Wilkie Collins’s classic thriller took the world by storm on its first appearance in 1859, with everything from dances to perfumes to dresses named in honor of the “woman in white.” The novel’s continuing fascination stems in part from a distinctive blend of melodrama, comedy, and realism; and in part from the power of its story.
The catalyst for the mystery is Walter Hartright’s encounter on a moonlit road with a mysterious woman dressed head to toe in white. She is in a state of confusion and distress, and when Hartright helps her find her way back to London she warns him against an unnamed “man of rank and title.” Hartright soon learns that she may have escaped from an asylum and finds to his amazement that her story may be connected to that of the woman he secretly loves. Collins brilliantly uses the device of multiple narrators to weave a story in which no one can be trusted, and he also famously creates, in the figure of Count Fosco, the prototype of the suave, sophisticated evil genius. The Woman in Whiteis still passed as a masterpiece of narrative drive and excruciating suspense.