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The Woman in White

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English Literature

The Woman in White, a ‘sensation’ novel (1860) by Wilkie Collins, was published in 1860 and became an instant international bestseller, with translated versions across Europe. His talents lie in deft characterization and tightly-woven plots.

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

Wilkie Collins Timeline:

  • 1824: Wilkie Collins is born in London during the late Georgian Period. In the same year Lord Byron dies a hero in far-off Greece, and George IV, formerly Prince Regent, is on the throne.
  • Collins’ early years see social reform and political unrest.
  • 1836-1838: Collins spends a part of his childhood abroad in Italy and France
  • 1838: Collins attends boarding school, where he discovers his gift for storytelling, for three years.
  • 1850: Collins' first novel Antonina is published.
  • 1851: Collins meets Dickens; Dickens and Collins form a lifelong friendship.
  • 1860: The Woman in White is published & becomes a best-seller in the UK and the US.
  • 1862: No Name is published.
  • 1864: Armadale is published.
  • 1868: The Moonstone is published.

According to the artist John E. Millais, Wilkie Collins did actually meet a woman in white, which may have partly inspired the story. One summer night in the 1850s, Collins was walking with his brother Charles and Millais when they heard a woman’s scream coming from a nearby villa:

..It was evidently the cry of a woman in distress; and while pausing to consider what they should do, the iron gate leading to the garden was dashed open, and from it came the figure of a young and very beautiful woman dressed in flowing white robes that shone in the moonlight. She seemed to float rather than to run in their direction, and, on coming up to the three young men, she paused for a moment in an attitude of supplication and terror.’'

(J.G.Millais, The life and letters of Sir John Everett Millais, 1905)

The Woman in White Summary and Analysis

Walter Hartright, a young drawing master, is offered a post teaching art to the nieces of a Mr Fairlie, Marion and Laura, at Limmeridge House. The offer comes via his Italian friend Pesca, whom he once saved from drowning.

The night before Walter is due to depart, he meets a woman dressed in white, who asks him if she is on the right road to London:

There, in the middle of the broad bright high-road—there, as if it had that moment sprung out of the earth or dropped from the heaven—stood the figure of a solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in white garments, her face bent in grave inquiry on mine, her hand pointing to the dark cloud over London, as I faced her.

I was far too seriously startled by the suddenness with which this extraordinary apparition stood before me, in the dead of night and in that lonely place, to ask what she wanted. The strange woman spoke first.

"Is that the road to London?" she said.

[1st Epoch (Walter Hartright), chapter 4]

Woman in White, Visualisation of the Woman in White, StudySmarterThe Woman in WhiteJW - StudySmarter Original created on Canva.com

He confirms that it is, and agrees to accompany her a part of the way. She reveals a distrust of any titled noblemen and mentions Limmeridge, much to Walter’s astonishment. Walter helps her find a carriage and begins his walk home when he hears another carriage draw up. The man within calls out and asks if anyone has seen a woman in white:

"If you or any of your men meet with the woman, stop her, and send her in careful keeping to that address. I'll pay all expenses, and a fair reward into the bargain."

The policeman looked at the card that was handed down to him.

"Why are we to stop her, sir? What has she done?"

"Done! She has escaped from my Asylum. Don't forget; a woman in white. Drive on."

(1st Epoch (Walter Hartright), chapter 4)

Walter reaches the Fairlie household at Limmeridge and meets Marian Halcombe, Laura’s half-sister. Walter mentions his encounter with the woman in white. Marian searches through her mother’s letters for a connection. She explains about her uncle (a self-proclaimed invalid) and introduces Walter to Laura:

Her hair is of so faint and pale a brown—not flaxen, and yet almost as light; not golden, and yet almost as glossy—that it nearly melts, here and there, into the shadow of the hat. …. The eyebrows are rather darker than the hair; and the eyes are of that soft, limpid, turquoise blue, so often sung by the poets, so seldom seen in real life. Lovely eyes in colour, lovely eyes in form—large and tender and quietly thoughtful—but beautiful above all things in the clear truthfulness of look that dwells in their inmost depths, and shines through all their changes of expression with the light of a purer and a better world.

(1st Epoch (Walter Hartright), chapter 8)

By evening, Marian has found a reference in her mother’s correspondence to a little girl called Anne Catherick, whom she dresses in Laura’s old white dresses. In the same letter, Mrs Fairlie remarks on how similar she is to Laura. Laura, who has been walking outside, comes in at this moment, and Walter is struck by her resemblance to the woman in white he met.

‘"You see it!" said Miss Halcombe. She dropped the useless letter, and her eyes flashed as they met mine. "You see it now, as my mother saw it eleven years since!"

"I see it—more unwillingly than I can say. To associate that forlorn, friendless, lost woman, even by an accidental likeness only, with Miss Fairlie, seems like casting a shadow on the future of the bright creature who stands looking at us now. Let me lose the impression again as soon as possible. Call her in, out of the dreary moonlight—pray call her in!"

[1st Epoch (Walter Hartright), Chapter 8]

Months pass, and Walter and Laura discover a mutual attraction. Laura draws back, and Marian explains to Walter that Laura is engaged to be married - an arrangement of her late father’s - to a baronet called Sir Percival Glyde. Laura receives an anonymous letter warning her against Sir Percival. Walter and Marian make enquiries in the village and discover a little boy has seen ‘a ghost’ in the graveyard, a female figure all in white.

Walter and Marian discover that Mrs Fairlie’s tombstone has been recently cleaned. Walter waits to see if whoever cleaned it returns, and again encounters Anne Catherick - the Woman in White. He discovers she escaped from a private asylum and that she was put there by Sir Percival Glyde. He informs Marian and arranges for her to meet Anne the following day. Anne has already left the area, however, after hearing that Sir Percival Glyde would be arriving the following week.

‘We stopped and looked at one another the moment we were alone again.

"Is there any doubt in your mind, now, Miss Halcombe?"

"Sir Percival Glyde shall remove that doubt, Mr. Hartright—or Laura Fairlie shall never be his wife."'

(1st Epoch (Walter Hartiright), Chapter 14)

The day of Laura’s marriage approaches and Walter leaves on an expedition to Central America. The narrative passes over to Marian, who describes the arrival of Laura’s betrothed, Sir Glyde. On being questioned about Anne Catherick, Glyde explains convincingly that he paid for Anne to stay in a private asylum as a favour to her mother in return for service to his family.

Laura has qualms about marrying when she is in love with someone else and decides, much against Marian’s advice, to confess to Glyde - leaving it open to him whether or not to go ahead with the marriage. Sir Glyde makes a pretty speech that ultimately holds Laura to her engagement. Marian is still disquieted, but the wedding goes ahead and the couple travels to Italy on their honeymoon.

Marian moves to Glyde’s home at Blackwater the day before Laura and Glyde are due to arrive.

The couple return with a friend of Glyde’s, Count Fosco, and his wife. The Count shows enormous courtesy towards the women, and Marian finds herself liking him against her will:

‘I think the influence I am now trying to find is in his eyes. They are the most unfathomable grey eyes I ever saw, and they have at times a cold, clear, beautiful, irresistible glitter in them which forces me to look at him, and yet causes me sensations, when I do look, which I would rather not feel. ....’

[2nd Epoch (Marian Halcombe), Chapter 2]

Glyde attempts to get Laura’s signature on a document and fails. Later Laura describes to Marian how she has discovered Glyde has not married her out of love at all, and worse, he has discovered Walter Hartright’s name.

'Ever since that morning when you made your audacious confession to me at Limmeridge,' he said, 'I have wanted to find out the man, and I found him in your face to-night. Your drawing-master was the man, and his name is Hartright. You shall repent it, and he shall repent it, to the last hour of your lives. Now go to bed and dream of him if you like, with the marks of my horsewhip on his shoulders.'

[2nd Epoch (Marian Halcombe), Chapter 5]

Laura encounters Anne Catherick at the boathouse, who mentions a secret concerning Glyde. Anne leaves hurriedly after arranging to meet with Laura the next day. Marian waits for Laura to come back from her meeting with Anne, only to find Laura locked in her room and her maid sent away. On Marian’s protest, Glyde threatens to lock her up as well. Marian loses her temper:

'Take you care how you treat your wife, and how you threaten me,"'I broke out in the heat of my anger. 'There are laws in England to protect women from cruelty and outrage. If you hurt a hair of Laura's head, if you dare to interfere with my freedom, come what may, to those laws I will appeal.'

[2nd Epoch (Marian Halcombe), Chapter 7]

Count Fosco and his wife take Marian’s side and Glyde leaves and Laura is released from her room.

Marian, increasingly suspicious, eavesdrops on the Count and Glyde and discovers they are planning a way to get hold of Laura’s money. The Count discovers for the first time what Anne Catherick looks like:

I must know how to recognise our invisible Anne. What is she like?"

"Like? Come! I'll tell you in two words. She's a sickly likeness of my wife."

The chair creaked, and the pillar shook once more. The Count was on his feet again—this time in astonishment.

"What!!!" he exclaimed eagerly.

"Fancy my wife, after a bad illness, with a touch of something wrong in her head—and there is Anne Catherick for you," answered Sir Percival.

[2nd Epoch (Marian Halcombe), Chapter 9]

Marian, caught in the rain, catches a fever, which turns to typhus fever and is seriously ill for weeks. Following this, the housekeeper's narrative describes how Laura (and the housekeeper) are deceived into thinking that Marian has left for London, on her way back to their uncle’s house. Laura is persuaded to leave in order to join her there.

After Laura has left, the housekeeper discovers that Marian is still at Blackwater - in another part of the house. Glyde's explanation is that Laura would never have left otherwise. The housekeeper hands in her notice, but stays on until Marian recovers. Then they travel together to London, where they separate.

Walter returns from his expedition to learn that Laura has died while in London. He visits her tombstone, and encounters two women - Marian Halcombe and a second, veiled, woman:

' …But the veiled woman had possession of me, body and soul. She stopped on one side of the grave. We stood face to face with the tombstone between us. She was close to the inscription on the side of the pedestal. Her gown touched the black letters.

The voice came nearer, and rose and rose more passionately still. "Hide your face! don't look at her! Oh, for God's sake, spare him——"

The woman lifted her veil.

"Sacred to the Memory of Laura, Lady Glyde——"

Laura, Lady Glyde, was standing by the inscription, and was looking at me over the grave.'

[2nd Epoch (Walter Hartright), chapter 5]

Marian, on recovering, discovered Laura had been swapped for Anne Catherick and placed in the asylum in Anne’s place. By means of bribery, Marian has rescued her and they now live in secret with Walter while they prepare a case to re-establish Laura’s true identity.

Walter tracks down Glyde to a parish church where he discovers Glyde’s Secret. Glyde is illegitimate and had forged, with the help of Anne Catherick’s mother, his parents’ marriage in the register. Glyde locks himself in the vestry in an attempt to destroy incriminating evidence and ends up dying in the ensuing fire.

Walter begins following Fosco - he takes his friend Pesca, to see if he can identify the Count, who is going to the opera house. Pesca does not recognise Count Fosco at the opera, but Walter notes that the Count does recognise Pesca:

'The instant before I had been perfectly satisfied, from his own reiterated assertion, that Pesca did not know the Count. The instant afterwards I was equally certain that the Count knew Pesca!

Knew him, and—more surprising still—feared him as well! …. A mortal dread had mastered him body and soul—and his own recognition of Pesca was the cause of it!'

[3rd epoch (Walter Hartright II), Chapter 5]

Another man is also clearly watching the Count and follows when the Count hastily leaves the theatre. Pesca reveals his background to Walter as a member of a secret political society in Italy, a society that allows for no betrayal:

"...The object of the Brotherhood," Pesca went on, "is, briefly, the object of other political societies of the same sort—the destruction of tyranny and the assertion of the rights of the people. … In the time of your first Charles you might have done us justice—the long luxury of your own freedom has made you incapable of doing us justice now."

[3rd epoch (Walter Hartright II), Chapter 5]

Walter arranges a meeting with Fosco and obtains a signed confession of the kidnapping and substitution of Anne Catherick for Laura Fairlie. Fosco leaves for Europe, hunted by members of the Brotherhood. Armed with the Count’s confession, Walter, Laura and Marian return to Laura’s uncle at Limmeridge, where he is obliged to formally recognise Laura’s identity.

Walter carries out an art commission from a former colleague which takes him to Paris, where he discovers that the Count has been killed and his body recovered from the Seine.

The body was identified the day after I had seen it by means of an anonymous letter addressed to his wife. He was buried by Madame Fosco in the cemetery of Pere la Chaise. Fresh funeral wreaths continue to this day to be hung on the ornamental bronze railings round the tomb by the Countess's own hand. …Not long since she published a biography of her deceased husband. …—it is almost entirely devoted to the praise of his domestic virtues, the assertion of his rare abilities, and the enumeration of the honours conferred on him.

[3rd Epoch (Walter Hartright III), Chapter 2]

A year later Walter and Laura have a son, Laura’s uncle dies, and Laura, Marian, and Walter return to Limmeridge as their home.

The Woman in White: Characters

Walter Hartright

Hartright is a drawing master living in modest circumstances. At the opening of the book, he spends his time between Hampstead, where his mother and sister live, and his chambers in London. He is gentlemanly and reliable, coupled with an artistic temperament and gentleness which makes him an ideal partner for Laura Fairlie. Like Laura, his word holds true, and he will not take advantage of a situation or a person for his own gain. He also has deductive abilities which he brings to bear on the mystery surrounding the Woman in White and the secret she keeps.

Marian Halcombe

'The lady's complexion was almost swarthy, and the dark down on her upper lip was almost a moustache. She had a large, firm, masculine mouth and jaw; prominent, piercing, resolute brown eyes; and thick, coal-black hair, growing unusually low down on her forehead.’

[1st Epoch (Walter Hartright), Chapter 6]

Walter Hartright describes her as ugly, stating that she has a man’s head on a woman’s body. Hartright may be speaking as an artist, pointing out the contrasts, with the artist's surprise, or Collins may be making a dig at society’s perception of feminine beauty.

Regardless of this, Marian is intelligent, good at chess, and, like Walter, has deductive reasoning: as soon as Walter describes his encounter with the Woman in White, she searches through her mother’s letters until she finds a clue and puts the pieces together. She is also resolute and courageous. Once she realises what she and Laura are up against, she takes steps to find out as much as she can in order to arm herself - and Laura - against the Count and Glyde.

Laura Fairlie

'...Lovely eyes in colour, lovely eyes in form—large and tender and quietly thoughtful—but beautiful above all things in the clear truthfulness of look that dwells in their inmost depths.'

[1st Epoch (Walter Hartright), chapter 8]

Laura is the Limmeridge heiress, half-sister to Marian Halcombe, and shares an uncanny resemblance to Anne Catherick. She shares Anne’s fragility, and she also shares Marian’s resolution in her own unique way. She will not give up on a promise she made to her late father, and she also resolutely refuses to sign the documents Glyde attempts to force on her. Her personal morality tells her she must tell Glyde of her feelings before the wedding, leaving him free to break off the engagement if he chooses. Her trusting nature ill prepares her for the cynical treatment she receives for being honest. Where Marian draws strength from anger, Laura suffers from heightened sensibility.

Sir Percival Glyde

“He is mad—mad with the terrors of a guilty conscience.”

[2nd Epoch (Marian Halcombe), Chapter 7]

Glyde is deep in debt, having squandered the fortune left to him. He has a secret that could at best have him sent to a penal colony and he is desperate to marry an heiress. None of this, of course, is revealed immediately. On the surface, he is one of the landed gentry, sophisticated and educated with (at first) every appearance of being a humane and considerate gentleman. His cold aloofness, arrogance, and sheer bad temper lie just beneath the surface, ready to explode at the slightest provocation: a sign of the extremity of his terror at being found out.

Count Fosco

‘He looks like a man who could tame anything. If he had married a tigress, instead of a woman, he would have tamed the tigress...’

[2nd Epoch (Marian Halcombe), Chapter 2]

One of Collins’ finest creations, the Count is a superior criminal mind of the utmost suavity, perception, and brilliance. He resembles (a very corpulent) Napoleon in appearance, his skills are many, his patience endless, and his movements as silent as a cat. Despite their differences, there is a magnetic attraction between Fosco and (unwillingly) Marian - intellectually they are well matched. Fosco is a worthy foe to Marian’s intelligence and sensibility. He idolizes her for her brains and personality, and this idolisation holds his hand at a pivotal moment in the novel.

The Woman in White : Themes

Identity is a recurring theme in several of Collins’ most important books, including No Name (1862), Armadale (1864), and The Moonstone (1868). In The Woman in White, identity lies at the heart of the story: a deeply indebted baronet colludes with his Italian associate to switch the identity of his wealthy wife with that of Anne Catherick, whom he has had placed in a lunatic asylum.

The Woman in White and identity

The Woman in White is about forgery, fraud and secrets. Its plot turns on a question of identity, in particular the identity of Ann Catherick. This leads to the stealing of Laura Fairlie’s identity later on. Then there is the question of Sir Percival Glyde’s identity. All of these characters have identities that are either questioned, or questionable. Glyde’s collaborator Count Fosco also has a secret to keep concerning his identity.

Glyde’s secret concerns his birth; in order to silence the woman (Anne Catherick) who claims to know his secret, and to access Laura’s fortune, he plots with Count Fosco to switch the women’s identities.

However, their original plan is slightly marred when the substitute (Anne) dies suddenly. They forge death certificates to suggest Laura has died instead, and place her meanwhile in a lunatic asylum. Her half-sister and their drawing master help her to escape the asylum and look for a way of proving her real identity.

Note: This is also the first novel to use methods of investigation and deduction, (and some shadowing) to solve a crime.

The Woman in White and secrets

The Woman in White is also about secrets. Glyde’s secret concerns his birth; born illegitimately, he has no legal right to the property of Blackwater. Desperate to maintain status he has at some point in the past forged his parents’ marriage certificate. Convinced that Anne Catherick knows his secret, he has her placed in a lunatic asylum.

Count Fosco has a secret: he is a former member of a secret society called The Brotherhood. This is revealed in the final chapters of the novel, when Walter Hartright follows the Count to the opera, taking with him his Italian friend Pesca in the hopes that Pesca can identify him. Pesca does not recognise the Count, but the Count recognises Pesca, and is clearly terrified of him.

By association, Pesca’s secret identity as a secretary within the Brotherhood is revealed.

Finally, Anne Catherick also has another identity: she is Laura’s half-sister, born as the result of an affair between Mrs Catherick and Laura’s father.

A case in point: property and identity

Wilkie Collins was a keen reader of crime cases, especially French ones, and it seems likely that one of these, from the late 18th century, may have been the source for Count Fosco’s plan: wealthy aristocrat Madame Douhault was drugged and kidnapped at her brother’s behest and awoke in the Salpêtrière hospital (for the infirm and the insane) with the name ‘Blainville’.

Her brother, setting up the rumour that she was dead, ‘inherited’ her estate. It took her several months to get a letter sent to one of her friends, who immediately came to her aid, and Douhault was brought home and identified by her servants and friends, although the legal case continued for years.²

In the same way, Fosco devises a plan wherein Laura is kidnapped, and not only is her death certificate forged, but her identity switched with the inmate of a lunatic asylum.

Wilkie Collins reached almost instant international status with The Woman in White. However popular his other works were, none quite matched the success of this novel, with its combination of mystery, intriguing characters, and haunting atmosphere.

The Woman in White - Key takeaways

  • Wilkie Collins (1824 - 1889) is credited with having written the first ‘sensation’ novel, The Woman in White.

  • The Woman in White is published in 1860 and becomes an international bestseller.

  • Collins’ talents lie in deft characterization and tightly-woven plots.

  • According to the artist John E. Millais, Wilkie Collins did meet a woman in white, who may have partly inspired the story.

  • Key themes of The Woman in White are identity and property.
  • The Woman in White is the first of Collins’ four most important novels (the other three are Armadale, No Name and The Moonstone).

The Woman in White

The Woman in White was published in 1860.

It is considered the first ‘sensation’ novel.

According to the artist John E. Millais, Wilkie Collins did meet a woman in white which may have partly inspired the story.

The main secret is Sir Percival Glyde’s identity: he is illegitimate and so forges his parents’ marriage certificate.    

Walter and Laura marry and return to Limmeridge with Marian.

Final The Woman in White Quiz

Question

When was The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins published?

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Answer

The Woman in White was published in 1860.

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Question

What is the significance of The Woman in White?

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Answer

It is considered the first ‘sensation’ novel.

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Question

Is The Woman in White a true story?

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Answer

According to the artist John E. Millais, Wilkie Collins did meet a woman in white which may have partly inspired the story.

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Question

What is the secret in The Woman in White?

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Answer

The main secret is Sir Percival Glyde’s identity: he is illegitimate and so forges his parents’ marriage certificate.    

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Does The Woman in White have a happy ending?

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Answer

Walter and Laura marry and return to Limmeridge with Marian.

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What are the key themes of The Woman in White?

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Answer

Property and identity.

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Question

Choose: Count Fosco is related to Laura 

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Answer

because he is her cousin.

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Choose: Sir Percival Glyde’s secret is

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Answer

he forged his parents’ marriage certificate.

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Question

Choose : Walter and Marian make enquiries in the village and discover 


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Answer

a little boy has seen a female figure in white in the graveyard.

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Question

Choose: Marion, caught in the rain, catches a fever which turns to … and is seriously ill for weeks. 

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Answer

consumption 

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Question

Complete: "Why are we to … her, sir? What has she done?"


"Done! She has escaped from my …. Don't forget; a woman in …. Drive on."

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Answer

"Why are we to stop her, sir? What has she done?"


"Done! She has escaped from my Asylum. Don't forget; a woman in white. Drive on."

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Question

Complete: Pesca reveals his background to Walter as a member of a … political society in …; a society that allows for no … .

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Answer

Pesca reveals his background to Walter as a member of a secret political society in Italy; a society that allows for no betrayal.

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Question

Complete: … is a recurring theme in several of Collins’ most important books, including …, No Name and The


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Answer

Identity is a recurring theme in several of Collins’ most important books, including Armadale, No Name and The Moonstone.

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Question

True or False? Anne Catherick is Laura’s half-sister, born as the result of an affair between Mrs Catherick and Laura’s father.

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Answer

True.

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True or false? Anne Catherick wears white because her mother dressed her in old white dresses. 

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Answer

False: Anne Catherick wears white because Mrs Fairlie dressed her in Laura’s old white dresses. 

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