The Woman in White (novel)  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The Woman in White is an epistolary novel written by Wilkie Collins in 1859, serialized in 1859–1860, and first published in book form in 1860. 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 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 narratives 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'.


A drawing teacher, Walter Hartright, is employed by Mr Fairlie of Limmeridge House in Cumberland to teach his niece, the beautiful heiress Laura Fairlie, and her devoted half-sister Marian Halcombe, who is poor and plain but clever. Hartright and Laura fall in love, but he is penniless and Laura is promised in marriage to Sir Percival Glyde, a friend of her late father. The pair part and Hartright leaves England to forget her.

Laura begins married life with Marian as a companion. It soon becomes clear that Sir Percival has money troubles and has married his wife for her fortune. His friend Count Fosco, whose wife is Laura's aunt, appears to be involved with the plot and Marian is deeply suspicious of him, despite his open admiration of her. Trying to eavesdrop on their plotting, she is soaked in the rain and taken very ill. Recovering, she is told that Laura has died suddenly while visiting her aunt in London.

A strange woman dressed in white appears several times during the first part of the novel. Anne Catherick, the daughter of a former housekeeper to the Glydes, bears a striking resemblance to Laura. She knew Limmeridge as a child and wears white in remembrance of Laura's late mother, who was kind to her. Hartright meets her first under mysterious circumstances in the fourth chapter of the novel, at the end of which he learns that she had just escaped a private asylum, later learning that she had been confined there by Sir Percival and her mother. Mentally and physically frail, Anne hints repeatedly at a scandalous secret associated with Sir Percival, whom she hates and fears. Later, after Laura's death is reported, Anne is said to have been recaptured and returned to the asylum.

Hartright returns to England, and at Laura's graveside encounters Marian with Laura herself. He learns that Anne Catherick suffered heart failure when recaptured by Sir Percival and Fosco, who took advantage of the resemblance between the women; they buried Anne as "Lady Glyde", confined Laura in the asylum as "Anne Catherick", and took possession of her fortune. Marian has found and rescued Laura but she is mentally shattered, incapable of reclaiming her identity, and in constant danger of recapture. Hartright and Marian try in vain to expose what has been done, but eventually realise that a confession must be forced from Sir Percival. Seeking the secret mentioned by Anne, which he hopes to use as a bargaining tool, Hartright is led to the record of Sir Percival's parents' marriage. It appears to be a forgery by the baronet to conceal his illegitimacy, which would deprive him of his title and inheritance if made public. In the struggle to secure evidence the church burns down and the vital papers are lost in the fire, as is Sir Percival himself. Laura recovers her identity and the name on her tomb is replaced with that of Anne Catherick who truly lies there. Laura marries Hartright. Laura lost her money to Sir Percival, but when Mr Fairlie dies, Laura and Hartright's son becomes the heir of Limmeridge.


  • Walter Hartright - A poor young man who earns his living as a drawing master.
  • Frederick Fairlie - A fanciful, selfish invalid, owner of Limmeridge House in Cumberland. Laura's uncle.
  • Laura Fairlie - His gentle, pretty niece, an heiress and an orphan.
  • 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
  • Anne Catherick - (aka: "The Woman in White") A young woman said to be of disordered wits. She is possibly an illegitimate daughter of Laura's father.
  • Mrs Catherick - Anne's strange and unsympathetic mother, who is somehow in league with Sir Percival Glyde.
  • Sir Percival Glyde - Laura's fiance 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.
  • Count Fosco - Sir Percival's closest friend. A grossly obese Italian with a mysterious past, he is eccentric, bombastic, urbane, intelligent and menacing. He carries his pet mice around in his pockets. The Count greatly admires Marian for her intellect.
  • Countess Fosco - Laura's aunt, once a giddy girl but now humourless, cold and in thrall to her husband and his schemes.
  • Professor Pesca - A teacher of Italian, and a good friend of Hartright. The professor finds Hartright the Limmeridge job, introducing him to Laura and Marian, and proves Fosco's unexpected nemesis.



Film and television


  • Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child published the novel Brimstone (2004), featuring a modern re-imagining of the villain Count Fosco.
  • James Wilson, The Dark Clue (2001): a "sequel" to The Woman in White

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