“What’s your favourite book?” Ah, the dreaded question for every book lover out there. There are so many to choose from. Be that as it may, there is one book which unfailingly comes to mind, even though I read it a whole six years ago. If the title of this article didn’t give it away, I’m talking about Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. It’s a novel which is as strangely haunting as its eponymous figure, the lost woman, clad all in white, who has a terrifying story to tell.

Sensation fiction, the Gothic, and the detective novel

As a Year Nine student who loved reading but found the prospect of the classic a daunting and (dare I say it) dull one, I came across this masterpiece at exactly the right time to change my perception. For the first time, I felt that the classic novel could be compulsively readable. Action-packed, The Woman in White has often been hailed as the first ‘sensation novel’, a genre which provoked some scandal at the time due to its presentation of themes like bigamy, murder, and madness — all of which rear their ugly heads in The Woman in White. So it’s no surprise that the novel had me on the edge of my seat; I can only imagine what readers felt like back in 1859, when they had to wait with bated breath for the next weekly instalment to be published. 

This sensationalism joins forces with the Gothic. Picture swirling mists, ominous graveyards, blazing churches, an oppressive stately home, and Romantic heroes lost in a world that’s much darker than the one they dreamed of, and you’re starting to get the idea. Interestingly, we can also recognise elements of detective fiction here, from the presentation of the narrative as a kind of testimony to its revelations about a criminal underworld lurking beneath a veneer of respectability. Alongside Collins’ other best-known work, The Moonstone, the text is often viewed as a precursor to detective novels like Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. 

The story

The Woman in White follows a dashing art teacher, Walter Hartright, as he arrives at Limmeridge House to teach the half-sisters Laura Fairlie and Marian Halcombe. Soon, he finds himself developing a firm friendship with Marian and (naturally) romantic feelings for Laura. Class divides will, however, force the trio apart. Fatally, Laura must honour her father’s dying wish that she marry Sir Percival Glyde, a man she does not love but who is, conveniently, a baronet. So far, so good. It’s your typical doomed love affair. But the situation is complicated by Walter’s increasing awareness of a strange resemblance between Laura and an unknown woman whom he encountered in the opening scene, decked in white as though it were her wedding day.

Despite her love for Walter, Laura marries Percival and moves into their new property, the ominously-named Blackwater. But – shock horror – it turns out that everything is not as it seems. The polished Percival is hiding a secret, which his disconcerting friend, the charismatic Count Fosco, is somehow in on. Walter will become embroiled in the unravelling mystery, as, alongside Marian, he uncovers a secret plot and its connection to the woman in white. It would seem that the chance encounter with the lost woman that begins the novel is not so chance after all, as it comes to define the lives of all three central characters.

The characters: stereotypes or rebels?

Amongst the narrators of The Woman in White are several memorable characters, the proof being that here I am citing them six years on. But are they merely the same old stock figures we see in other books? It’s true that Walter Hartright is the perennial ‘good guy’ (Hartright = ‘heart right’… get it?). Meanwhile, Count Fosco is your typical Machiavellian villain, an eccentric fairytale figure with pet canaries and mice to prove it. Laura Fairlie is the beautiful if passive young woman doomed to an unhappy marriage, Marian Halcombe her devoted spinster sister. 

This oversimplified description belies the innovation of Collins’ characterisation, though. In reality, Marian – the story’s true heroine – is a maverick who firmly rejects gendered expectations, making her one of the most remarkable heroines of 19th century English literature (in my view, at least). Equally, Walter might be our endearing hero, but Collins is unafraid to gently mock his Romantic pretensions. In an early comic scene, Collins has Walter lovingly gaze at Marian’s silhouette as they first meet, only to discover that she is in fact… ugly (God forbid!). In addition, Count Fosco might be a villain, but there is something irresistible and ineffably intelligent about him. I have nothing good to say about Percival Glyde, but even his character is illuminating about the harsh realities of marriage in the 19th century. Imagine an even more tyrannical version of Jane Eyre’s Rochester, the brooding husband with a wife in the attic.


The Woman in White is a tour de force of Victorian literature, but somehow it has faded into oblivion compared to other novels of its kind. We probably all recognise the names of classics like Great Expectations, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and Rebecca, yet I rarely meet anyone who has read The Woman in White. I think it’s about time I did.