The Woman in White | Study Guide

Wilkie Collins

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The Woman in White | Part 3, Chapter 2 : The Third Epoch (The Story Continued by Walter Hartright) | Summary



Hartright receives an urgent note from Halcombe saying she and her sister have been obliged to change residence. Hartright is therefore eager to leave for London—but stays long enough to learn the name of the true heir to Blackwater Park. He also confirms that Laura's inheritance has been totally spent.

Returning to London, Hartright finds that Halcombe and Laura are now living in Fulham, a more countrified area. Halcombe confides that the reason for the move is simple—Count Fosco had discovered their whereabouts. Laura, however, believes that the move is simply to find nicer accommodations.

Halcombe describes the conversation she had with Fosco. He told Halcombe he was aware of Percival and of Hartright's movements but took no action. His decision was based on his warm admiration for Halcombe. She says with disgust, "the one weak point in that man's iron character is the horrible admiration he feels for me." Fosco also delivers a warning to Hartright through Halcombe, "if he stirs me, he has Fosco to deal with ... Fosco sticks at nothing."

Hartright continues with his investigations. He learns that Philip Fairlie, Laura's father, was in the right place at the right time to be Anne Catherick's father. He was also "the spoilt darling of society, especially of the women." Clearly, Laura and Anne had been half sisters, which would explain their surprisingly similar appearance.

Several months go by. Hartright tells Laura of her husband's death, and the two are married.

Hartright now turns his attention to learning more about Fosco. Re-reading Halcombe's journals, he realizes that Fosco had received many official-looking letters from Italy. He determines that Fosco must be a spy. Hartright visits Fosco's house secretly and follows him through the streets. As a result, he learns Fosco will be attending the opera Lucrezia Borgia that evening. Hartright buys two tickets and invites his friend Professor Pesca to attend. He hopes that Pesca, who is also an expatriate Italian, might recognize Fosco.

At the opera, Pesca does not recognize Fosco, but Fosco clearly recognizes Pesca—and is fearful of him. Pesca confesses that years ago he became a member of an Italian secret society whose members can be identified by a hidden tattoo. Members of the society did not necessarily know one another. At any time, a member of the society might be called upon to secretly assassinate someone. Any individual who betrayed the society would, of course, be killed. Says Pesca, "a man discovered by the chiefs is dead. No human laws can protect him."

Hartright immediately realizes that Fosco must also be a member of the Italian secret society. He writes to Pesca saying, "The man whom I pointed out ... is a member of the Brotherhood, and has been false to his trust." The letter asks Pesca to "use the power entrusted to you without mercy" should Hartright fail to return. He then goes to Fosco's home.

Hartright confronts Fosco and tells him that he knows everything and has shared what he knows with Pesca. Fosco, baffled, agrees to write a confession that will restore Laura's identity. He makes one condition: that he and his wife be given enough time to escape the country. Hartright agrees. Fosco also provides a signed letter from Percival saying that Laura left Blackwater on the 26th—a day after her supposed death certificate was signed.


This section of the story contains yet more classically "sensational" and gothic elements. They include adultery between Mrs. Catherick and Philip Fairlie, mistaken identity involving half sisters Anne Catherick and Laura, and a romanticized secret society of assassins. In addition, Collins stages the encounter between Fosco and Pesca at the opera Lucrezia Borgia—the story of a murderer.

This portion of the narrative also confirms some key details from earlier chapters. Specifically, despite Laura's emotional trauma, she still loves Hartright and wants to be his wife. Halcombe remains strong, intelligent, and resourceful. As ever, Fosco is boastful, clever, amoral, and dangerous. Anne's revelation as Laura's half sister clears up the coincidence of their physical similarities, but it does not lead the plot in a new direction.

Hartright, changed by his experiences and the circumstance surrounding him, shows himself to be far more than a meek drawing master. He is undeterred by the immorality he encounters, by the physical dangers he has faced, or by the threats from Fosco. What's more, he has now developed the intuition he needs to protect himself from the wily Fosco. Previously Hartright wouldn't have thought of sending a letter to Pesca. In fact, the "old" Hartright would be unlikely to investigate Fosco's crimes or attempt to become Laura's protector.

Hartright 's investigation of Fosco starts with his decision to find and follow the Count because he has never actually seen him. Hartright expects to see a monster, and is surprised by "the horrible freshness and cheerfulness and vitality of the man." Fosco, to all appearances, is a delightful fellow. He buys a tart at the bakery, and smiles at all the children he passes.

At the opera Hartright shows himself to be a connoisseur. He describes the "English" audience as applauding "without the least consideration for the orchestral movement which immediately followed it." Fosco, however, has a full appreciation for the opera. Says Hartright, "Not a note of Donizetti's delicious music was lost on him." The dark, romantic content of the opera reflects Fosco's character and the mood of the book.

At the opera, Fosco recognizes Pesca as a member of a secret society. Pesca, however, does not recognize Fosco, probably because he has grown much fatter. Later, Hartright questions Pesca about the society. Pesca explains that the purpose of the society is "the destruction of tyranny and the assertion of the rights of the people." This society may have been based on the Carbonari, a real Italian society that existed at the time. The Carbonari, like the society mentioned by Pesca, had initiation rites and a hierarchical leadership. The specifics of the society—the required tattoo, for example—may have been a romantic invention.

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