Wilkie Collins found the inspiration for The Woman in White from a French book entitled Recueil des causes célèbres. In this book, there is a story of a French widow who is drugged by her brother and then imprisoned in a mental asylum under a false name. The brother then usurps her estate. Wilkie Collins was immediately fascinated by this story and resolved to write a story with a similar plotline. He initially planned to set the beginning of the story in Cumberland, but then read in the newspaper the story of a patient escaping from an asylum. Thus, he created the scene where Anne Catherick escapes from the mental asylum in the beginning of the story.
The Woman in White was published as a series in All the Year Round, a magazine owned by Collins’ best friend Charles Dickens. The novel was published in 40 weekly installments between November 26, 1859 and August 25, 1860. In the United States, the novel was serialized in Harper's Magazine during the same time period. The Woman in White's serial form further heightened the readers’ excitement, out of their impatience to discover the plot developments that the next installment would bring. The publication of The Woman in White drove up sales for the magazine, and inspired a great deal of public interest. The novel was published in its entirety as a three-volume edition in the summer of 1860, before the final weekly installment appeared in a magazine, in hopes that readers would buy the three-volume novel in order to find out the conclusion as quickly as possible.
The Woman in White was one of the first sensation novels of the Victorian era, and Collins is widely credited as one of the central authors of this genre. Sensation novels rely on the premise that seemingly respectable individuals may be hiding dramatic secrets, often with an emphasis on adultery, bigamy (being married to more than one person at the same time), or illegitimacy. They usually feature suspenseful and dramatic plots. Sensation novels became increasingly prominent through the 1860s; in 1851, the Matrimonial Causes Act had made it easier to obtain a divorce, and debate around this law had revealed that there was often a dark underside to domestic and family life. By the 1860s, technological changes such as the expansion of the railroad also made plotlines in which characters travelled rapidly and secretly much more feasible than they had ever been before.
Shrewd businessmen were eager to capitalize on The Woman in White fever. The “Woman in White” hats, perfume, dresses and cloaks were sold successfully. The dramatic plot of the novel also made it a popular choice for adaptations. By 1860, there was already a popular theatrical adaptation capitalizing on the novel's success. Stage adaptations have continued since then, notably including Andrew Lloyd Webber's 2004 musical adaptation. Film adaptations appeared as early as 1912, with a silent film adaptation; this was followed by several Hollywood adaptations and a BBC mini series adaptation. A number of modern novelists have also been interested in returning to some of the key themes that Collins's explores, and updating them from a contemporary perspective. Sarah Waters, for example, updates and interprets many of the plot features in her 2002 Neo-Victorian novel Fingersmith.