‘In one moment, every drop of blood in my body was brought to a stop… There, as if it had that moment sprung out of the earth, stood the figure of a solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in white’
The Woman in White famously opens with Walter Hartright’s eerie encounter on a moonlit London road. Engaged as a drawing master to the beautiful Laura Fairlie, Walter becomes embroiled in the sinister intrigues of Sir Percival Glyde and his ‘charming’ friend Count Fosco, who has a taste for white mice, vanilla bonbons, and poison. Pursuing questions of identity and insanity along the paths and corridors of English country houses and the madhouse, The Woman in White is the first and most influential of the Victorian genre that combined Gothic horror with psychological realism.
Matthew Sweet’s introduction explores the phenomenon of Victorian ‘sensation’ fiction, and discusses Wilkie Collins’s biographical and societal influences. Included in this edition are appendices on theatrical adaptations of the novel and its serialisation history.
The Woman in white by Wilkie Collins
This is the story of a crime committed against a woman. I – Walter Hartright, drawing teacher – have asked several people to contribute narratives. Each narrator will describe what he saw with his own eyes, so that the narrative will be as truthful as possible, and the evidence will be presented as in a court of law.
- Walter Hartright’s narrative
One evening in July 1849, I went to see my mother and sister at their house on Hampstead Heath. My Italian friend Pesca was there, and he had good news for me. He had found me a job in Cumberland in the north of England: four months teaching drawing to the nieces of Mr Frederick Fairlie of Limmeridge House. On the evening before I left for Cumberland, I went to say goodbye to my mother and sister. It was past midnight when I left their house to walk home to my apartment in London. As I stood at the crossroads, I felt someone suddenly touch my arm. I turned around quickly in fear and surprise. There, behind me, stood a woman dressed completely in white.
‘Is this the road to London?’ she asked.
She was young and thin with a pale, worried face. After a pause, I replied, ‘Yes. Sorry for not answering you before. I was surprised to see you – the road was empty just a moment ago.’
She indicated a tree nearby. ‘I hid behind that tree to see what kind of man you were. Don’t worry, I’ve done nothing wrong – but there’s been an accident. Will you help me?’
‘I need to go to London. I have a friend there. Could you help me to get a carriage?’
As we walked together down the London road, looking for a carriage, she said, ‘Do you know any aristocrats?’
‘Some,’ I replied, surprised by her strange question. ‘Why do you ask?’
‘Because I hope that there’s one you don’t know – one who lives in Hampshire.’
‘What’s his name?’
‘I can’t say his name; it upsets me too much! Tell me the names of the aristocrats you know.’
I named three gentlemen in whose houses I had taught drawing.
‘You don’t know him!’ she cried with relief.
‘Has this gentleman treated you badly? Is he the reason you’re here alone at this hour?’
‘I can’t talk about it,’ she said.
We left the Heath and entered an area of houses. After a while she asked me if I lived in London.
‘Yes, but tomorrow I’m going to Cumberland for four months.’
‘Cumberland!’ she cried. ‘I was happy there once, in a village called Limmeridge. A lady called Mrs Fairlie was kind to me, but now she and her husband are both dead…