The Woman in White (1859-60) was Wilkie Collins’s fifth published novel and is considered to be the first sensation novel. The format in which the novel is written, through the written testimony of different characters, was extremely innovated and allowed readers to becoming proximate to the sensations of the novel’s characters.

According to Matthew Sweet, “The rise of the sensation novel was intimately connected with the development of Victorian consumer culture” which emphasized “large-scale spectacular entertainments” (xiv). Along with sensation fiction, the Victorian public sought out live performances that would disorient and thrill them, including demonstrations of new technologies like “zoetropes, panoramas, dioramas, neoramas, nausoramas, physioramas” (ibid.) and other displays like tightrope walks, “freak shows,” and sensation dramas (xiv-xv). The Woman in White was extremely successful, first as a serialized publication and later as a published novel. It became a common dinner-table topic, bets were placed on the plot’s development, and, eventually, items like The Woman in White perfume and clothing were merchandized for avid fans to purchase.

There were some critics who believed that the sensation novel was threatening to the British public. For example, Margaret Oliphont wrote in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine that “The violent stimulant of serial publication- of weekly publication, with its necessity for frequent and rapid recurrence of piquant situation and startling incident- is the thing of all others most likely to develop the germ, and bring it to fuller and darker being. What Mr. Wilkie Collins has done with delicate care and laborious reticence, his followers will attempt without any such direction” (xvii-xviii). Additionally, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who famously had his ex-wife Rosina committed to the Wyke House Lunatic Asylum in Brentford, described The Woman in White as “great trash” (xxix-xxx). Unsurprisingly, Rosina loved Collins’s novel.

Finally, at the end of the 1850’s, England was experiencing a “lunacy panic” in which there were numerous cases of people wrongfully diagnosed and committed to asylums (xxvi). This raised questions and possibilities of members of the public placing their relations into asylums for financial reasons (like Lord Percival in The Woman in White) or using asylums as a means to “dispose of troublesome women” (xxviii).

 Plot Summary

On his last night in London before traveling to Limmeridge House in Cumberland to work as a drawing master to Laura Fairly and Marian Halcombe, Walter Hartright encounters and assists a mysterious, distressed, and lost woman wearing all white. The next day, Hartright assumes his new role and meets the two half-sisters who are his students. He finds Marian to be masculine and devoted to Laura, while he finds Laura to be almost immediately bewitching despite her startling resemblance to the woman in white. Through Marian’s help, Walter discovers also that the woman in white is known to the household as Anne Catherick, a mentally-disabled child who lived near the area and who formed a devoted connection to Laura’s mother, who first encouraged her to dress all in white.

Walter and Laura quickly fall in love, however, Laura’s established engagement to Sir Percival Glyde, Baronet makes these feelings impossible to encourage. Marian advises Walter to leave as quickly as possible. Laura receives an anonymous letter warning her against marrying Sir Percival. Walter, who agrees to leave Limmeridge, also strives to help Marian to deduce the meaning and the author of the anonymous letter, which they don’t deliver to Laura out of fear of upsetting her delicate feelings.  Walter deduces that the letter must have been written by Anne Catherick and that Glyde originally placed Anne in the asylum. Despite the presence of this letter (Sir Percival proves his innocence to Marian based on his behavior after arriving to Limmeridge), the family lawyer’s misgivings regarding the marriage settlement which will give the entirety of Laura’s fortune to Glyde if she dies without an heir, and Laura’s confession to Glyde that she loves another man, Laura and Glyde marry and travel to Italy for six months. Walter joins a dangerous expedition to Honduras.

After their trip to Italy, Laura and Glyde return to his house, Blackwater Park in Hampshire and are joined by Glyde’s friend, Count Fosco, and his wife, who happens to be Laura’s aunt. Marian moves to Blackwater in order that the two half-sisters may continue living together. Glyde’s behavior now that he is married to Laura is completely different from his behavior at Limmeridge. After learning that Glyde is in financial straits, she watches Glyde attempt to bully his wife into signing a document that would allow him to use her marriage settlement of 20,000 pounds. Laura refuses because Glyde refuses to explain the document to her. Anne travels to Blackwater and attempts to secretly meet with Laura, claiming that she holds a secret that could ruin Glyde. Fosco and Glyde concoct a scheme to get Laura’s money and to be rid of Anne’s meddling influences. Marian overhears part of their plan, but contracts typhus while standing in the rain listening to the two men.

While Marian is ill, Laura is tricked into traveling to London under the false belief that Marian had already traveled to London on her way home to Limmeridge. During her travels, Laura and Anne are switched: Laura is sent, wearing Anne’s clothes and heavily drugged, to the private asylum as Anne, while Anne dies of a heart disease and is buried as Laura. Marian visits the asylum once she is well and finds Laura in Ann’s place. When Laura claims her true identity as Laura, she is dismissed as bearing a deluded mind. Marian bribes the nurse and manages to sneak Laura out of the asylum. Walter returns from Honuras and meets the two half-sisters. The three live together in London and make plans to restore Laura’s identity. Walter discovers Glyde’s secret: he was illegitimate and is therefore not entitled to inherit his title or property. Glyde attempts to incinerate the incriminating documents of his birth, but instead accidentally perishes himself in the flames. Walter also speaks to Anne’s mother, Jane Catherick, and learns that Anne never actually knew Glyde’s secret.

In order to prove Laura’s identity, Marian observes that Anne probably died before Laura’s trip to London, however, only Count Fosco has the exact knowledge of the dates and times. Walter learns that Anne was the illegitimate child of Laura’s father, which is why the two looked so similar. He also learns that Fosco betrayed an Italian nationalist society and this knowledge allows Walter to force a written confession from Fosco in exchange for safe-passage from England. Laura’s identity is finally legally restored thanks to these documents and the inscription on the gravestone is replaced with Anne Catherick’s name. Fosco is killed by another agent of the Italian nationalist society. Walter and Laura married prior to her identity being restored.

Notes & Quotes

  • Wilkie Collins’s choice to write the narrative from the perspective of different characters allows for a more sensational reading experience. According to Matthew Sweet, “Without the comfortable distancing device of an authorial voice… readers were excitingly proximate to the sensations suffered by the protagonists” (xvi). This is especially helpful in writing the “sensation novel” which aimed to produce physical effects in the reader.
  • Another aspect of Collins’s novel that helped to shorten the distance between the reader and his fictional characters was his choice of using the domestic setting (a very characteristic setting within Collins’s work). Rather than write a gothic fiction set in European castles of the old world, Collins fused the gothic genre with the domestic novel, allowing for a much more affective work. No longer was terror something temporally and geographically distant from his Victorian readers, but it was something that was contemporary and proximate. For Collins, domestic life was full of danger and intrigue. This is very similar to the shift that American horror films experienced following Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) from the classical horror film (defined by gothic traditions and distant settings) to contemporary horror films (defined by contemporary settings and everyday people).
  • There are many instances of surveillance within the plot line of The Woman in White (consider Count Fosco’s attempt to spy on Anne and Laura’s secret meeting, or Marian’s attempt to spy on Fosco and Glyde). Additionally, the reader engages in surveillance of the characters, an act which Collins seems interested in highlighting. The sensation novel was born during a time of Victorian culture where there was a lot of consumer interest in learning what happened behind closed doors and viewing spectacles.
  • When Marian first arrives at Blackwater, she describes Glyde’s house in extremely gothic terms. In fact, they remind me a lot of Poe’s narrator’s description in “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Both passages also contain a lot of the ecogothic:
  • Daylight confirmed the impression which I had felt the night before, of there being too many trees at Blackwater. The house is stifled by them. They are, for the most part, young, and planted far too thickly. I suspect there must have been a ruinous cutting down of timber, all over the estate, before Sir Percival’s time, and an angry anxiety, on the part of the next possessor, to fill up all the gaps as thickly and rapidly as possible… On a nearer view, the garden proved to be small and poor and ill-kept. I left it behind me, opened a little gate in a ring fence, and found myself in a plantation of fir-trees. A pretty, winding path, artificially made, led me on among the trees… I found myself standing suddenly on the margin of a vast open space, and looking down at the Blackwater lake from which the house takes its name… The lake itself had evidently once flowed to the spot on which I stood, and had been gradually wasted and dried up to less than a third of its former size. I saw its still, stagnant waters, a quarter of a mile away from me in the hollow, separated into pools and ponds, by twining reeds and rushes, and little knolls of each. On the farther bank from me, the trees rose thickly again, and shut out the view, and cast their black shadows on the sluggish, shallow water…The water, which was clear enough on the open sandy side, where the sun shone, looked black and poisonous opposite to me, where it lay deeper under the shade of the spongy banks, and the rank overhanging thickets and tangled trees. The frogs were croaking, and the rats were slipping in and out of the shadowy water, like live shadows themselves, as I got nearer to the marshy side of the lake. I saw here, lying half in and half out of the water, the rotten wreck of an old overturned boat, with a sickly spot of sunlight glimmering through a gap in the trees on its dry surface, and a snake basking in the midst of the spot, fantastically coiled, and treacherously still. Far and near, the view suggested the same dreary impressions of solitude and decay; and the glorious brightness of the summer sky overhead, seemed only to deepen and harden the gloom and barrenness of the wilderness on which it shone. (204-5)

  • Marian experiences a “trance, or daydream of my fancy” in which she sees Walter Hartright while he is still away on his American expedition (273). In this telepathic state, Hartright promises Marian that, although he is experiencing a number of dangers, he will survive it all and return home to Marian and Laura. He urges Marian to therefore wait for him. This all turns out to be true. This moment of telepathic communication is very reminiscent to the similar events in Jane Eyre and Dracula. 
  • Mariam and Laura quickly realize their dreadful and nearly hopeless situation while living at Blackwater. Their “choices” are very limited and painful to make. This is very similar to Jane Elliott’s conception of “suffering agency.” Although suffering agency is meant to describe the agency experienced by individuals living in the neoliberal age (the decision between paying for groceries or health care is one example Elliott provides), it seems to fit here, as well. Marian and Laura gain a version of agency (Marian moreso than Laura) only through their suffering.
  • In our dreadful position, there was no help and no hope for us, but in risking the worst. (301)

  • Throughout the novel, the reader is reminded about how masculine Marian is- both in the physical appearance of her face and in her decidedly “male” mind. However, according to Sweet’s introduction, many male readers wrote to Collins begging him to reveal the “real” woman upon whom Marian was based so that they could marry the original. I wonder why all of this happened- why did Collins go out of his way to present Marian as manly? Why were there so many readers who wanted to marry this manly woman? Could it be partly because having a masculine woman allowed male readers to better identify and sympathize with a female narrator?
  • If I were to teach this text, I might encourage students to locate connections to current events. One such current event that immediately came to my mind was the Kavanaugh hearing. The Fairlie’s family lawyer describe the fact that many women have come forward against men of power and social standing, but he ascribes this to their jealousy and argues that a man’s reputation should be able to protect him from any such accusations. This, along with the lengths to which both Ann Catherick and Laura Fairlie must go to prove their own identities and sanity could provide for a great text-to-world connection with students
  • I have no doubt myself that every explanation which can be expected from a gentleman and a man of honor, he will readily give. Sir Percival stands very high, sir- an eminent position, a reputation above suspicion- I feel quite easy about results; quite easy, I am rejoiced to assure you. Things of this sort happen constantly in my experience. Anonymous letters- unfortunate woman- sad state of society. I don’t deny that there are peculiar complications in this case; but the case itself is, most unhappily, common- common.” (118-119)

The Woman in White (1859-60) by Caitlin Duffy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.