“This is the story,” Wilkie Collins writes in the opening lines of The Woman in White, “of what a Woman’s patience can endure, and what a Man’s resolution can achieve.”
And vice versa, I would add, because this is also the story of two people—a man and a woman—determined to seek justice at whatever cost. It’s a harrowing, nail-biting drama of thwarted love, stolen identities, secrets, madness, memory, power, and truth.
And, being English and old-fashioned, it is ever so polite about it.
The Woman in White is structured as a series of testimonies—some long, some short—relating to an Event that occurs about midway through the book. We hear from uncles and housekeepers, doctors and criminals, all describing their eyewitness versions of What Happened. But, mostly, we hear from Walter Hartright.
Walter, an art instructor, travels to Cumberland to take up a new post as drawing master to the young and beautiful Laura Fairlie and her fierce, clever half-sister, Marian Halcombe. En route, Walter encounters an enigmatic woman dressed all in white. The woman, Anne Catherick, has escaped from a mental institution—and bears an extraordinary resemblance to Laura.
Walter and Laura have just enough time to fall in love before Laura marries Sir Percival Glyde, a baronet, out of obligation. Glyde and his Italian friend, Count Fosco, conspire to switch Laura’s identity with Anne Catherick’s out of their own “pecuniary interests.”
When Anne Catherick dies, Laura is committed to the asylum in her place, and Anne is buried as Laura. Glyde and Fosco throw a money party (or so we can assume). The rest of the novel describes Walter and Marian’s efforts to restore Laura’s identity—an impossible feat if it weren’t for a few well-buried secrets.
The shortest summary I can offer of Collins’ masterpiece? It rocks.
The so-called “sensation novels” of the 19th century laid the foundation for today’s mystery/detective/crime genre. Panned by critics but wildly popular among lesser humans, The Woman in White appeared in serial form throughout 1859 and 1860 in All the Year Round, a weekly magazine owned by one Charles Dickens. Collins followed up his best-loved novel with three more in the decade that followed: No Name, Armadale, and The Moonstone. In each, he grappled with the diverse social issues of the period, from inheritance to the treatment of servants.
Collins, a supporter of women’s rights, folds a multi-layered, utterly self-aware feminism into the pages of The Woman in White. Marian Halcombe, in particular, is a credit to Collins and to her gender—even in fiction. It comes as a pleasant surprise (which is sad in itself) that Collins was able, 150 years ago, to understand and express the plight of women so passionately and eloquently through Marian:
Who cares for his causes for complaint? Are you to break your heart to set his mind at ease? No man in heaven deserves these sacrifices from us women. Men! They are the enemies of our innocence and our peace—they drag us away from our parents’ love and our sisters’ friendship—they take us body and soul to themselves, and fasten our helpless lives to theirs as they chain up a dog to his kennel.
Collins, notably, opposed marriage as a system both unfair and disadvantageous to women—a theme laid bare in The Woman in White. And while the novel’s feminism contains plenty of holes—angelic, victimized Laura, for her part, is as passive as a broom, before and after her protracted rescue by a devoted gentleman—modern women readers will still find themselves tempted to cheer aloud at Marian’s barely restrained, anti-patriarchal rage:
If I only had the privileges of a man, I would order out Sir Percival’s best horse instantly, and tear away on a night-gallop, eastward, to meet the rising sun—a long, hard, heavy, ceaseless gallop of hours and hours, like the famous highwayman’s ride to York. Being, however, nothing but a woman, condemned to patience, propriety, and petticoats for life, I must respect the house-keeper’s opinions, and try to compose myself in some feeble and feminine way.
Yes, it’s long. Yes, it drags out events that could have been related in half the time. But The Woman in White is the Victorian novel at its finest, innovatively structured and rivetingly told.
Don’t take my word for it, though. See for yourself.
Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?
Independent of context, maybe not. But as one of the first mystery novels to grace the literary stage, I’m happy to give it a spirited round of applause.
“The future may depend,” I suggested, “on the use we make of the present.”
Such is the World, such Man, such Love. What are we (I ask) but puppets in a show-box? Oh, omnipotent Destiny, pull our strings gently! Dance us mercifully off our miserable little stage!