The Woman in White
By Wilkie Collins
‘In one moment, every drop of blood in my body was brought to a stop… There, as if it had that moment sprung out of the earth, stood the figure of a solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in white’
The Woman in White famously opens with Walter Hartright’s eerie encounter on a moonlit London road. Engaged as a drawing master to the beautiful Laura Fairlie, Walter becomes embroiled in the sinister intrigues of Sir Percival Glyde and his ‘charming’ friend Count Fosco, who has a taste for white mice, vanilla bonbons, and poison. Pursuing questions of identity and insanity along the paths and corridors of English country houses and the madhouse, The Woman in White is the first and most influential of the Victorian genre that combined Gothic horror with psychological realism.
The Woman in Whitewas serialized in 1859-1860 and published as a novel in 1860. Collins’s novel was wildly successful, which I completely understand. Here is a story of a mysterious woman who keeps appearing with dire warnings, a troubled marriage, death, insane asylums and Italian spies (spies!). At some points in the book, I would say actually say out loud, “Really?!” because something felt melodramatic. I mean, spies, really? I realized that what seems like a book packed with tropes was an exciting adventure 150 years ago.
Walter Hartright, a painting teacher, meets the woman in white on an evening walk in London. She has escaped from an asylum and believes men follow her to take her back. Walter helps her find a cab/hansom to take her where she wants to go and moves on to his home. Shortly thereafter, at his next assignment in the Fairlie home as a teacher, he meets Laura Fairlie who strikes an uncanny resemblance to the woman in white. Walter learns from Laura’s half-sister Marian that this woman stayed at their home as a child and has written to cause trouble for Laura’s upcoming nuptials to Sir Percival Glyde, whom the woman in white abhors.
The marriage is a problem as Laura and Walter are in love but Walter is honorable so resigns from his post so Laura can keep her father’s deathbed wish and marry Sir Percival.
I should stop here to note that The Woman in White is a version of an epistolary novel. It is comprised of records written by various characters. Walter has the first section and hands it off to the family lawyer when he leaves the home. The lawyer’s inside information on the marriage contract up the tension regarding the marriage. He doesn’t approve of how Laura’s uncle handles the contract, primarily by allowing her substantial estate to go to Sir Percival upon her death as opposed to her wishes which include a share for her half-sister. A motive for murder if there ever was one.
Epistolary novels always baffle me because I can’t wrap my head around people recounting events so accurately, let alone dialogue. Marian’s diary comes after the lawyer’s account and so super detailed. I get that she doesn’t have much to do each day so can spend hours writing in her journal. That’s fine. It’s the level of detail that shocks me. It doesn’t seem realistic.
I actually preferred the sections from various staff members who wrote (or spoke to someone else who transcribed) what they remembered and they announce it’s what they remember. There’s a realism to the acknowledgement that they are recounting events from months earlier and their memory won’t be perfect.
Now I can bring up another question/problem I have with many books from the mid-nineteenth century, which will relate to a huge plot point – why does standing in the rain result in a woman falling ill with a disastrous fever that brings her to the brink of death? Marian hides on a terrace to eavesdrop on Sir Percival and his Italian friend Count Fosco to learn is her suspicions about Percival wanting her sister’s money are founded. (Surprise – they are.) She goes back inside and the diary entry gets a bit crazy because as she’s writing it her fever is coming on. Turn the page and it is Count Fosco now writing in her journal. A breach of trust if there ever were one. He’s read her journal, finds her intelligent and amusing, and decides to add the subsequent events of her treatment to the journal.
Then Laura dies – roll with it – and the woman in white, who has been showing up all over the place, is back in the asylum. Walter is back from his sad trip abroad in an attempt to forget about Laura. He learns of her death and goes to visit her grave. That’s when the detective work kicks in. Duh-duh-DUH!!!!
I won’t go into the back half of the plot except to say it gets bananas. Walter finds the mother of the woman in white and learns the truth about her relationship to Sir Percival. He enlists Marian on his mission which becomes more than a fact-finding mission. He must do what is just and right.
Enter the spies!
And just like that, while watching Count Fosco at the opera with his Italian friend Pesca, Walter realizes Fosco sees Pesca and stares at him in terror. Pesca reveals to Walter that he is part of a secret society and that to do anything dishonorable (to anyone, even outside of the society) requires a permanent punishment. Let’s just say Fosco gets what he deserves. I’m not sure that part was necessary but it helps Walter force Fosco’s hand into recounting his part in Sir Percival’s dastardly deeds.
Overall, I enjoyed The Woman in White. There were times when I thought I had figured out what was going on but then a new bit of information was revealed which changed my mind. I knew Walter would be around in the end – various documents from people included statements to the effect that Walter had asked them to write what they knew as part of a legal case he was making. Everyone else was fair game.
Also, some things were on the nose such as the names. Hartright for our hero. Fairlie for the damsel in distress. Blackwater is where Sir Percival lives. But for something published serially, I think this sort of shorthand would help the reader.
I have wondered about the importance of the woman in white. She is an instigator to be sure; her mere presence is enough to raise questions, let alone the fact that she writes Laura a letter to not marry Sir Percival. Thematically, she appears to be the ghost of a secret that haunts you. She’s the reminder of something done that you never want anyone to learn about. She’s the loose end that was never tied. Without appearing on too many pages, the woman in white haunts each character and propels them forward, a neat little trick by Collins.