The Woman in White Book Review: The OG Detective Novel

SPOILERS: The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins, may have been a long and difficult read, but was it worth it? Find out my thoughts, here…

The Woman in White was originally published in 1859, and is described as the first mystery novel ever written. It’s an extremely long book, which requires a bit of an investment of time and effort to read. However, if you’re really into classic novels, and fancy a further challenge, this is definitely the choice for you.

The story, in itself, is pretty confusing. So, before diving into the plots and intricacies of it all, I’ll first be giving an overview of our key characters, and giving some background to the whole thing. So, if you want a taster of what to expect from The Woman in White, as well as some spoilers along the way, keep reading…

The Woman in White Flatlay

My Preconceptions of The Woman in White

The first time I came across this book was at school, in my Year 12 common room. One of our English AS Level tasks was to write two essays; one which was a comparison of two books, and another which was an essay about a solo book. I chose to compare Carrie and Titus Andronicus, and then wrote my solo essay about Life After Life… all fantastic stories.

However, a friend of mine decided to write hers about The Woman in White. I remember thinking at the time:

  1. She was crazy for wanting to write her essay on such a long and old book, when we had the pick of the litter!
  2. This must be the inspiration behind, or a spin-off of, the The Woman in Black, which was a film I loved at the time.

Then, I never thought of it again… it never gripped me, and I was never interested to research a The Woman in White summary. Well, I guess now I know I was very wrong about these two thoughts.

It wasn’t until years later, after reading Rebecca, that I researched books which were like Daphne du Maurier’s classic story, so that I could relive it all over again. I ended up ordering spin-offs of Rebecca, as well as books that the internet deemed similar. Lo-and-behold, The Woman in White made a return into my life.

I’ve had this book stowed away in my bookcase for a good couple of years now. Finally, I have gotten round to reading it, and after going full circle with this, was it all worth it?

The Woman in White Characters

Before we dive into the plot, let’s first delve into some of the key characters within the story first. This way, we can make sure everyone has a bit of background knowledge before reading the plot. Also, if you’re a sneaky school kid who doesn’t want to read the book, but has to study it, this could be your saving grace…

  • Walter Hartright: an artist and art teacher who lives in London, and our protagonist of the story.
  • Professor Pesca: Walter’s best friend, who he once saved from drowning, and who always promises that, one day, he will repay Walter for his kindness.
  • Mr Frederick Fairlie: a frail, house-bound man, who complains of many an illness, and is the owner of Limmeridge House.
  • Miss Laura Fairlie: a beautifully fair young woman, who is the niece of Mr Fairlie, and the heir to his fortune.
  • Miss Marian Halcombe: Laura’s half-sister, who is her complete opposite, and has no fortune, having come from their joint mother’s previous marriage. She is deemed to be one of literature’s most powerful heroines.
  • Anne Catherick: the famous “woman in white”. A simple young woman with learning difficulties, who is undeservedly sent to an asylum more than once.
  • Jane Catherick: Anne’s mother; a once beautiful woman who has now been disgraced by her past.
  • Sir Percival Glyde: the man betrothed to Miss Fairlie, and a deceitful one at that.
  • Count Fosco: Sir Percival’s Italian friend and confidante; a large man of extraordinary kindness to animals, but also of extraordinary intelligence, who is able to manipulate to the maximum.
  • Eleanor Fosco: Miss Fairlie’s aunt, who was stripped of receiving her part of the Fairlie fortune, and is the most bidding wife ever seen.

There are a number of other characters we see throughout the novel, who help and hinder our heroes and heroines along the way. However, these are our most important characters, who I think will be useful in helping you to understand the plot, as follows…

Close-Up of The Woman in White

What is the Story Behind The Woman in White?

Our story begins with Walter Hartright, who stumbles across a new job, which would take him up North, to Limmeridge House. Here, he would be paid to teach young Miss Fairlie to paint and draw.

The night of his departure from London, he is walking along a quiet, deserted road at night, when he is startled by a young, disheveled woman, dressed in white. She asks him if he knows how to get to the city from there, and he obliges to take her there, as this is the direction he is taking.

On arriving in the city, the woman rushes to find transport to a friend’s house, thanks him, and disappears off into the night. However, he later discovers that this woman dressed in white escaped from an asylum, and he fears he may have helped a dangerous fugitive escape. But, life goes on…

When he arrives at Limmeridge House, he spends many happy days there with Miss Fairlie, and her half-sister, Marian Halcombe. So much so, that he forgets about that dreaded night with the woman in white.

That said, falling in love with Miss Fairlie is the last thing they all expect, especially considering his low social position, and her betrothal to Sir Percival Glyde. With all this, Hartright is obliged to leave the two women for good, to allow for Miss Fairlie to follow her father’s wishes, and become Lady Glyde.

However, they could not have expected Sir Percival’s ability to dupe them and, when they’re finally married, his methods become clear. With money problems to boot, it’s evident that their marriage was a simple trick to ensure he retrieved Lady Glyde’s fortune.

The woman in white – Anne Catherick – also returns to the picture, when we discover her links to Sir Percival, as well as the Fairlie family. When Sir Percival and his house guest and friend, Count Fosco, wrap themselves up in more deceit than they can handle, it’s up to Hartright to save the day. His will to investigate the facts, so as to bring justice to Lady Glyde and Miss Halcombe, causes many unexpected twists in the tale.

It’s a story of mistaken identity, thievery, a false death, heroes and villains, trickery, lies, and misfortune. What more could you want?

The Woman in White with a Cat

What Genre is The Woman in White?

The Woman in White, as you can probably tell, covers a wide range of genres, including romance, mystery, crime, and ‘murder’ (see how I put that in inverted commas?? If you know, you know). However, although The Woman in White themes might be a little difficult to pinpoint, in some ways, critics call this the very first detective novel!

Some elements of detective fiction throughout the text include false murders, an intense investigation, and a crime to be stamped out. That said, the book is also regarded as one of the trigger “sensation novels”; a collection of stories from the Victorian era which are characterised by having a secret to unveil.

The book is certainly full of intrigue, and I would say more than one secret to unravel along the way! There is also a fair bit of action, with some very interesting plot lines and characters to get your teeth stuck into. This is certainly a meaty choice for someone in lockdown, right about now…

What is the Secret in The Woman in White?

So, now we know that The Woman in White is regarded as a “sensation novel”, that means there must be a big secret, right? Well, you would be correct in thinking this, and here are where the SPOLIERS really begin…


Perhaps you’ve gotten halfway through The Woman in White, and the amount of pages left has left you daunted and unable to complete it? Or, perhaps you never want to read the story, and are just curious as to what the big secret could be? Well, if you are planning on reading it, this is where you should cover your eyes…

There are a number of interesting secrets to unravel throughout the story. However, there’s one secret that could become the destruction of our story’s villain.

When Hartright is forced to investigate further to bring our villains to defeat, he discovers that Sir Percival’s position as a “Sir” has been completely falsified. In fact, on discovering his father and mother were never married, many years ago, he faked his parent’s marriage records so as to ensure he inherited his father’s fortune.

So, this meant that Percival had committed a majorly fraudulent act. Fortunately, in finding out this trinket of information, Hartright could then use it to bring the terrible lies and deceit to end.

Okay, you can look again now! Perhaps I’ve said too much?


The Woman in White Book

My Thoughts on the Novel

In all honesty, the story of The Woman in White was very long, and I felt as though nothing much happened, considering its length. Yes, there were many twists and turns, and it was interesting and shocking to read some parts (if you know, you know). However, unless you’re really on the hunt for a challenge, this one is probably not the choice for you.

Yes, I’m glad I read it, and feel as though I’ve certainly accomplished no mean feat! But, if you’re not an avid reader, and prefer an easier go at it, perhaps this isn’t the one for you.

Have you read The Woman in White, and have any thoughts to add? I’d love to hear how you found this book, and whether you thought the long read was worth it. Let me know, and thanks for reading!

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