December 26, 2023

#08-369: The Woman in White

Walter Hartright is accosted by the Woman in
White on a lonely road--at night (Wikimedia)

Note: Wilkie Collins was a popular novelist, but this and The Moonstone are his two best-known works.

Get Ready: Have you ever had someone tap you on the shoulder (or otherwise get your attention) when you thought no one was there? What happened?

Not too long ago I wrote about The Moonstone by a sort of minor Dickens, English author Wilkie Collins (see Lesson #08-351). I've just finished reading his other greatest hit, The Woman in White (1860).

Both books were ahead of their time in being sort of detective novels--decades before Sherlock Holmes. And both are often found on "best novels" lists today.

Drawing teacher Walter Hartright is walking on the outskirts of London one dark night when he is startled by a frail woman all dressed in white. After he gives her directions, he learns she has just escaped from an asylum.

He is hired by the invalid Mr. Frederick Fairlie of Limmeridge, a country house, to teach Fairlie's niece Laura, who bears a striking resemblance to the mysterious woman in white. Inevitably, Hartright and Laura fall in love, but do not act on, or even speak of, their feelings. That's just as well, as Laura's formidable half-sister Marian tells Hartright that Laura is engaged to Sir Percival Glyde, a baronet from another area of England. Marian recommends Hartright to resign his position and return to London before there's any trouble.

Hartright learns that the woman in white is one Anne Catherick, who once lived at Limmeridge and was a somewhat-dim special student of Laura's late mother, Lady Fairlie, who had recommended she wear white.

Anne writes Laura an anonymous letter, warning her that Sir Percival is an evil man. (We learn it was he who had Anne committed to the asylum, and can't be sure if he's really evil, or just seems so to Anne.) Laura tells Sir Percival about the letter, which he explains away, and she confesses that she had been distracted by another man, without naming him, but Glyde says he forgives her, and the marriage goes through.

Heartbroken Hartright, meanwhile, takes a job with a scientific expedition in Honduras to get away from reminders of Laura.

Of the many interesting characters in the book, the most interesting to me is a great, corpulent Italian named Count Fosco, with a larger-than-life personality. He and Sir Percival--who actually is evil toward Laura after the marriage--hatch a plot to strip Laura of her inheritance (Fosco is married to Laura's aunt, and believes she has some claim on Laura's family's wealth). It is up to a returned Hartright to foil their plans.

Hartright learns that the dastardly duo has locked up Anne because (they believe) she knows a secret that could destroy Sir Percival. Hartright discovers it: Glyde was in fact born illegitimate and thus was not the true heir of Blackwater Park, the estate where he lives.

The two schemers take advantage of Anne's mental and physical weakness and let her die of heart trouble, meanwhile locking Laura up in her place in the asylum as "Anne." (The resemblance is explained later: Laura's father was a philanderer, and Anne is Laura's unacknowledged half-sister.) With Laura supposedly dead, Sir Percival inherits her wealth (as does Fosco's wife, Laura's aunt) and it looks like they're home free.

But Glyde dies in a fire caused by his attempt to cover up his crime, and Fosco is killed by a secret political sect of which he is a member. With them gone, Blackwater Park devolves to its rightful heir, a distant cousin. And Hartright and Laura are free to marry.

Later, when Laura's uncle Frederick Fairlie dies, Hartright and Laura's infant son, Walter (Junior), inherits Limmeridge and the couple--with Marian, who was Hartright's main support in his investigations--move in to the estate.


Practice: Match the term to its definition:

Term Definition
  1. asylum
  2. corpulent
  3. devolves
  4. frail
  5. illegitimate
  6. inevitably
  7. invalid
  8. outskirts
  9. resemblance
  10. strip (of)
  1. passes on
  2. born outside a marriage
  3. a hospital for the insane
  4. a disabled person
  5. similar appearance
  6. weak
  7. take away (from)
  8. as was certain to happen
  9. overweight
  10. the edge (of a city)

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for December 26, 2023

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. c; 2. i; 3. a; 4. f; 5. b; 6. h; 7. d; 8. j; 9. e; 10. g