The Woman in White | Study Guide

Wilkie Collins

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The Woman in White | Part 1, Chapter 1 : The First Epoch (The Story Begun by Walter Hartright, of Clement's Inn, Teacher of Drawing) | Summary



Walter Hartright, a poor drawing master, starts the story by describing his circumstances. He is 28 years old, lives alone in London, makes very little money, and often visits his mother and sister in a London suburb. He then describes his first encounter with Professor Pesca, an Italian language teacher whose life Hartright saves when Pesca nearly drowns. Pesca, overcome with gratitude, is eager to do whatever he can to help Hartright.

One evening, Pesca announces he has recommended Hartright for the position of drawing instructor at the estate of Frederick Fairlie of Limmeridge House in Cumberland. Hartright applies for the assignment and is accepted. He decides to take the job despite feeling "an inexplicable unwillingness" about the position.

On the night before he is to leave, Hartright visits his mother and sister and sets out late in the evening to walk home. Walking along the deserted road, he is accosted by a young woman "dressed from head to foot in white garments, her face bent in grave inquiry." The woman inquires about the way to London and asks for a cab. Hartright, touched by the "loneliness and helplessness of the woman," accompanies her into London. Along the way his companion tells him she has spent many happy days at Limmeridge House with Mrs. Fairlie. She warns him of an unnamed baronet by whom she has been "cruelly used and cruelly wronged." Upon reaching London, Hartright helps the strange woman into a cab and promises not to follow or interfere with her.

As soon as the cab has disappeared, another vehicle pulls up. A passenger jumps out and asks a policeman for help in finding a lost woman. The man says, "She has escaped from my asylum. Don't forget; a woman in white." While Hartright is not surprised that the woman has been in an asylum, he volunteers nothing about his encounter.

The next day, Hartright heads to Limmeridge where he first meets with Marian Halcombe. Halcombe is young, intelligent, and kind. She explains that Hartright will be teaching drawing to her and her half sister, Laura Fairlie. In addition, he is to help her uncle, Frederick Fairlie, prepare a collection of drawings for exhibition. She also expresses her pleasure at having a man around the house as, "I don't think much of my own sex, Mr. Hartright." During this conversation, Hartright mentions his encounter with the woman in white. Halcombe is curious and determines to find out who this woman could possibly be.

At lunch, Hartright meets the old governess, Mrs. Vesey, who is extraordinarily dull and sleepy. Later, he meets Laura's guardian and uncle, Frederick Fairlie, the master of the house. He describes Mr. Fairlie as having "a frail, languidly fretful, over-refined look" and a "querulous, croaking voice." Hartright finally meets Halcombe's younger sister, Laura Fairlie, who is as passive as Halcombe is energetic. Despite their differences, however, the two young women are dear friends. Hartright is immediately attracted to Laura. He reflects, "on this first day I let the charm of her presence lure me from the recollection of myself and my position."

Hartright spends several months as drawing master, becoming good friends with Halcombe and Laura. Halcombe discovers, after reading through her mother's letters, that the "woman in white" is almost certainly Anne Catherick. Anne is described as "a sweet little girl about a year older than our darling Laura" brought to Mrs. Fairlie's school by her mother. Although Anne certainly has a few mental deficiencies, Mrs. Fairlie becomes very fond of the child. She gives her some of Laura's white dresses and tells the girl how pretty she looks in white. Anne responses, "I will always wear white as long as I live." Mrs. Fairlie also notes in her letter that Anne Catherick bears a striking resemblance to her daughter, Laura.

Three months into Hartright's stay at Limmeridge House, he admits to himself that he has fallen in love with Laura. He says nothing to her, but it soon becomes clear that she returns the feelings—although she doesn't say a word. Halcombe takes Hartright aside and tells him, "You must leave Limmeridge House, Mr. Hartright, before more harm is done." She then explains that the issue is not merely the difference in their social standing but rather that Laura is already betrothed. The man to whom she is engaged is a baronet by the name of Sir Percival Glyde, a friend of her late father's. Hartright immediately associates this name with Anne's story of an abusive baronet, although he has no clear reason to do so.

That same day, Laura receives what Halcombe describes as "an anonymous letter—a vile attempt to injure Sir Percival Glyde in my sister's estimation." After some investigation, Hartright discovers that the letter came from Anne Catherick, who is now staying at the home of Mrs. Clements at nearby Todd's Corner. He finds Anne in the graveyard at Mrs. Fairlie's tomb, and engages her in conversation. Although Anne is clearly deranged, he is now certain that it was Sir Percival who shut her up in an asylum.

Hartright tells Halcombe what he has learned. Together they ask Mr. Gilmore, the Fairlie family lawyer, to come and consult with them. Gilmore arrives and agrees to institute inquiries. Hartright spends his last evening at Limmeridge before "the great gulf of separation had opened between us."


Hartright establishes himself as a kindhearted and decent individual with strong, manly feelings and a chivalrous sense of duty. His choice of language and emotional style, however, make it clear that he is also susceptible to premonitions and anxiety. The reader is clearly intended to trust Hartright and accept his forebodings, intuitions, and descriptions. This is despite the fact that they are colored by his emotions and desires.

Hartright's position in society—a poor man of humble origins—becomes a major focus of the novel from the beginning. He proclaims that "the fading summer left me out of health, out of spirits, and, if the truth must be told, out of money as well." Lack of funds means Hartright desperately needs a job. His financial situation pushes him to take the job at Limmeridge, despite his own forebodings.

Once at Limmeridge, Hartright's social and financial position is made very clear. He is essentially a sort of superior servant in the home of the wealthy Fairlie family. This position is not unique to a drawing master. Other middle-class individuals took positions on a similar standing in well-to-do households. Although not exactly servants, they were certainly not on a level with family members. Such individuals—including tutors and governesses—were also in an awkward social position.

Halcombe treats Hartright as an equal, which startles him. He describes Halcombe as being warm and frank but also having "an easy inborn confidence in herself and her position." He notes that "it was more than impossible to take the faintest vestige of a liberty with her."

Hartright's employer, Mr. Fairlie, makes no attempt to suggest that he and Hartright are equals. In fact, he congratulates himself on "possessing" Hartright. Later, he refers to "the horrid English barbarity of feeling about the social position of an artist." His attitude suggests Hartright should be grateful for being treated with even the slightest respect. When Hartright asks permission to leave Limmeridge, Mr. Fairlie simply "informs Mr. Hartright that he may go."

While Hartright appreciates Halcombe 's desire to treat him as an equal, he does not actually expect to be thought of as a social peer. When he falls in love with Laura, he berates himself for doing so. "I should have remembered my position, and have put myself secretly on my guard," he tells himself. He likens his position to that of a pet: "I was admitted among ... captivating women much as a harmless domestic animal is admitted among them." In other words, at Limmeridge Hartright sees himself as less than a man. Instead of resenting his position, he is annoyed with himself for desiring a woman above his station. Later in the narrative, only a change in Laura's social standing makes it possible for the two to finally marry.

Hartright provides exceptionally clear descriptions of each of the characters he encounters. As a result, readers finish the first chapter understanding they are to trust Halcombe 's strength, intelligence, and common sense as well as Laura's innocence and artistic talents. At the same time, the reader is expected to despise Mr. Fairlie's weak-willed hypochondria and believe that Anne Catherick has been ill-used by Sir Percival. Perhaps most significantly, readers are to share Hartright's forebodings about Sir Percival. As Hartright states, "The foreboding of some undiscoverable danger lying ... in the darkness of the future was strong on me."

In this first section, Collins has already developed several of his themes and symbols. He has flipped gender-based qualities by establishing Halcombe as a tower of female strength while describing Mr. Fairlie as the opposite of an admirable male figure. He has used the symbol of virginal white to help readers see Anne Catherick as an almost angelic prophet and martyr. And he has set up readers to accept foreshadowing and dark descriptive language as an accurate barometer of events to come.

Foreshadowing and foreboding are both common elements in gothic novels, and The Woman in White has many gothic elements. Gothic novels were extremely popular during the 19th century. Books such as The Mysteries of Udolpho by English novelist Ann Radcliffe introduced some of the gothic themes and imagery used in The Woman in White. Beautiful young women in peril, dangerous noblemen, horrific incarcerations, and dreary or terrifying scenes are all included in Collins's work.

What makes The Woman in White different, however, is the realism of its characters. Hartright is an ordinary working man who never turns out to be a prince in disguise. Halcombe is a conflicted young woman with both strengths and weaknesses. Laura, the naïf, does not overcome her native timidity. Instead, she waits for others to take care of her. This new approach, which combines realism with gothic elements, was dubbed "the sensation novel."

By the end of the first section of the book, Hartright's narrative has also set up the start of a mystery. The reader wonders what Sir Percival's motives really are, and why he is so intent on marrying Laura. At the same time, the reader shares in Hartright's forebodings about the future.

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