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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. While on the road to the house 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:

  • 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.
  • Arranged Marriage: Percival Glyde to Laura Fairlie.
  • Aristocrats Are Evil: The two antagonists are a Count and a Baronet.
  • Author Appeal: Collins found the female form most beautiful when viewed from behind, so we got mention of Marian having a beautiful backside.
  • Awesome Mc Coolname: Isidor Ottavio Baldassare Fosco.
  • Babies Ever After: A common Victorian cliche, and perhaps more peculiar than most in this novel, as Laura has been the Ill Girl for most of it.
  • 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.
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  • 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.
  • 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 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 detailed while she stands at the window. Then she turns around and... but her face. Walter didn't expect her to be ugly.
    • Girls with Moustaches: Marian Halcombe has one. It's part of her being more than simply plain.
    • When She Smiles: But for all that she's mannish and unfashionably dark-complexioned.
  • Celebrity Resemblance: Fosco looks like a taller and fatter Napoléon Bonaparte (according to Marian, who's narrating at the time).
  • Chekhov's Gun: Pesca, who ends up being responsible for Fosco's death.
    • Also the tricky lock of the church vestry at Welmingham, which is carefully yet casually mentioned a few chapters before Sir Percival gets himself stuck in the burning vestry and dies.
  • Contrived Coincidence: Half the novel runs on this. But it was written in Victorian England, so nobody is surprised.
  • Dastardly Whiplash: Sir Percival Glyde is this, involved in the standard financial scheming and wife imprisonment.
  • 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.
  • Dead Person Impersonation: Laura replacing Anne in the Asylum toward the end of the book.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Epistolary Novel: Though it's more in the form of diary entries rather than letters.
  • 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.
  • Genius Sweet Tooth: Fosco, unless it's just part of his Villainous Gluttony.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 Fairly 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.
  • 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, which is initially played for laughs but becomes very important later.
  • Ill Girl: Anne, Marian and Laura all take their turns. In Anne's case it's a heart condition; Marian gets soaked in the rain and promptly comes down with typhoid fever; and Laura takes months to recover from what Fosco's machinations did to her.
  • Implacable Man: Walter, as Marian sees him in her dream.
  • It's All About Me: Frederick Fairlie.
  • Karmic Death: Yes. You can probably guess who.
  • 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. So was Fosco. They're not happy with him.
  • Malaproper: Professor Pesca does this all the time.
  • Male Gaze: Shamelessly done by Walter on Marian.
  • Names to Trust Immediately: Walter Hartright ("heart-right").
  • 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
  • Polyamory: Hinted at with Walter, Laura, and Marian at the end.
  • The Reveal: The truth of Professor Pesca is one of many. This is, after all, a serialized sensation novel.
  • Sexless Marriage: Fortunately for Laura, implied for her and her husband; Sir Percival assures Fosco that there's no chance of Laura producing heirs.
  • Sexy Walk: Marian has one, according to Fosco.
  • Slipping a Mickey: Countess Fosco drugs Laura's maid 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.
  • Sweet Tooth: Fosco loves sweets.
  • 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: Marian the Tomboy and Laura the Girly Girl.
  • Uncanny Family Resemblance: Two half-sisters (not Marian and Laura), except in the 1948 film in which they are not sisters but cousins.
  • 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. Appropriate casting with Sydney Greenstreet in the 1948 film.
  • 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.
  • You Got Spunk: Marian, in Fosco's opinion. And he likes spunk.
  • 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 1997 TV adaptation by Tara Fitzgerald, in the musical by Ruthie Henshall, and in the 2018 TV adaptation by Jessie Buckley — lovely women all.

Tropes found in the 1948 film:

  • 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 = Downpour: Marian is standing on a window ledge eavesdropping on Fosco and Percival. One clap of thunder is followed by a drenching rain.

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: Walter, Marian and Laura’s sharp-tongued landlady.
  • Cerebus Retcon: 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:

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.


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