The Woman in White | Study Guide

Wilkie Collins

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The Woman in White | Part 3, Chapter 1 : The Third Epoch (The Story Continued by Walter Hartright) | Summary



One week has passed since Hartright returned from Central America and learned that Laura is alive and not buried in Limmeridge. He has rented rooms in London and is living there with Laura and Halcombe under assumed names. He picks up the story in his voice from the point at which Halcombe left Mrs. Michelson and headed back to Limmeridge.

Count Fosco has given a letter to Laura's uncle, Mr. Fairlie, falsely informing him that Anne Catherick has been returned to an insane asylum. He says that Anne is delusional and believes she is Fairlie's niece, Laura—a result of her discovering the "extraordinary accidental likeness between the deceased lady and herself." Fosco entreats Frederick, therefore, to ignore any letters from the asylum that might suggest that the inmate is, in fact, Laura.

Meanwhile, the Countess Fosco has been sending condolence letters from her home in London to Halcombe at Limmeridge. Halcombe does not answer the letters but has the house watched. She also hires an observer to spy on the Rubelles. In neither case does she collect any new information.

Next, Halcombe writes to the insane asylum where, she believes, Anne Catherick has been incarcerated. Anne, the director writes, is somewhat changed but is doing well. Halcombe visits the asylum, and "Miss Halcombe recognized her sister—recognized the dead alive." Recovering from her shock and realizing that she does not have the means to prove Laura's identity, Halcombe bribes the asylum nurse and rescues Laura.

On the train heading back to Limmeridge, Laura tells Halcombe her story—although she can't remember the dates involved. Laura left Blackwater for London and was met at the station by Count Fosco. At Fosco's London home, she was drugged. She woke up at the asylum, in Anne's clothes, under Anne's name.

At Limmeridge, Halcombe presents Laura to her Uncle Frederick. However, Mr. Fairlie has been forewarned by Fosco's letter and insists the woman is Anne Catherick masquerading as Laura. He says Halcombe has been duped into believing her sister is alive. Halcombe realizes that Laura's escape will be noticed by now and that Fosco and Sir Percival will be on their way to Limmeridge. Before making their escape, the sisters stop by the churchyard and there run into Hartright.

Hartright, Halcombe, and Laura settle down in London. Hartright makes some money as an illustrator, while Halcombe keeps house. Together, they help Laura recover her spirits—but they are unable to help her recall anything more about her traumatic abduction. Hartright begins investigations that he hopes will reveal Sir Percival's secret and help in the process of restoring Laura's identity.

Hartright collects statements from the people involved with Halcombe's illness and Anne Catherick's death. He also visits the lawyer, Mr. Kyrle. Kyrle tells Hartright he hasn't a chance of restoring Laura's name unless he can prove Laura left Blackwater Park after her supposed death in London. As no one can remember the date on which Laura left Blackwater, the situation seems hopeless.

Returning home, Hartright hands Halcombe a note with her name on it, entrusted to him by Mr. Kyrle. The letter is from Fosco. In it, he makes it clear that he knows Laura has escaped the asylum and is with Halcombe, for whom he has the highest esteem. Fosco will take no action if Halcombe will "advance no farther than you have gone already, compromise no serious interests, threaten nobody." Halcombe is furious and insists Hartright continue his investigation.

Hartright goes to Blackwater to gather information about Sir Percival and Fosco but meets only the gardener and the feeble-minded Margaret Porcher. He then searches for Mrs. Clements, the woman who has looked after Anne Catherick for many years. Mrs. Clements relates how she and Anne came to Blackwater to see Laura. She says at that time it became clear that Anne was very ill. Fosco approached Mrs. Clements and offered to help them return to London. About a week after their return, Countess Fosco arrived at the door, gave Anne a message, and disappeared with her in a carriage. Mrs. Clements never saw Anne again.

Mrs. Clements then tells Hartright the story of the Catherick family. Like Mrs. Clements, Mr. Catherick was born in the village of Old Welmingham. His wife, Jane, an outsider, was unwilling to marry him but suddenly said "yes," and quickly became pregnant. She was then visited by Sir Percival with whom she had secret liaisons and from whom she received valuable gifts. This led her husband to believe that Sir Percival was the father of her child. Feeling deceived, Mr. Catherick left for America before Anne was born. Mrs. Catherick stayed in Old Welmingham with her illegitimate daughter, who looked nothing like Sir Percival or Mr. Catherick.

Mrs. Clements also explains why Anne was confined to an asylum. Clements reveals, "her mother had got some secret of Sir Percival's ... Sir Percival found [Anne] knew it [and] shut her up." Mrs. Clements doubts Anne actually had knowledge of Sir Percival's secret—as she would at some point have told it to her friend.

Hartright sets off to find Mrs. Catherick in Old Welmingham. She is a nasty woman who is neither surprised nor saddened to hear of her daughter's death. Catherick refuses to tell Hartright anything about Sir Percival. She reveals, "There is no news of Sir Percival that I don't expect ... except the news of his death." She scoffs at the idea that Percival is a gentleman to be reckoned with and suggests he was lowborn on his mother's side.

Hartright next goes to the church at Old Welmingham, where he hopes to find records of Sir Percival's parents. He finds their marriage recorded in the old church register book, written in a very small space at the bottom of a page. There seems no question that Sir Percival's mother was anything other than a gentlewoman. Hartright continues to search for more evidence, this time from the lawyer who would know more about the Glyde family. On his way, he is followed by two men who create an incident for which Hartright is briefly jailed—thereby slowing him down.

Despite his incarceration, Hartright proceeds to the lawyer's office where he is shown the duplicate records of local marriages. In the spot where the record of Sir Percival's parents' marriage should be, Hartright sees "Nothing!" There was no "entry which recorded the marriage of Sir Felix Glyde and Cecilia Jane Elster in the register of the church!" This was Sir Percival's secret: "he had no more claim to the baronetcy and ... Blackwater Park than the poorest laborer who worked on the estate."

Hartright now determines to get the register book from the church at Old Welmingham so as to have evidence of Sir Percival's forgery. When he arrives, however, Percival is already there—locked into the vestry. The vestry catches fire, and Percival cannot escape, although Hartright tries to rescue him. Both Sir Percival and the church register book are burned beyond recognition.

Hartright cannot return to London until the inquest on Percival is complete, and he appears in front of the magistrate at Knowlesbury. While he is relaxing at the inn he receives a letter from Mrs. Catherick—who is thrilled to hear of Sir Percival's death. She admits in the letter that, in exchange for gifts, she gave Percival keys to the church vestry. Thus he was able to forge an entry in the register book. Percival, however, is not Anne's father.


In the Third Epoch, Hartright is a changed man. Returned from his adventures in Central America, he has been through many trials. He now knows that he can face and overcome danger. In addition, because of the change in Laura and Halcombe's social status, Hartright is now their peer. This means he can legitimately become their friend and protector. While in the First Epoch Hartright was merely a hired drawing master, in the Third Epoch he is a hero.

The Third Epoch is also the point at which the narrative changes radically. This is no longer a tale of damsels in distress, threatened by villains at every turn. It is now the story of an investigator seeking answers to a mystery. By uncovering the mysteries of Anne Catherick—the Woman in White—and of Sir Percival's secret, Hartright believes he can help Laura recover her identity.

Until this point, The Woman in White has been a sensation novel, focused on emotions and descriptions. Now it becomes one of the first mystery novels ever written.

In 1841 American author Edgar Allen Poe published the short story "Murders in the Rue Morgue," which is known as the first true mystery. Elements in that story include an investigation by the bumbling police and a bright amateur sleuth. The Notting Hill Mystery, published in 1865 by English author Charles Warren Adams under the pen name Charles Felix, is widely known as the first detective novel. Others say that Wilkie Collins's 1868 book The Moonstone, inspired the genre of the detective mystery. English crime novelist Dorothy L. Sayers called The Moonstone "probably the finest detective story ever written."

Those who argue that The Woman in White is one of the first mystery novels point to events that begin with Hartright's return to England. At this point, Hartright becomes an amateur sleuth. He spends almost all his time investigating the crimes of Sir Percival and Count Fosco. Along the way he collects clues and red herrings from various witnesses and suspects. He is also followed, watched, and attacked by Fosco's agents, overcomes obstacles, and discovers the truth. To finally outsmart Fosco, Hartright must place himself in danger by confronting the criminal. These are all elements that became part of the increasingly popular detective/mystery genre.

Hartright starts his investigation by pursuing the elusive "secret," mentioned several times by Anne Catherick. This secret, he hopes, will help prove Sir Percival's guilt and Laura's identity. The search for Sir Percival's secret leads Hartright through a labyrinth of possibilities, each worse than the previous one.

At first, he believes that Anne is Sir Percival's illegitimate child—a scandal, but an ordinary scandal. This possibility turns out to be unlikely, based on Mrs. Catherick's evidence. More importantly, Mr. Catherick left his wife believing that she had had an adulterous affair with Sir Percival. Virtually everyone in town knew why he left. Clearly, even if Percival were Anne's father, it wasn't a secret that could destroy his wealth and reputation.

Next, Hartright believes perhaps Sir Percival's parentage is not quite what it should be. This also would be a secret of less-than-monumental proportions. He builds this belief on a hint dropped by Mrs. Catherick, but it turns out to be a dead end.

Finally, Hartright discovers that Percival himself is neither a legitimate child nor a baronet. This means that he is neither the rightful heir to Blackwater nor to the money associated with the manor. In fact, Sir Percival is a complete fraud. Percival's death in a blazing church while trying to conceal his crimes is likely a metaphor for his descent to the flames of hell.

Unfortunately for Hartright, Percival's death means Hartright has lost his only proof of the fake baronet's crimes. Worse, Hartright is no nearer to reestablishing Laura's identity. At the same time, having taken definite action against Percival and Fosco, Hartright knows he has earned Fosco's wrath. The Count, a much more formidable foe than Percival, will surely do his worst.

In her letter to Hartright, Mrs. Catherick reveals herself to be heartless, conniving, and narcissistic. She thanks Hartright for being the instrument of Percival's death. At the same time, she complains, "You were weak enough, as I have heard, to try and save his life." She also confirms Percival's villainy—he was willing to victimize absolutely anyone in order to achieve his purely self-centered goals.

After describing her crimes and horrific willingness to injure others, she reminds Hartright that, after decades, she has managed to repair her reputation in town. This has become a significant source of pride: "I will allow no liberties to be taken with my reputation." This juxtaposition of pride in wrongdoing and pride in an "unsullied" reputation provides some dark humor as well as a bit of social commentary.

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