Wilkie Collins finds the inspiration of 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 estate of this French widow is usurped by her brother. Wilkie Collins is immediately fascinated by this story and resolves to write a story along a similar plotline. He initially plans to set the beginning of the story in Cumberland; but then he reads in the newspaper the story of a patient escaping from an asylum. Thus, he creates the scene where Anne Catherick escaping from the mental asylum in the beginning of the story.
The Woman in White is published as a series in All the Year Round, a magazine owned by Collins’ best friend Charles Dickens. The Woman in White is one of the first sensation novels of the Victorian era. The publication of this novel creates a fever of excitement. Readers would line up on the streets to purchase the story. The story captures everyone’s imagination. A contemporary recalls that “everyone is raving about it, we talk the Woman in White from morning till night”.
The fact that The Woman in White was first published as a serial further heightens the readers’ excitement, out of their impatience to discover the plot in which the next serial publication would bring. The publication of The Woman in White “did wonders for [Dicken’s] magazine, and the weekly portions were read- devoured almost- with absorbing interest”. Shrewd businessmen who are eager to capitalize on The Woman in White fever are quick to produce a line of Woman in White inspired products. The “Woman in White” hats, perfume, dresses and cloaks are being sold. Wilkie Collins becomes known as the “novelist who invented sensation”. The sensation novel as a genre becomes established. Many writers would try to emulate The Woman in White by writing their own sensation novels, such as Lady Audley's Secret.