The Woman in White (1860)

by Wilkie Collins

Often considered the first detective novel in English, Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White maintains suspense throughout its more than 600 pages. There are questions from the start, when a mysterious, agitated woman dressed in white approaches illustrator Walter Hartright on a midnight walk. Who was the woman dressed all in white? Hartright learns her name, Anne Catherick, but why did Sir Percival Glyde have her locked up in an asylum? Is it just coincidental that Anne looks so much like Laurie Fairlie, one of the two half-sisters for whom Hartright has been hired as an art teacher and who is engaged to marry Sir Percival? What is the secret Anne's mother knows that gives her power over Percival but also gives him power over her? What is the background of Percival's friend and conspirator Count Fasco? Who will win — the wily count or the good guys, Hartright and Laura's half-sister Marian Halcombe?

This is a hard-to-put-down read, with the intricate plot being moved along by a succession of narrators who each tell the part they know. Collins not only was a masterful storyteller, he also created two of the most unforgettable characters in literature in Marian Halcombe and Count Fasco. Marian, whose courage, brains, and homely face render her an unlikely marriage prospect in Victorian society, saves Laura and abets Laura's future with Walter. Fosco, obese, surrounded by his pet mice and birds, conceals his wickedness beneath a genial exterior. The two stand in contrast to the blandness of the other main characters, the romantic duo of Walter and Laura and the villain Percival.

Readers not only will be entertained by this novel but also become better informed about the social structure of Victorian England. Class divisions appear to separate Walter and Laura, Percival brutalizes his servants, and women are legally powerless. The plot of The Woman in White was drawn from actual cases of wives imprisoned by husbands so they could steal their fortunes.

The Woman in White was originally serialized in Charles Dickens's periodical All the Year Round and then released as a book, and it has never been out of print. In the introduction to a recent printing, novelist Anne Perry said The  Woman in White "has lasted, to our great pleasure, because it is superb storytelling about people who engage our minds and our imaginations."


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