The Woman in White Summary

Wilkie Collins

The Woman in White

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The Woman in White Summary

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The Woman in White is widely considered to be one of the first mystery novels as well as a first in the genre of “sensation” novels. It was written by Wilkie Collins in 1859 and tells a story of intrigue in London.

Walter Hartright is a young art teacher. One night in London, he sees a distressed woman dressed entirely in white. He gives her directions, and later finds out from the police that she had escaped from a nearby asylum. A little while after these events, he travels to his new position at Limmeridge House in Cumberland. When he arrives, the household is comprised of Frederick Fairlie, who is an invalid, and Hartright’s students, Laura and Marian Halcombe.

Laura bears a striking resemblance to the woman in white, and that the household is acquainted with the woman, whose name is Anne Catherick, and who was devoted to Laura’s mother. Hartright and Laura fall in love over the next few months although she is engaged to another man, Sir Percival Glyde. Marion advises Walter to leave the house, and Laura receives a mysterious letter warning her not to marry Glyde. Walter discovers that Anne sent the letter, and he believes that it was Glyde who originally had Anne committed to the asylum.

Laura and Glyde marry, despite her lawyer’s concerns over the marriage contract. Glyde will inherit all of Laura’s fortune if she dies without an heir. They travel to Italy for six months, and Walter joins an expedition to Honduras.

When Laura and her new husband return, Marian discovers that Glyde is in financial difficulties. He tries to bully Laura into signing a document allowing him to use her marriage settlement but she refuses. Anne tells Laura that she knows a secret that will ruin Glyde, and he becomes paranoid that Laura knows his secret. His friend, Fosco, devises a plan to switch Laura and Anne’s places, putting Laura in the asylum and burying Anne, who is ill, under the name Laura when she dies.

Marian overhears part of the plan, but she falls ill before she can tell Laura, who Glyde and Fosco trick into going to London. Anne succumbs to her illness and Laura is drugged and placed in the asylum. Marian visits the asylum hoping to learn more from Anne, but she finds Laura instead. She bribes the nurse and the two escape. They live with Walter in London and formulate a plan to restore Laura’s identity.

In trying to make sense of the situation, Walter learns that Glyde was illegitimate and therefore ineligible to inherit his title and land. Glyde attempts to destroy the incriminating documents but perishes in the fire. Tragically, Walter discovers that Anne never knew his secret. She was only repeating words her mother said to Glyde in anger.

Glyde had no problem inheriting his estate, but he needed a marriage certificate to borrow money. He went to the church and planted a fake certificate, and Mrs. Catherick helped him get access to the register. She was given a gold watch and an annual sum of money for her efforts.

When Glyde dies, the trio is safe, but to restore Laura’s identity they have to prove that the real Anne Catherick is dead. Walter thinks that Anne died before Laura’s trip to London, but Fosco is the only one who knows for certain. When Fosco tries to flee the country, Walter forces him to write a confession in exchange for safe passage from England. This confession restores Laura’s identity. Walter and Laura marry, and when Frederick Fairlie dies, their son inherits his estate.

One of the major themes of the book is that of identity. We do not know who the woman in white is, and her identity becomes a major turning point of the story. Later on, Glyde is found not to be who he says he is either. Rather, he is the illegitimate son of a wealthy man and is not entitled to his estate. Finally, Laura and Anne’s identities are switched in an attempt to get Laura out of the way so that Glyde can inherit all her money when she dies.

At the time The Woman in White was published, women had almost no legal rights to any of their inheritance or property. A significant aspect of the novel is Collins’ examination of what he felt was inherently unfair about the institution of marriage and the way women were treated within its confines.

The story is full of deceit and lies, with all the characters being tricked and misled away at various times. The atmosphere of the story is eerie, and it’s unclear who will triumph in the end, or what anyone’s real motives are.  We know that the search for truth will be dangerous.

Collins’ story is heralded as one of the first in the mystery genre and was part of a movement in literature focusing on outlandish crime dramas. The twists and turns of the mystery leave us holding our breath until the very end.