for safe-passage from England. Laura's identity is legally 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; on the death of Frederick Fairlie, their son inherits Limmeridge.
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.
The novel was extremely successful commercially, but contemporary critics were generally hostile. Modern critics and readers regard it as Collins's 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".