A drawing teacher, aged twenty-eight, Walter Hartright is from a middle-class background. However, Walter is not financially well-off and is living in rather strained circumstances. He is out of work at the beginning of the novel, and only secured a position as a drawing teacher under the recommendation of his Italian friend Pesco. Walter is the embodiment of the typical Victorian middle-class man. He is brave, industrious, truthful, diligent, resourceful, kind-hearted, and possesses a high degree of integrity. He often displays the Victorian male’s patronizing attitude towards woman, as is exemplified by his infantilizing treatment of Laura Fairlie. Walter’s love and eventual marriage with the wealthy heiress Laura challenges Victorian class prejudices, in which a middle-class person climbs the social ladder by marrying into the upper class and inheriting a huge property. In the story, he acts as the male protector of the weak and self-effacing Laura. He truly takes Laura’s interests to heart and successfully destroys the evil plots of Sir Percival and Fosco. He is also the confidant of Laura’s half-sister Marian Halcombe. Walter is the narrator and the editor of the story. His role as the main narrator of the story gives him an important position in the storytelling of this novel. His views, beliefs, attitudes and prejudice play an important role in shaping the readers’ perception of the narrative.
An exceptionally beautiful twenty-year-old heiress. She is the main heroine of the story who undergoes many trials and tribulations before achieving happiness at the end. Laura is the typical damsel in distress figure. In the story, she endures unhappiness, heartbreak, imprisonment, poison, physical abuse, the loss of her legal identity and her social position. Laura is an orphan who lives under the guardianship of her invalid uncle Frederick Fairlie. She also lives in the company of her half-sister Marian. Laura Fairlie embodies the qualities and the virtues of a Victorian upper-class lady. She is kind-hearted, truthful and obedient. Her facial features are delicate and soft, her demeanor quiet and unassuming, and her bearing is always dignified and graceful. Laura is an accomplished musician and is fond of painting. Her penchant for white dresses, flowers and music turns her into a living symbol of docility, beauty and grace, which are highly prized female characteristics in the Victorian era. Laura’s extreme femininity makes her self-effacing and weak. She is incapable of defending her interests without the protection of Walter, Marian and her lawyer. Laura falls in love with her drawing teacher but is compelled to marry the middle-aged baronet Sir Percival Glyde. After her marriage, Laura is completely under the control of her husband and his co-conspirator Fosco and her happiness and vitality are completely destroyed by her unhappy marriage. She is unable to resist the evil devices of her enemies without the protection of Marian and Walter. She is drugged by Fosco and is incarcerated in an asylum under the name of Anne Catherick. She briefly loses her wits under the influence of drugs and incarceration. Laura eventually regains her social position after the evil plots of her enemies are overturned. She marries Walter, and her son inherits Limmeridge House after Frederick Fairlie’s death.
Marian Fairlee, Laura's half-sister, is one of Victorian literature’s most memorable and powerful heroines. Marian and Laura are contrasting characters. Laura is beautiful, artistically talented, self-effacing and weak; while Marian is physically plain, strong-willed, resolute, brave and strong. Marian possesses a beautiful feminine form but has very masculine facial features. Unlike the wealthy Laura, Marian has no fortune of her own, and displays little inclination to get married. Marian is Laura’s chief protector; she continues to live with Laura even after her marriage. She is fiercely devoted to her sister and is resolved to undertake every measure to protect Laura’s interests and to frustrate the designs of Laura’s enemies. Marian challenges the Victorian gender expectation which requires women to be meek and compliant towards men. Marian is not only a powerful woman, she is often described as being more powerful than many of the male characters. Her bravery and intelligence are such that even her arch enemy Fosco is impressed by her. Marian’s sudden illness in the middle of the story robs Laura of her only protector.
Frederick is the uncle and the guardian of Laura Fairlie and Marian Halcombe, and also the head of Limmeridge House. He completely fails in his obligations as Laura's guardian and protector. He does not take Laura’s interests to heart and is unwilling to arrange a favorable marriage settlement for Laura. He is totally blind and indifferent to the fact that Sir Percival only wants to marry Laura out of mercenary motives. Even with knowledge of Laura’s unwillingness to contract the marriage, he still insists that the marriage should go ahead as planned.
Frederick Fairlie is an extremely selfish, self-absorbed man. He is portrayed as a useless invalid who is a bundle of nerves. He is effeminate and cannot withstand any external stimuli and shock. He is extremely sensitive to sound, light and physical exertion. He is wealthy and has amassed a huge collection of paintings and artwork. He has taste in artwork and hires Walter to instruct his nieces in sketching. Overall, he is a caricature of the wealthy upper-class man whose only ability lays in his appreciation of the aesthetic. Through his character, Collins pokes fun at the idle Victorian aristocrats who are obsessed with aesthetics, but are incapable of any useful labor and socially-productive activity. At the end of the novel, Frederick Fairle dies, and his property passes on to Laura, Walter, and their newborn son.
Anne Catherick is the mysterious "woman in white" whom Walter meets in the middle of the night at the beginning of the novel. She always dresses from head to toe in white clothing. Unbeknownst to her, she is the illegitimate child of Laura’s father. It is therefore not surprising that, as Laura’s half-sister, she bears a striking physical resemblance to Laura. Anne’s mysterious appearance in the middle of the night, her white dress, and her resemblance to Laura endow the storyline with an uncanny atmosphere, in keeping with the Gothic literary style of the novel.
Anne is the most pitiable character of the story. She is the unloved and unwanted child of Jane Catherick and Laura’s father. Unloved by her mother, fleeing from the persecution of Percival and suffering from a fatal heart illness, Anne has endured great hardship in her short life. As Walter observes, the mark of unhappiness and suffering is deeply stamped in her face. Laura’s mother was ignorant of Anne’s true parentage and enrolled Anne in her school. Mrs. Fairlie was extremely kind and attentive to Anne, and gave her a white dress. Anne resolves to always wear white as a token of gratitude and affection towards Mrs. Fairlie. Anne is described by many people as being mentally underdeveloped and queer in her conduct. But as Walter Hartright observes, there is nothing wild and deranged in her demeanor. Anne is incarcerated by Sir Percival in the asylum because he fears that she has discovered his faking of his parents’ marriage registrar. Anne cares for Laura’s happiness and tries to warn her about the dark side of the man to whom she is engaged. Anne suffers from a heart disease and dies while attempting to visit Laura in London. Percival and Fosco take advantage of Anne’s resemblance to Laura and bury her under the name of Laura Fairlie, which enables them to inherit Laura’s property. The portrayal of Anne’s mistreatment in the mental asylum acts as an indictment of the mistreatment of mentally unstable people during the Victorian era.
Jane is Anne Catherick’s mother. She was once an extremely beautiful woman. Young, lively and flirtatious, she caught the eye of Laura’s father and had an affair with him, resulting in the birth of Anne. Jane is a vain, strong-willed, ambitious woman who lusts after riches and luxury. She embodies the image of the scheming, unscrupulous social climber of the Victorian era. In Jane’s own words, she has the “taste of a lady”. She takes great delight in the expensive gifts which rich men showered on her. The readers only know that the late Mr. Fairlie was her lover, but it is possible that Jane had other rich lovers in her life. Sir Percival succeeds in bribing her to obtain the key to the church registrar, because her husband was a church official. Her husband abandons her after he wrongly suspects Percival to be her lover. Jane finds out about Percival’s illegitimacy and his faking of his parents’ marriage record. Percival pays Mrs. Catherick a handsome annuity, which enables her to live in dignity and comfort. Jane Catherick’s riches have restored her respectability in the eyes of her neighbors. She takes great pride in her social position and the fact that even the clergyman bows to her. Mrs. Catherick’s high position in her neighborhood shows that money could buy one’s dignity and respectability in Victorian era, even if that person’s past had been sinful and scandalous.
Sir Percival Glyde
Percival is Laura Fairlie’s husband, and one of the two important villains of the story. He is the lesser villain in comparison to Fosco. Percival is not shy about committing crimes, but he lacks the sophisticated criminal skills of Fosco. He relies on Fosco to plot and execute his evil schemes. Percival is the illegitimate child of the late Sir Percival and a woman of low rank. Percival fakes his parents’ marriage record and usurps the possession of the baronetcy and the grand estate of Blackwater Park, neither of which he is entitled to. Percival is heartless, brutal, unscrupulous and completely without human compassion. He marries Laura out of purely mercenary motives and treats her in a disgraceful manner after the marriage by subjecting her to physical abuse, poisoning and imprisonment. He is the embodiment of the scheming illegitimate child who craves wealth and social position. His mistreatment of Laura sheds light on the mistreatment and abuses of women during the Victorian era. Percival is also an accomplished dissembler. He assumes the most pleasing manners during his courtship with Laura. Both Laura and Marian are deceived by his dissembling facade. Percival’s two-faced behavior shows that the civilized and polished Victorian manners often conceal the most hideous human character. Percival tries to destroy the faked marriage record by fire, and is burnt to death in the flames. His death frees Laura from this horrible marriage and enables her to marry her true love.
He is an Italian exile, who was a member of an Italian secret organization dedicated to destroying tyranny and oppression. Fosco was unfaithful to the organization and fled abroad to escape persecution by it. He lives in constant fear of being assassinated by a member of this organization. Fosco has Napoleonic features and is extremely fat. He is a brilliant villain and a fascinating character. He is intelligent, cultured, worldly, sophisticated, well-travelled and well versed in different languages and culture. He is skillful in the use of poison, and is responsible for drugging Laura. He is a consummate dissembler who assumes the most pleasing manners, such that even the perceptive Marian is briefly blinded to his real character. Fosco holds English morality in contempt and considers himself to be free from the restriction of English bourgeois morality. He is the embodiment of the culturally sophisticated but morally dubious European, who stands in sharp contrast to the virtuous English gentleman such as Walter Hartright. Fosco is assassinated by a member of the secret Italian organization at the end of the novel.
An Italian who makes a living by teaching Italian in England. He is high-spirited and carefree. Pesca was saved from drowning by Walter and becomes his best friend. At the start of the novel, Pesca secures for Walter a teaching position in Limmeridge House. Pesca is also a high-ranking member of the Italian secret organization. He is deeply devoted to Walter and plays a key role in helping him to overturn Fosco’s evil plot.
Eleanor Fosco is Laura Fairle’s aunt, and the sister of the late Philip Fairlie. She was a high-spirted, vivacious and flirtatious woman who once advocated for women’s rights. However, she is completely tamed by her husband Fosco and becomes a compliant woman who is unconditionally devoted to her husband. Her marriage to Count Fosco causes her to fall out with Laura’s father. She is entitled to inherit ten thousand pounds should Laura fail to produce an heir.
A middle-aged woman who is Anne Catherick’s best friend and companion. Mrs. Clements is deeply devoted to Anne and sympathizes deeply with her misfortune and suffering. Mrs. Clements takes great pain to protect Anne and keep her safe from Percival's persecution.
Mr. Gilmore is the solicitor for the Failie family. Like Walter Hartright, Mr. Gilmore also embodies Victorian middle-class virtues. He is industrious, responsible and takes a keen interest in Laura’s welfare. He is determined to negotiate a more favorable marriage settlement for Laura and tries to warn Frederick Fairlie of Percival’s mercenary motives in his forthcoming marriage.
Walter's sister. She is unmarried and lives with her mother in Hampstead.
Walter's widowed mother.
Laura's governess, who continues to live at Limmeridge House and act as a companion to Laura and Marian. Mrs. Vesey is very calm and placid. While good-intentioned, she is also ineffective and doesn't provide protection or good advice to Laura, leaving her vulnerable.
The young schoolboy who claims to have seen a woman in white in the graveyard at night, and believes her to have been the ghost of Mrs. Fairlie.
The town schoolteacher
A relation of Mrs. Clements who lives on a farm near Limmeridge House. She allows Mrs. Clements and Anne to stay with her after Anne's escape.
A lawyer who works as Sir Percival Glyde's solicitor. He is involved in negotiating the marriage contract with Mr Gilmore and advocating for Sir Percival's interests.
A servant at Blackwater Park; she is stupid, insolent, and greedy. Because she can readily be manipulated, she is one of the only servants allowed to remain as Fosco and Sir Percival put their conspiracy into action.
Laura's personal maid during her time at Blackwater Park. She is dismissed by Sir Percival when he becomes paranoid that his wife knows his secret. Marian gives her letters to convey to London about the dangerous circumstances but Fanny is drugged by the Countess and the letters are tampered with.
Mrs. Eliza Michelson
The housekeeper at Blackwater Park; she is the wife of a clergyman, and very concerned with social appearances and her reputation. She is suspicious of some of what she observes happening as Fosco and Percival put their plot into motion, but does little to interfere.
The local doctor who treats Marian during her illness. He is antagonized by Count Fosco and eventually stops treating Marian as a result of this conflict. Later, he stands bail so that Walter can be set free after his arrest.
A woman hired by Count Fosco to serve as a nurse during Marian's illness. It is later revealed that she is a co-conspirator in the plot.
A cook who is hired in London to work at Count Fosco's house. She contributes part of the narrative by explaining what happened after Lady Glyde (Anne) arrived in London.
The London doctor who attends Lady Glyde (Anne) after she falls ill at Count Fosco's house. He is with her when she dies, and registers the death himself, leading to the record that contradicts the dates between Laura's departure and the supposed death of Lady Glyde.
The woman who prepares the body of Lady Glyde (Anne) for burial.
A lawyer who is the assistant to Mr. Gilmore who takes over during Mr. Gilmore's long absence, thus becoming involved in advising about many of the details of Laura's case.
A lawyer who also has a role in keeping the parish records. It is at his office that Walter locates the duplicate copy of the marriage register, establishing Sir Percival's forgery.
The Woman in White Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Woman in White is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.