The Woman in White | Study Guide

Wilkie Collins

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The Woman in White | Plot Summary

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Summary

The Woman in White is narrated by various individuals, all of whom have some part to play in the complex plot.

The First Epoch: The Story Begun by Walter Hartright

Walter Hartright is a poor drawing master, or art teacher, who lives in London, not far from his widowed mother and unmarried sister. Hartright once saved the life of Professor Pesca—an Italian living in London. Pesca considers himself deeply indebted to Hartright and is eager to repay him in some way. Pesca tells Hartright he has found a work opportunity for him with a family named Fairlie at Limmeridge House in Cumberland. Hartright accepts the work.

On the night before Hartright is to leave for his new job, he encounters an odd, distressed young woman dressed all in white. During his conversation with the woman, Hartright learns that she has fond childhood associations with Limmeridge House. She has warm memories of the deceased Mrs. Fairlie, who once ran a school in the village. He directs the woman on her way to London and helps her get a cab. Shortly after, he learns that the woman has escaped from an insane asylum.

Arriving at Limmeridge House, Hartright learns he will be teaching drawing to two young women: the passive and gentle Laura Fairlie and the bright, assertive Marian Halcombe. The two women are half sisters and devoted to each other. In addition, Walter will be helping the women's frail and querulous uncle, Frederick Fairlie, to prepare an art collection for exhibition.

Hartright tells Marian Halcombe of his strange encounter with the woman in white. Marian Halcombe investigates, and learns that the woman is almost certainly Anne Catherick. Anne is the daughter of a woman who came to town for a few months and sent her child to Mrs. Fairlie's school. Anne had a learning disability and bore a strong resemblance to Laura. She quickly became Mrs. Fairlie's favorite student. Mrs. Fairlie gave the girl a white dress and told her how pretty she looked in white. Since that time, Anne apparently has insisted on wearing white.

Over the course of a few months, Hartright falls in love with Laura and his love is returned—although neither voices their attraction to the other. The difference in their stations makes a marriage impossible. In addition, Laura is provisionally engaged—at her dead father's request—to a much-older baronet named Sir Percival Glyde. Discovering the attachment between Hartright and Laura, Marian Halcombe advises Hartright to leave as soon as possible. Hartright agrees.

An anonymous letter arrives for Laura. It contains a strongly worded warning: she must not marry Sir Percival. Hartright learns that the letter came from Anne Catherick. Marian Halcombe succeeds in calming Laura. With the help of the family lawyer, Mr. Gilmore, Marian Halcombe determines to get an explanation from Sir Percival before allowing marriage negotiations to proceed. Mr. Gilmore arrives and helps begin a search for Anne Catherick. Following discussions with Mr. Gilmore and a last evening with the sisters, Hartright departs.

The First Epoch: The Story Continued by Vincent Gilmore

Mr. Gilmore attempts to discuss with Frederick Fairlie his nieces' concern about Laura's engagement and the doubts raised by the anonymous letter. Mr. Fairlie is determined that Laura's marriage go ahead and claims to be overwhelmed by the idea of it not proceeding.

Sir Percival visits the sisters while Mr. Gilmore is at Limmeridge House and presents his explanation of the events described in Anne Catherick's letter. His clarification satisfies Mr. Gilmore. At Sir Percival's suggestion, Marian Halcombe writes to Mrs. Catherick asking her to confirm his version of events.

Laura pleads to postpone any setting of a wedding date until the end of the year. She speaks to Mr. Gilmore about leaving her inheritance to Marian Halcombe and intimates that there's someone else to whom she would like to leave a bequest.

Laura agrees she will marry Sir Percival before the end of the year. She and Marian Halcombe plan to visit friends in Yorkshire.

Sir Percival's lawyers drive a hard deal with Mr. Gilmore. Despite appealing to Mr. Fairlie on Laura's behalf, Mr. Gilmore is forced to write a marriage contract that leaves all her money to Sir Percival.

The First Epoch: The Story Continued by Marian Halcombe

Marian Halcombe informs Laura that Sir Percival has volunteered to terminate their engagement if Laura requests it. Laura refuses to do this because she had agreed to her father's desire for her to marry Sir Percival. She decides to tell Sir Percival she has romantic feelings for someone else. If he decides to break the engagement, she will abide by his decision. When she confesses to Sir Percival, he says he will go ahead with the marriage.

Marian Halcombe and Laura visit their Yorkshire friends, and Marian Halcombe receives a letter from Hartright. He has departed for the expedition to Central America. Laura and Marian Halcombe are suddenly called back to Limmeridge House. In their absence, Mr. Fairlie has agreed on Laura's behalf to a wedding date of December 22. Laura reluctantly accepts this arrangement.

Sir Percival agrees that Marian Halcombe should live with them following the wedding and honeymoon. He also mentions that Laura's aunt and uncle—the Foscos—will spend time with the couple on their honeymoon in Rome.

Laura and Sir Percy are married and leave Limmeridge House for their six-month trip to Italy.

The Second Epoch: The Story Continued by Marian Halcombe

Marian Halcombe takes up residence at Sir Percival's estate, Blackwater Park, in anticipation of the couple's arrival. While awaiting them, she reminisces about Hartright—on expedition in Honduras—and Mr. Gilmore, who has had a stroke and is on extended medical leave.

She also contemplates the vague letters Laura has sent her over the past several months. Her glib correspondence makes no mention of how she and Sir Percival are getting along. Marian Halcombe is therefore curious about the state of Laura's marriage.

When Laura and Sir Percival return, they are accompanied by Count and Countess Fosco. They intend to stay at Blackwater Park for a few months.

Marian Halcombe finds that both Laura and Sir Percival have changed while they were away. Previous to her marriage, Laura shared all her thoughts, plans, and wishes with Marian Halcombe. Now the subject of her relationship with Sir Percival is a topic she refuses to discuss. Their conversation reveals that despite her marriage Laura still cares for Hartright.

While Laura has become rather secretive, Sir Percival has become quite abrupt in his manner toward Marian Halcombe. Gone are the warmth and politeness he displayed while he was courting her sister. Now he's civil, but little more.

It soon becomes clear that both Sir Percival and Fosco have serious financial issues. Percival tries to bully Laura into signing away some of her money, but Laura (with support from Marian Halcombe and their lawyer) refuses to do so. Meanwhile, Anne Catherick has arrived at Blackwater and mysteriously suggests that, as she is now dying, she wants to reveal a secret about Sir Percival.

Laura's maid, Fanny, is fired by Sir Percival and leaves for the village. Marian Halcombe writes to Mr. Fairlie and to Mr. Gilmore's partner, requesting assistance. She takes the letters to Fanny, asking her to deliver the message to Mr. Fairlie and to mail the second letter.

Percival and Fosco, desperate for money, cook up a nefarious plan. Marian Halcombe, spying on the two men, hears some of the scheme, which seems to involve plotting Laura's death. However, Marian Halcombe is soaked to the skin and falls ill. While she is incapacitated, Percival and Fosco put their conspiracy into action.

The Second Epoch: The Story Continued by Frederick Fairlie, Esq.

Mr. Fairlie is directed to write his account of events surrounding Laura's engagement and marriage, and the task greatly annoys him.

Fanny arrives to deliver Marian Halcombe's letter. Fairlie is unhappy at having to see her, and Fanny is distressed. Countess Fosco had visited Fanny at the village inn, drugged her, and intercepted Marian Halcombe 's letters. Dismissing Fanny's concerns, Fairlie sends her away.

Within a few days he is again disturbed, this time by Count Fosco, who pushes Fairlie to send Laura an invitation to visit Limmeridge House. Fairlie doesn't want the burden of having Laura at the estate. Knowing Marian Halcombe is ill, Fairlie issues the invitation only because he believes Laura will refuse to travel if her sister is unable to accompany her.

The Second Epoch: The Story Continued by Eliza Michelson

Eliza Michelson, housekeeper at Blackwater Park, contributes her account of Marian Halcombe's illness and of Laura's departure from the estate.

After spending the previous evening in the pouring rain spying on Sir Percival and Count Fosco, Marian Halcombe had become ill and developed a fever. Michelson discovers Marian Halcombe wandering delirious in her room. While Count Fosco and his wife tend to Marian Halcombe, Sir Percival sends for Mr. Dawson, the local doctor. Michelson and Countess Fosco look after Marian Halcombe, as no nurse is available and Laura is too upset to be helpful.

Countess Fosco travels to London, returning with Mrs. Rubelle, a nurse known to the Count. Mr. Dawson and the Count disagree on the handling of Marian Halcombe's sickness, which irritates Mr. Dawson. Fosco has no medical degree, yet he persists in offering his opinions as to diagnosis and treatment.

When Marian Halcombe's condition worsens, a doctor is sent for from London. The London physician agrees with the Count's belief that Marian Halcombe has typhus fever. He says he will come back to see the patient again in a few days. With treatment, Marian Halcombe gradually improves. However, after a violent argument between Mr. Dawson and Fosco, Mr. Dawson quits the case and Marian Halcombe is left without a doctor's care.

Michelson is forced to fire most of the servants and is sent off on a doomed errand. Upon her return she finds Marian Halcombe, Mrs. Rubelle, and the Foscos all departed from Blackwater Park. Marian Halcombe is supposedly on her way to Limmeridge House. Horrified to learn Marian Halcombe is gone, Laura in her distress begs Michelson not to leave.

Laura decides to go immediately to Limmeridge herself, but Sir Percival demands she wait a day and travel first to London to spend the night at the Foscos. Though she doesn't want to visit the Count's home, she and Michelson go to the train station together and Michelson sees her off.

Michelson later is shocked to learn that Mrs. Rubelle and Marian Halcombe never left Blackwater Park. Marian Halcombe had been moved to another room to deceive Laura into thinking she was gone. Michelson resigns, but agrees to stay on and look after Marian Halcombe, since Mrs. Rubelle is leaving immediately.

When Marian Halcombe recovers, she leaves for Limmeridge, expecting to find Laura there.

The Second Epoch: The Story Continued in Several Narratives

Anne and her caregiver are tricked into allowing Anne to go off with Fosco who misrepresents her as being Laura. She is brought to a house where she collapses from her existing heart disease and dies shortly thereafter. Alfred Goodricke, a local doctor, is told that the dead woman is Laura. He has a death certificate issued in Laura's name. Anne is buried as Laura Glyde.

Upon his return to England, Hartright learns of Laura's death. Heartbroken, he visits the cemetery near Limmeridge. There he encounters two veiled women—Marian Halcombe and the supposedly dead Laura.

The Third Epoch: The Story Continued by Walter Hartright

Hartright, Marian Halcombe, and Laura are living together as siblings under assumed names in London. With Laura presumed dead, they can't risk exposure. Sir Percival would have Laura identified as Anne Catherick and imprisoned in the asylum.

To continue the narrative, Hartright relates Marian Halcombe and Laura's accounts beginning with their last days at Blackwater Park.

When Laura was told that Marian Halcombe had gone to Limmeridge, Sir Percival convinced her to go to there herself—stopping first in London. Meeting her at the train station, Count Fosco took her to the home of the Rubelles, where he drugged her. He and Mrs. Rubelle dressed Laura in Anne's clothing, took her to the insane asylum, and had her locked up under Anne's name.

Following the death of Anne Catherick and her burial as Laura, Fosco informed Mr. Fairlie that Anne had been found and returned to the asylum. He mentioned Anne is telling people she is Laura. Fosco warned Mr. Fairlie he may receive letters from Anne claiming to be his niece.

Meanwhile, Marian Halcombe recovered her health at Blackwater Park and was told her sister had died. Recovering from her initial shock and grief, Marian Halcombe traveled to London where she met with Mr. Gilmore's law partner, Mr. Kyrle. She relayed her suspicions regarding Laura's death and he interviewed the doctor and the Foscos on her behalf.

Marian Halcombe next spent several weeks at Limmeridge House, where she remained suspicious about her sister's death.

Marian Halcombe visited the insane asylum, hoping to learn something about her Laura's fate from Anne. She discovers she is Laura—not Anne—who is shut up in the asylum, and bribes the nurse to help Laura escape.

The sisters travel first to London, then to Limmeridge. When neither Mr. Fairlie nor the servants recognize Laura, Marian Halcombe decides they must return to London. Without Mr. Fairlie's support it's dangerous to remain at Limmeridge, where Sir Percival might discover them.

During a last-minute visit to the Limmeridge cemetery, Marian Halcombe and Laura amazingly meet up with Hartright.

Hartright is intent on reestablishing Laura's identity and revealing the fraud committed by Sir Percival and Count Fosco. He conducts investigations and learns that Anne Catherick was the illegitimate daughter of Laura's father, Philip Fairlie. He also learns the truth about Sir Percival's "secret."

Percival was not, in fact, the legitimate heir to Blackwater but instead an illegitimate child. He has entered a fake record of marriage in a church register book in order to falsely claim his inheritance. While trying to stop Hartright from collecting this evidence, Sir Percival accidently starts a fire at the church and dies in the blaze.

The Third Epoch: The Story Continued by Walter Hartright

Hartright returns to London, marries Laura, and plots his next move. Convinced that Fosco must be a spy, he sets up a "chance" encounter and asks his old friend Professor Pesca to come along. Pesca, who belonged to a secret political society in Italy, does not recognize Fosco—but Fosco recognizes Pesca. Hartright, guessing that Fosco must also be a member of the society, confronts Fosco. Fosco writes a confession after Hartright agrees to let him escape the country. Once Hartright receives Fosco's confession and other evidence, he permits the Count and his wife to depart.

The Third Epoch: The Story Continued by Isidor, Ottavio, Baldassare Fosco: The Count's Narrative

Fosco relates his arrival in England on "a delicate mission from abroad." He was in charge of a group of foreign agents, including Mr. and Mrs. Rubelle.

Fosco and his friend, Sir Percival, traveled to Blackwater Park, where he met Marian Halcombe. Fosco was concerned by his and Sir Percival's urgent need for funds—which they conspired to get by defrauding Laura.

Fosco discovered Mrs. Clements, Anne Catherick's protector, in the vicinity of Blackwater Park and succeeded in spiriting Anne herself away to London.

Marian Halcombe's illness helped Percival and Fosco advance their scheme, as did the invitation Fosco bullied Mr. Fairlie to send to Laura. With their plan in motion, Anne's sudden death came as a shock and a serious problem. For their scheme to run smoothly, they needed Laura in London while Anne was still alive, but Laura was scheduled to arrive the next day.

Fosco forged ahead and managed to drug Laura and transport her to the asylum, convincing the staff she was the truant Anne Catherick.

When Marian Halcombe managed to help Laura escape, Fosco trusted no one would believe any claims the women might make regarding Laura's true identity.

The Third Epoch: The Story Concluded by Walter Hartright

With Fosco's confession and other evidence, Hartright is able to reestablish Laura's identity. He and the lawyer, Mr. Kyrle, travel to Limmeridge and persuade Mr. Fairlie to concede that Laura is alive. She is accepted back by the staff and tenants of the Limmeridge estate.

Assuring Mr. Fairlie they don't intend to intrude upon him again, Hartright, Marian Halcombe, and Laura return to living in London.

About a year later, Hartright and Pesca take a trip to Paris. There, they see that Fosco has been assassinated by another member of the Italian secret society.

Early the following year Hartright and Laura welcome an infant son into their lives. When baby Walter is six months old, Laura and Hartright receive the news that Mr. Fairlie has died, leaving Laura as his heir. Hartright, Laura, their son, and Marian Halcombe take up residence at Limmeridge House.

The Woman in White Plot Diagram

123456789101112131415ClimaxResolutionIntroductionRising ActionFalling Action

Introduction

1 Walter Hartright encounters asylum escapee Anne Catherick.

Rising Action

2 At Limmeridge Hartright falls in love with Laura Fairlie.

3 Although in love with Hartright, Laura weds Sir Percival.

4 Halcombe, the Glydes, and the Foscos arrive at Blackwater.

5 Laura refuses to sign mysterious legal papers.

6 Anne Catherick tries to tell Laura Percival's secret.

7 Halcombe overhears Fosco and Percival's plot and falls ill.

8 Deceased Anne is falsely buried under Laura's name.

9 Drugged Laura is confined in the asylum under Anne's name.

10 Halcombe rescues Laura from the asylum.

Climax

11 After Hartright learns his secret, Percival dies in a fire.

Falling Action

12 Hartright marries Laura.

13 Hartright discovers Fosco's secret and forces a confession.

14 Fosco is killed by a fellow spy and assassin.

Resolution

15 Laura inherits Limmeridge House, and the family moves in.

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