The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins –  A Book Review


The Woman in White - Cover from 1890

The Woman in White – Cover from 1890

Walter Hartwright, a young drawing master, takes a late evening walk along a London bound road.  Suddenly a young woman dressed in white approaches behind him. Despite the late hour, she asks if she can still get transport into London. This is done. Before she goes, the young woman asks Hartwright not to tell anyone about seeing her.  Later on, Hartwright learns who she is and how she came to be on the road at such a late hour…It is this story of the woman in white which made Wilkie Collins famous.

The Woman in White appeared as a serial in “All the Year Round” magazine in November 1859 and was published in 40 installments. It was published in three volumes in 1860; a single volume edition followed the next year. The story was widely read by British society and related promotional products were sold. (Quite like what we see for popular book or TV series today!)


Wilkie Collins – caricature by Frederick Waddy, 1872

The story is told by a few different narrators. We hear from Marion Halcombe in her diary, the Fairlie family attorney Vincent Gilmore, Count Fosco, household servants among others. With each character’s narrative, the reader sees how events unfold. Murder, greed, deception, romance, and marriage–these are just a few elements in the story. The investigation of Anne Catherick’s (the name of the young woman attired in white whom Hartwright met on the road) past is an early example of the mystery solving element Collins would later further develop in his 1868 novel The Moonstone. Once I started reading the novel, I didn’t want to put it down! The narrations flow well from one character to the next.

Each character tells their respective part without restrictions so there are times you may doubt the veracity of the individual’s account.  I read the novel in two days on the bus ride during my vacation in France.

I was introduced to the novel watching an adaptation of it on PBS’s “Masterpiece Theater” on Sunday evening years ago.  It featured Tara Fitzgerald as Marion Fairlie and Simon Callow as Count Fosco. I watched with interest–the story line was great. One of the scenes I remember best is Sir Percival Glyde demanding his young wife Laura to sign a document and refuses to answer what are its contents. When Sir Percival presses her, Count Fosco interrupts by saying he refuses to be a witness. Later Marion discovers Count Fosco isn’t someone to be trusted after all.


I bought a Penguin Classics edition of the novel at Gibert Jeune, a French bookstore chain, in Paris during my group travel tour last month.  (There was a floor for foreign language books)  The edition I own includes notes and introduction by Matthew Sweet, appendixes, chronology of Collins’s life, and reprints of prefaces Collins wrote to the 1860 and 1861 editions. Penguin’s version was published in 1999 followed by a 2003 update.

Because of the success with The Woman in White, it has been performed on stage and screen. Collins wrote the stage version that was first performed on October 9, 1871 at the Olympic Theater. Today it can be seen as a musical.

Several TV adaptations have been made. The most recent was in 1997 by the BBC and was broadcasted on “Masterpiece Theater” for US audiences in March 1998.  Then host Russell Baker provided the commentary.  (Scroll down to see a short biography of him)

The novel is still available in print and online.

I wish PUBLIB readers a wonderful holiday season and plenty of reading!

Link of Interest

Wilkie Collins Information Pages: website about Collins and his works

Frederick Waddy


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