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Literature / The Woman in White

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Serialised Victorian novel written by Wilkie Collins. Run from 1859 to 1860.

Walter Hartright, a young drawing master from Victorian London, gets a job teaching art to two young women, half-sisters Marian Halcombe and Laura Fairlie, at Limmeridge House in Cumberland. On the night before he takes up the position, he encounters a mysterious woman in white. He tries to help her, but she runs away. Upon arrival, he discovers that the Mysterious Waif is an escaped mental patient named Anne Catherick, and that Anne bears a striking resemblance to Laura Fairlie. Walter and Laura fall in love, but she has been promised in an Arranged Marriage to local nobleman Sir Percival Glyde. However, nothing is as it seems, and a dark conspiracy is being hatched.

The book is often considered the first Victorian sensation novel. It has been adapted many times: a play, several films (at least five films just in the silent era, as well as a 1948 film from Warner Bros.), two different BBC television adaptations, an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, and a much Lighter and Softer PC game.

The novel provides examples of:

  • 20 Minutes into the Past: The novel was originally released in serial form starting in 1859 and ending in 1860, while the story takes place ten years earlier in 1849-1850.
  • Affably Evil: Count Fosco, charming and courteous even when his plans involve kidnapping, Mind Rape, and murder.
  • And There Was Much Rejoicing: See Babies Ever After. Walter, Marian, and Laura don't waste a single breath pretending to mourn Frederick Fairlie when informed of his death. In fact, since it means Walter and Laura's son inherits the estate, which they will henceforth control until he comes of age, this is the triumphant happy ending to their story.
  • Arranged Marriage: Percival Glyde's marriage to Laura Fairlie is arranged by Laura's father, rather than proceeding from her own inclinations.
  • Author Appeal: Collins found the female form most beautiful when viewed from behind, so we got mention of Marian having a beautiful backside.
  • Babies Ever After: A common Victorian cliche, and perhaps more peculiar than most in this novel, as Laura has been ill for most of it. In this case, the birth of Laura's son isn't just happy for general sentimental reasons, but also represents a final victory over the villains who tried to deprive her of her inheritance; the Fairlie estate was entailed to only be inherited by male relatives, which is why her uncle got it after her father, but now on her uncle's death it comes to Laura in trust for her son.
  • Bait the Dog: Enigmatic Minion Count Fosco. Fosco is so friendly and charming that the heroines turn to him for help against the seemingly main villain, Sir Percival Glyde, who is a Dastardly Whiplash type. Turns out that Fosco is actually a master villain who is aiding Glyde. It's also shown that Fosco has cowed and abused his wife into becoming a Stepford Smiler and it has been argued by British critic John Sutherland that the discrepancies in time between what Fosco says it took for Anne Catherick's death and what another character reports is meant to suggest that Fosco killed her after a prolonged period of torture and rape.
  • Bastard Angst: Sir Percival Glyde is revealed to be illegitimate. He knew about this, and went to great lengths to conceal it in order to preserve his title and estate.
  • Beware the Silly Ones: Cheerful, pet-loving Count Fosco is the Victorian-era poster boy for this trope.
  • Big Fun: Discussed by Marian in reference to Count Fosco. She says that she's never understood why fat people are automatically assumed to be jolly, since she's known plenty of cheerful thin people and plenty of mean fat people, and there's no reason why extra weight should automatically result in extra cheer.
  • Break the Cutie:
    • Laura is an adorable lady and Walter and Marian love her so much, and she them. Then her soon-to-be husband appears, and let the torturing of readers begin. She suffers terribly in her unhappy marriage, and she's a part of a very evil scheme.
    • It's also implied that this happened to Anne. She was probably as pretty as Laura, but her mother neglected her. We meet her when she's broken already, though she does have a kind friend who takes care of her.
  • Butterface: Marian. Her gorgeous and perfect body is described in great detail while she stands at the window, and when she walks up to Walter, he describes she moves with a Supermodel Strut... But then he sees her face and he's crushed. He didn't expect her to be ugly.
  • Catch Your Death of Cold: Marian gets soaked in the rain while eavesdropping on Sir Percival and Count Fosco. Within hours, she's ill and delirious, and she winds up bedbound for weeks.
  • Celebrity Resemblance: Fosco looks like a taller and fatter Napoléon Bonaparte (according to Marian, who's narrating at the time).
  • Chekhov's Gun: The tricky lock of the church vestry at Welmingham is carefully yet casually mentioned a few chapters before Sir Percival gets himself stuck in the burning vestry and dies.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Pesca is introduced near the beginning as a friend of Walter's then disappears for most of the book before reappearing near the end and providing the means of Fosco's defeat.
  • Contrived Coincidence: Half the novel runs on this. But it was written in Victorian England, so nobody is surprised.
  • Damsel in Distress: Laura Fairlie. It's worth saying that she's not as helpless a damsel as she's sometimes remembered; she does have reserves of courage and stands up for herself on several important occasions. It's just that she pales next to Marian.
  • Dastardly Whiplash: Sir Percival Glyde, a bad baronet involved in the standard financial scheming and wife imprisonment, is not an example of the fully-developed trope, but is probably one of the characters the trope evoled as an exaggeration/parody of.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Marian. Her precise sarcastic remarks are directed at nearly everybody. She has a soft spot for Laura and Walter, but even they don't always escape her snark.
  • Didn't See That Coming: The one gap in Fosco's plan that makes it possible for the heroes to set the record straight in the end is that Anne's heart condition kills her a few days too early, so that there's proof if anybody knows where to look that Laura was alive and well at Blackwater Park the day her death was reported in London. This isn't in itself the thing that Fosco didn't see coming; he was aware of the possibility and prepared to suppress the report of the death until after Laura's arrival in London. What catches him out is that Anne's death happens while he's out of the house and the innocent parties to the deception, in his absence, follow their own instincts — one of the servants runs to fetch a doctor, and the doctor, meaning to spare the bereaved further suffering, volunteers to handle all the paperwork himself — so that the death is on the official record with the correct date attached before Fosco even knows it's happened.
  • Disability as an Excuse for Jerkassery: Frederick Fairlie uses his chronic illness as an excuse to stay in his suite working on his own hobbies and ignore his family, and to be rude to anybody who manages to get in to talk to him. Some of the characters suspect he's exaggerating the severity of his illness for this reason.
  • Dreaming of Things to Come:
    • Marian dreams of Walter on his travels abroad. The last sequence in the dream has him standing beside a grave, which turns out to be where she'll next meet him.
    • Anne Catherick claims to have dreamt of the troubles awaiting Laura while trying to dissuade her from marrying Sir Percival, but it's not clear if it's literally true or if she's claiming it as a way of imparting her knowledge of his character.
  • Eloquent in My Native Tongue: When Professor Pesca needs to tell Walter something of his own past, he switches to Italian, and his Funny Foreigner malapropisms vanish.
  • Empathic Environment: Walter first meets and falls in love with Laura in summer before they're separated, seemingly forever, the following autumn. Consequently on both occasions the weather and environment match his mood.
  • Ethereal White Dress: The title character is a mysterious woman who dresses all in white. This gives her something of an eerie appearance, especially since she tends to turn up at night, and one character is explicitly left with the conviction that he's seen a ghost.
  • Evil-Detecting Dog: When Sir Percival greets Miss Fairlie's "little Italian greyhound", it whines, shivers and hides under the sofa from him, then barks and snaps at him when he leaves.
  • Evil Uncle: Fosco is married to Laura's aunt.
  • Fake Aristocrat: As it turns out, Sir Percival's claim to rank and title is based on a forged marriage certificate.
  • Fat Bastard: Fosco, though he's still a pretty jolly guy.
  • Framing Device: The framing device, explained at the beginning, is that Walter Hartright has assembled the various accounts of what happened so that there will be an accurate record. It's also mentioned partway through that the names have been changed to protect the innocent.
  • Funny Foreigner: Professor Pesca, an Italian immigrant who demonstrates an amusing mix of foreign mannerisms and half-grasped attempts at becoming more English. Played straight at first, but he turns out to have hidden depths.
  • Genre Savvy: Walter.
    • When he goes to share what he's learned with Fosco, he takes precautions so that, when he's asked "Have You Told Anyone Else?", he can prove to Fosco that he has, and killing him would therefore not solve anything.
    • He happily makes a deal with Fosco that will get him what he wants but allow the latter to escape from the law scot-free because Walter assumes karma will punish him anyway.
  • Gilligan Cut: During the section narrated by Marian's diary entries, there are a series of entries in which she chronicles her attempts to overcome her prejudice against the man her sister is due to marry. One entry ends with her declaring that she acknowledges his good qualities and is well on the way to becoming his warmest friend. It is followed immediately by an entry declaring that she hates him and explicitly denying each of the good qualities she'd mentioned in the previous entry.
  • Girls with Moustaches: Marian Halcombe has one. It's part of her being more than simply plain.
  • Gold Digger: When the marriage settlement for Sir Percival's marriage to Laura is drawn up, his demands make it clear that he's after her money. Mr. Fairlie nods it through anyway, over the strong objections of the family lawyer.
  • Gone Horribly Right: Sir Percival's attempt to destroy the incriminating evidence against him. He sets light to it, and dies in the resulting fire.
  • The Group: The secret society that comes to play a role in the plot is referred to only as "the Brotherhood", although the narrator of that section does note that it does have a proper name, which he knows but is avoiding using for the sake of his informant.
  • Hypochondriac: Frederick Fairlie plays sick all the time. He does it because he's very selfish and can't be bothered by other people and their problems, his family included.
  • Icy Grey Eyes: Count Fosco has the cold, steely grey eyes, and he's a very cold, calculating, ominous villain who is able to manipulate and control people.
  • Identical Stranger: Anne Catherick and Laura Fairlie are eerily similar. They look almost like twin sisters, except that Anne is visibly suffering and in poor health, while Laura is younger and more beautiful. Explained when Walter discovers that Anne was Laura's half-sister.
    I had seen Anne Catherick's likeness in Miss Fairlie. I now saw Miss Fairlie's likeness in Anne Catherick—saw it all the more clearly because the points of dissimilarity between the two were presented to me as well as the points of resemblance. In the general outline of the countenance and general proportion of the features—in the colour of the hair and in the little nervous uncertainty about the lips—in the height and size of the figure, and the carriage of the head and body, the likeness appeared even more startling than I had ever felt it to be yet.
  • I Gave My Word: Laura promised her dying father that she'd marry Sir Percival, and she sticks to that promise even after she realises she could never love him.
  • I'll Never Tell You What I'm Telling You!: One of the narrators is the widow of a clergyman and very proud of her forbearing nature and ability to refrain from making unkind judgements of others, but several times during her narrative she gives very precise descriptions of the judgements she's refraining from making. At one point she spends an entire paragraph on a disapproving description of another woman's appearance, dress sense and language fluency, before reiterating that it would be wrong to say any of those things and therefore she won't say them.
  • Implacable Man: Walter, as Marian sees him in her dream.
  • In Name Only: The late-1990s BBC television version. A letter to the Radio Times wondered why the writer had bothered to keep the same title, so great were the differences in the plot.
  • In Touch with His Feminine Side: Count Fosco, by 1850s standards. He is openly sentimental, very affectionate towards cute animals, and has a taste for tarts, which at the time were considered a treat for women and children. It's interesting that his Worthy Opponent and Villainous Crush, Marian, is as close to being a Tomboy as Victorian writing will allow.
  • I Owe You My Life: Walter rescues Pesca from drowning and Pesca insists on finding some service to do him in return, which is initially played for laughs but becomes very important later.
  • It's All About Me: Frederick Fairlie.
  • Karmic Death: Both of the main villains.
    • Sir Percival Glyde dies while trying to destroy the evidence of the forgery he committed to secure his position, after his lantern starts an accidental fire and the poorly-maintained door traps him in the room. For bonus irony points, his forgery was in a church registry, so it's in a church that he dies.
    • Count Fosco gets away without being punished for his part in the conspiracy against Laura, but is assassinated shortly afterward by agents of a secret society he had previously double-crossed, who got on his trail as a result of Walter's investigations.
  • Love Is a Weakness: Fosco confesses that his esteem for Marian proved to be his only weakness in the affair.
  • The Mafia: Walter's buddy Pesca is a member of an Italian secret society. So was Fosco. They're not happy with him.
  • Malaproper: Professor Pesca does this all the time.
  • Madness Makeover: Laura Fairlie changes appearance after all she suffers at the hands of her husband and Fosco. This change in appearance coincides with a weakening of her mental faculties.
  • Male Gaze: Shamelessly done by Walter on Marian.
  • Names to Trust Immediately: Walter Hartright ("heart-right") and Laura Fairlie ("fairly", although her paternal uncle doesn’t live up to the name).
  • Nice to the Waiter: Sir Percival's treatment of his servants is the first warning sign we get of his Jerkass nature.
  • Oh, Crap!: Fosco's horrified expression when he recognises Pesca at the theatre.
  • One-Paragraph Chapter: "The Narrative of the Tombstone", which happens to be Laura's tombstone.
  • The Ophelia: Anne and Laura. Though their mental health problems are described as rather troubling but Mr Hartright takes great pleasure in taking care of Laura and making her better. Anne's weak and confused mind do not make her attractive at all.
  • Person with the Clothing: The title character is Anne Catherick, whose eccentricities include a determination to dress entirely in white. This gives her something of an eerie appearance, especially since she tends to turn up at night, and one character is explicitly left with the conviction that he's seen a ghost.
  • Polyamory: Hinted at with Walter, Laura, and Marian at the end. Walter and Laura are the main love story, and end up married. Over the course of the novel, Walter and Marian develop a close friendship, and there are occasional hints that Marian loves Walter too but is keeping it to herself so Walter and Laura can be happy together. Nothing explicitly comes of it, but she does end up as a fixed part of Walter and Laura's household.
  • The Reveal: The truth of Professor Pesca is one of many. This is, after all, a serialized sensation novel.
  • Save the Villain: When Sir Percival is trapped in a fire as a consequence of his own actions, Walter tries to rescue him just as he would have done if it were somebody else.
  • Scrapbook Story: The story is assembled out of accounts by a variety of narrators, some from documents like diary entries and letters written at the time of events and others giving eyewitness testimony at a later date.
  • Sexless Marriage: Fortunately for Laura, implied for her and her husband; Sir Percival assures Fosco that there's no chance of Laura producing heirs.
  • Slipping a Mickey: Countess Fosco drugs Laura's maid's drink to search her for the letters she's carrying.
  • Smart People Play Chess: Marian is good at it. When she plays with Count Fosco, she discovers very quickly that he let her win on purpose. She immediately tells him what the hell, he apologizes and utterly destroys her in their next game.
  • Spirited Young Lady: Marian. Intelligent, capable, strong and physically fit. Laura is her Proper Lady Foil and frankly, she pales in the comparison.
  • Stereotype Flip: In the Victorian Era, fat characters were generally jolly comic relief characters. Fosco, however, is the (admittedly still jolly) main villain of the book.
  • Supermodel Strut: Marian walks with an elegant and entrancing strut, according to Fosco and Walter.
    "The easy elegance of every movement of her limbs and body as soon as she began to advance from the far end of the room, set me in a flutter of expectation to see her face clearly"
  • Switching P.O.V.: Various first-person narrations, with a couple of extra bits such as "The Narrative of the Tombstone".
  • Tattooed Crook: Members of the Brotherhood have the mark of the society branded and inked on their upper arm.
  • Tomboy and Girly Girl: Sharp-tongued, resolute and masculine-looking Marian Halcombe and sweet, pretty, demure Laura Fairlie.
  • Uncanny Family Resemblance: The plot turns on the uncanny resemblance between Laura Fairlie and Anne Catherick, who are eventually revealed to be related (Laura's father had a relationship with Anne's mother before he married Laura's mother).
  • Unreliable Expositor: Although all the narrators tell the facts as they know them, some misinterpret what they've seen due to some combination of their own prejudices and their ignorance of the bigger picture. In particular, several characters assert their complete confidence in Count Fosco's integrity and good nature even while their testimony is giving what the reader can recognise as evidence of his wrong-doing.
  • Victoria's Secret Compartment: Used by Fanny to smuggle letters for Marian. Fosco's wife gets them anyway.
  • Villainous BSoD: Fosco has one when Anne dies before Laura has even set out for London. He gets over it, but is well aware of the weak spot it leaves in his master plan.
  • Villainous Glutton: The very evil and hugely fat Fosco.
  • Villains Love Entertainment: Fosco is a huge fan of Italian opera.
  • Weather Report Opening: The narrative (discounting the foreword) begins:
    It was the last day of July. The long hot summer was drawing to a close; and we, the weary pilgrims of the London pavement, were beginning to think of the cloud-shadows on the corn-fields, and the autumn breezes on the sea-shore.
  • When She Smiles: Marian, for all that she's mannish and unfashionably dark-complexioned.
  • Worthy Opponent: Marian Halcombe to Count Fosco. Cue rambling about how intelligent/courageous/perfect she is and how they could rule together under different circumstances (if he wasn't married, and he wasn't trying to get her sister's fortune, for starters). But one has to wonder what part of this comes from pure, candid, objective esteem, independent of the fact that the old goat is in love with her. At least in two occasions when she could have been owned by him, he just lets her off.
  • Writers Cannot Do Math: Collins got annoyed by reviewers who nitpicked about mistakes in dating, which he later fixed in a future edition. He consoled himself by thinking that Shakespeare was guilty of the same thing.
  • Your Approval Fills Me with Shame: Marian's initial reaction upon discovering that Fosco likes her and admires her a lot.

Tropes common to multiple adaptations:

  • Adaptational Attractiveness: Collins is quite clear with his Butter Face description of Marian in the novel. Unsurprisingly, this is never done in adaptations. In the 1948 film she's played by Alexis Smith, in the 1971 German adaptation by Eva Christian, in the 1981 Soviet adaptation by Akvelīna Līvmane, in the 1982 TV adaptation by Diana Quick, in the 1997 TV adaptation by Tara Fitzgerald, in the musical by Ruthie Henshall, and in the 2018 TV adaptation by Jessie Buckley — lovely women all.
    • It's somewhat mitigated in the musical by making Marian unmarried and in her late thirties to early forties after spending her most marriageable years by Victorian standards taking care of their ill uncle, making her less socially advantaged than Laura for a different reason instead of ignoring the discrepancies in their eligibility altogether.

Tropes found in the 1948 film:

  • Affably Evil: Count Fosco, charming and courteous even when his plans involve kidnapping, Mind Rape, and murder. In the 1948 film he has Laura locked in an asylum and is driving her mad, but he still makes the help there be nice to her.
  • Babies Ever After: This version does the novel one better by having both Marian and Laura with babies.
  • Hitler Cam: Used for Fosco as he is explaining the conspiracy to Marian.
  • I Never Got Any Letters: Marian and Laura figure out that Percival intercepted the letters that Laura was sending her about how terrible Percival is.
  • Mind Rape: Fosco is doing this to Laura in the asylum, convincing her that she is actually Anne.
  • Please, I Will Do Anything!: Marian offers to give herself to Count Fosco and run away with him if he will confess and restore Laura to her life. He is in the process of taking her up on it when Walter and the cops arrive.
  • Polyamory: Surprisingly, this is hinted at in the 1948 film even more strongly than it is in the Collins novel. In the film, Walter expresses his love for Marian after earlier expressing it for Laura, and in the end Marian has borne Walter a son, and the whole clan is living together as in the book. Notably, nothing in the movie indicates that Walter is out of love with Laura.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: The character of Professor Pesca is eliminated, Sir Percival is killed accidentally by a Mook, and Count Fosco is killed by his wife the Countess, who turns out to be Anne Catherick's mother (making Laura and Anne cousins, not half-sisters as in the book). And the Sexless Marriage implication of the book is definitely averted, as Laura is pregnant with Percival's child.
  • Thunder Equals Downpour: Marian is standing on a window ledge eavesdropping on Fosco and Percival. One clap of thunder is followed by a drenching rain.
  • Uncanny Family Resemblance: Even more so in the 1948 film, in which they are not half-sisters but cousins.
  • Villainous Glutton: The very evil and hugely fat Fosco. Appropriate casting with Sydney Greenstreet in the 1948 film.

Tropes found in the 1971 German film:

  • Adaptational Context Change: In the novel, Walter and Marian meet the village schoolboy who claims to have seen a ghost when they are already investigating the matter of "the woman in white". Here, Walter hasn't told anyone about the latter by that point, and they hear the story by accident when they bring the schoolmaster birthday gifts.
  • Artistic License – History: Count Fosco hums Radames's aria from Aida. However, Aida premiered eleven years after Collins's novel was even written.

Tropes found in the 1981 Soviet film:

  • Adaptational Angst Upgrade: While in the novel, Walter is a pretty successful and well-known drawing teacher, here, he is extremely hard up, so the position at Limmeridge comes as practically a salvation.
  • Canon Foreigner: The sharp-tongued landlady whose house Walter, Laura and Marian rent while on the run.
    The landlady (reading Walter's false papers): Francis Drake, freelance painter... Ha! Nobody wants to work!
  • Call-Back: At Count Fosco's first appearance he is sitting at the table with his white mice crawling all over him. His last appearance is exactly the same... except that this time he is dead.
  • Character Name Alias: While Walter is in hiding with Marian and Laura, he gives his name as Francis Drake. The landlady doesn’t catch the reference.
  • Heavy Sleeper: Mrs. Vesey. She is always either slumbering or sleeping.
  • Ironic Echo: When Laura's marriage contract is discussed, Mr. Gilmore notes that they can't be sure whether there will be any children, and Mr. Fairlie says: "Is it possible that a young woman would marry a respectable middle-aged man and not bear him a lot of children?" In the ending scene, Mr. Fairlie is being his usual whiny self and hoping that Laura will never have kids because they are just so annoying. Louis says:
    Don't make me laugh, Mr. Fairlie. Is it possible that a young woman would marry a nice young man and not bear him a lot of children?
  • Picnic Episode: Has two of them.
    • Walter, Laura, Marian and Mrs. Vesey have an outing to the seaside (later Played for Drama when Walter walks to the same place alone after learning about Laura's engagement).
    • A much more sinister example at Blackwater Park: Sir Percival, Laura, Count and Countess Fosco, and Marian have a dinner in the open air on the estate's grounds, discussing unsolved crimes.

The musical adaptation provides examples of:

  • Adaptational Villainy: Rather than being illegitimate, Sir Percival's big secret is that he raped Anne Catherick and drowned their bastard child from the rape.
  • Alleged Lookalikes: Laura Fairlie and Anne Catherick are supposed to look similar, but are often played by actresses who look different from one another.
  • Child by Rape: Sir Percival and Anne Catherick had one. Sir Percival drowned it.
  • Villain Song: "You Can Get Away With Anything"
  • Villain Love Song: "The Seduction"
  • Would Hurt a Child: Sir Percival drowned his infant Child by Rape in Blackwater Lake.

Tropes found in the 2018 BBC adaptation:

  • Adaptational Early Appearance: In episode 3, Fosco has a Bathtub Scene, meaning that his Brotherhood mark is on display.
  • Adaptation Personality Change: Laura is given a more quirky personality than the Proper Lady of the book — she sees sounds as colours, and (suggesting that they go swimming) begins to pull her clothes off in front of Walter and Marian.
  • Age Lift: Count Fosco is de-aged from 60 to more like 40.
  • Canon Foreigner: Erasmus Nash, who collects the characters' evidence and advises Walter and Marian how to run their investigation.
  • Composite Character: Pesca is the only member of the Brotherhood we see, and he inflicts their vengeance in person.
  • Forceful Kiss: Fosco plants one on Marian.
  • Shout-Out: The music box that plays Mozart comes from another Collins novel, The Dead Secret.
  • Slipping a Mickey: Prior to drugging Laura's maid, Countess Fosco puts Marian temporarily out of action with the same trick.

Alternative Title(s): The Woman In White