Mysteries and Writing

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

Posted on: June 21st, 2013 by Sylvia Sarno No Comments


Mystery thriller The Woman in White was written by one of my favorite writers, Wilkie Collins (1824-1889).  The Woman in White (1860) and The Moonstone (1868) are Collins’ best known works. The poet T.S. Eliot famously said that The Moonstone is “the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective a genre invented by Collins and not by Poe." I will post about this intriguing book a later time.

Not only did Collins invent the modern detective genre, he created, in The Woman in White (WiW), the first legal thriller, and, I think, the first novel in Western literature with a heroine who explicitly defends a woman’s right to her own life. (If I am mistaken on one or both of these counts, please correct me in the Comments section below.)

Collins based WiW, and many of his other novels, on the legal knowledge he gained studying to be a lawyer, a profession he never actually practiced. In the preface to the second edition of WiW, Collins acknowledges the importance of the law to his story. He says, “A solicitor of great experience in his profession most kindly and carefully guided my steps whenever the course of the narrative led me into the labyrinth of the law.” And “All the proof-sheets which referred to legal matters were corrected by his hand before the story was published.”

In the hands of a lesser writer, the events in the novel would seem fantastic (an asylum escapee who begs the hero’s help, later becomes a central part of the plot; and Count Fosco’s true profession). Through the careful crafting of life-like characters, and a law-inspired, complex plot, Collins makes WiW believable.

The unfair legal treatment of women in Victorian England, appears in several of Collins’s novels, including WiW, No Name, and Armadale.

WiW is the story of a man’s legal journey to outwit the mastermind of an elaborate plot to steal his beloved’s identity. This could be the first example of identity theft in a western novel. (Again, if I am mistaken, please correct me.)

Walter Hartwright, a poor drawing teacher, falls in love with his student, the rich and beautiful Laura Fairlie. Laura cannot have her beloved Walter because she’s already engaged to Sir Percival Glyde, whom she dislikes and fears. Bound by her Victorian morals of duty and a woman’s limited place in the world, Laura does not abide her sister, Marian Halcomb’s advice to flout social convention and break off the engagement.

A formidable plan to safeguard Glyde’s secret and wrest him control of Laura’s fortune is hatched. Legal step by legal step, the excitement mounts. Reminiscent of Dr. Richard Kimble’s plight in The Fugitive, Walter Hartwright strives to outwit Glyde and his partner in crime, the singular Count Fosco.

Does Walter succeed? Or will his life and the lives of his loved ones be forever shattered?

Read this page-turning novel to find out!

More about Collins and his work at

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