The Woman in White is considered one of the first sensation novels and a mystery. With that said, if you prefer to maintain the mystery for yourself, which is one of the joys of reading this novel you may not wish to read further in this post as it will contain spoilers.
On his way to accepting a position as drawing-master down at Limmeridge House, Walter Hartright encounters the mysterious woman in white who has escaped from an asylum. Walter little realizes how this one fateful night will embroil him in an extraordinary mystery and conspiracy. At Limmeridge House, he begins to teach the talkative and strong-willed Ms. Marian Halcombe and the beautiful, quiet, naïve Ms. Laura Fairlie, half-sisters to each other, only to fall in love with Laura. She returns Walter’s feelings, but unfortunately is already arranged to be married to a baronet named Sir Percival Glyde, which were the final wishes of her father on his death-bed. Soon an anonymous letter arrives for Laura describing Sir Percival Glyde as a heartless monster and warning her against marrying him. After some inquiry in town, it is discovered that the letter comes from the woman in white. Ms. Halcombe and Walter also learn from old letters of the late Mrs. Fairlie that the woman is named Anne Catherick and has once been to Limmeridge House. Walter speaks to Anne and finds out it was Sir Percival Glyde that locked her up in the asylum, but before they can find out the reason why Catherick flees in fear. It turns out that the Sir Percival sent her to an asylum because he believes Anne knows a terrible secret that could ruin him. The impending marriage sends Hartright to the Americas to forget his troubled emotions over Laura and Laura ends up in a loveless marriage that will lead to a conspiracy to steal her inheritance. Sir Percival Glyde marries Laura for her money to help pay off major debts. Once married Sir Percival’s friend, the cunning Count Fosco along with his wife who happens to be Laura’s aunt, come to stay at Blackwater Park, the estate of Sir Percival. Much of the novel is spent with Ms. Halcombe analyzing the behavior of these two men and attempting to outwit them in their conspiracies against her and Laura. Eventually the right opportunity comes and Count Fosco manages to switch Anne Catherick who strongly resemble Laura Fairlie with Laura Fairlie. Anne dies under the identity of Laura Fairlie, which allows the two men to inherit Laura’s money, while it is Laura who ends up in the madhouse as Anne Catherick. Ms. Halcombe rescues her sister from the asylum and Walter Hartright returns from the Americas and assists them in unraveling the conspiracy and restoring Laura’s identity as a living person.
The novel reveals the limits and problems of the law. Laura’s uncle, Mr. Fairlie who is an invalid and hates to be bothered with responsibilities, shows an unwillingness to fight for the best possible marriage settlement for Laura at the advice of his lawyer. Laura is at the whims of her male uncle’s decisions. If he had accepted the lawyers suggestion to not include her entire inheritance in the marriage settlement should Laura die it is likely the conspiracy against his niece never would have occurred. Likewise, the law has no recourse to prove the conspiracy perpetuated on Laura without the hard-gained evidence gathered by Walter Hartright. Even Percival Glyde’s secret which involved him forging information about his parent’s marriage in a registry at a church in order to inherit his titles and estates fails to be discovered by the means of the law. On the other hand, it is the laws of society that lead Sir Percival to forge the information in the first place. He is in fact the son of the previous Baronet and his lover, but because they were never legally married he isn’t entitled to his father’s estate according to society’s law. This arbitrary rule of society that his parents must be married for him to inherit shows the inadequacy of the law. It isn’t the law that brings Count Fosco to justice, but an assassin serving the secret society that he betrayed; in other words, vigilante justice, the very opposite of the law. The novel then shows the many ways the law fails to bring justice on various crucial issues.
Count Fosco is a challenge to the Victorian assumption that the arts and literature morally improve a person. He is as cultivated in the arts and in the sciences as one can be during this time period and claims to be sensitive to others emotions and feelings (a man of sentiment), yet he questions morality and virtue, and displaying a willingness to kill, ruin, or destroy anyone who gets in the way of his own interests. He not only shows us this, but tells us he is will punish anyone who threatens his interests. He also makes a speech before the two lady’s against virtue. Sir Percival represents a very different type of evil. He is all anger, tyranny, and resentment towards others, unable to control his emotions, yet hesitant to go as far as Fosco and kill others, preferring to control them through intimidation. As Fosco reveals in his letter that appears towards the end of the book, if Sir Percival had just taken his advice to have Mr. Hartright murdered and had recommitted Laura to the asylum they never would’ve been outwitted in the end.
Eventually Percival Glyde and Count Fosco do get their comeuppance. Percival dies in a fire after accidentally locking himself in the vestry when trying to destroy the forgery that he made all those years ago in attempt to remove the evidence against himself. Count Fosco is murdered in Paris for betraying a political brotherhood he once belonged to as a younger man in Italy. Walter attributes their demises, along with the necessary and accidental discoveries he makes along the way that help him solve the many mysteries in the book and restore Laura’s good name, to divine providence. This directly repudiates the Count’s philosophy against virtue that he makes in his speech. On the other hand, Laura marries Sir Percival and rejects Walter out of virtue (honoring her father’s wishes as opposed to her own “selfish” desires). She even reveals to Sir Percival that she will marry him, but doesn’t love him as her heart belongs to another. This admission is the virtuous thing to do, which of course only leads to Sir Percival’s resentment and is used by him as an emotional weapon against her. Insistence on virtue then causes the characters many problems. The story then at least partially affirms some of the Count’s arguments against virtue, even if it also rejects it overall. Perhaps Collins is suggesting too much virtue can be just as dangerous and just as much a character flaw as rejecting it completely. Another possibility is that Collins is implying that good and virtuous people might suffer from those who feel no such compunctions in the short term, but eventually justice and the divine plan rewards those who remain good and virtuous no matter what problems life throws at them.