The Woman in White

The Woman in White Summary and Analysis of Mr. Fairlie's Narrative and the Housekeeper's Narrative


Frederick Fairlie's narrative begins with him complaining about being inconvenienced by being asked to think back to his memories of this time period. He recalls having been interrupted by the news that Fanny has arrived bearing a letter from Marian. When she speaks with him, Fanny explains that after receiving the letters from Marian at the inn, she was surprised by the arrival of the Countess Eleanor. The Countess insisted on making tea for Fanny, and after Fanny drank some, she fainted. She awoke to find herself alone, and while she still had the letters, they appeared to have been opened and read. Fanny has nonetheless sent the one letter on to the lawyer, and now delivered the other to Frederick herself.

Upon reading the letter, Frederick is hesitant to interfere. He does not want to get caught up in a conflict between Laura and her husband, and he replies to Marian suggesting that she first come and see him alone so that they can discuss the situation. Three days after sending this reply, Frederick receives word from the lawyer that he has received an envelope addressed from Marian but containing only a blank piece of paper. He is concerned as to what this could mean, but Frederick simply tells him to mind his own business and not worry about it. Six days later, Frederick receives a visit from Count Fosco, who reports that Marian is seriously ill. Fosco confirms that the marriage between Laura and Percival is very unhappy, and he thinks it would be best for Laura to return to Limmeridge House as soon as possible. Since Marian's illness made it impossible for her to come and urge this course of action, Fosco has taken it upon himself to come in her place. He has also worked out the details of her travel, proposing that Laura will travel from Blackwater Park to London, stay there overnight with him and Eleanor at their rented house, and then continue the second half of the journey the following day. Frederick is sick of listening to Fosco, so he writes a note inviting Laura to come and stay with him. He thinks it is impossible she will accept this invitation, because she will not want to leave Marian alone during her illness.

The narrative is then continued by Mrs. Michelson, the housekeeper at Blackwater Park. She describes Marian falling ill with fever, and the doctor being consulted. She, Laura, and the Countess work together to nurse her but Marian gets steadily worse. After a few days, Count Fosco explains that Eleanor will be travelling to London and returning with another woman to help with the nursing. The new nurse is named Mrs. Rubelle and Dr. Dawson does not approve of her, but is frustrated to find that Percival does not support him. Count Fosco plants seeds of doubt about the doctor's competence, but after a few days, he departs for London. During his absence, Marian takes a turn for the worse. With this news, Fosco returns from London, having also arranged for a different doctor, whom he believes to be better qualified. The second doctor confirms Fosco's opinion that Marian is suffering from typhus and that her disease is thus both dangerous and contagious.

Marian does eventually begin to recover, but by this point, Laura herself is on the verge of illness due to exhaustion and stress. Dr. Dawson is also so fed up with the Count that he resigns from the case now that Marian is out of serious danger. Mrs. Michelson is somewhat alarmed that Fosco and Percival do not replace him with another doctor, and also that they do not tell Laura that the doctor is no longer present. She is further shocked when Percival announces that he, Marian, and Laura will be leaving Blackwater as soon as possible, and that he wants all the servants dismissed within the next twenty four hours. Mrs Michelson carries out the orders, and the following day, only she, Margaret Porcher and the gardener remain.

Percival and Fosco then consult her again, explaining that Laura and Marian will be spending the autumn at Limmeridge House, but that first they will travel to the seaside town of Torquay. The two men need someone to go there and find appropriate lodgings for the ladies, and they would like to send Mrs. Michelson. She is very surprised by this request, but reluctantly agrees to go. She is not successful at finding lodgings that meet their criteria, and returns three days later. Upon her return, she learns that the Count and Countess have moved to London. When she and Laura together go to see Marian, they are both shocked to be told that Marian has gone to London with Fosco and Eleanor, and plans to travel on from there to Limmeridge House. Laura cannot believe that Marian would have left without telling her, and becomes more and more anxious to go after her. Percival agrees, telling her that she can leave the next day, and stop in London along the way. Laura becomes agitated at the prospect of going to Fosco's house in London, but Percival is firm.

When they are left alone, Laura explains to the housekeeper that she when she gets to London, she plans to evade the Count and stay with Mrs. Vesey, her former governess, instead. Mrs. Michelson sends the letter from Laura to Mrs. Vesey alerting her to Laura's impending arrival. The next day, Percival explains the arrangements for Laura to get to the train station, since he doesn't plan to be at the house when she departs. After seeing Laura off on the train to London, where the Count is expecting to meet her, Mrs. Michelson returns to the house. She is shocked to find Mrs. Rubelle at the house, and even more shocked to learn from her that Marian is also still at Blackwater Park. Mrs. Michelson immediately resigns. Percival tells her that she can leave whenever she wants, but since he plans to leave the following day and Mrs Rubelle is also leaving, Marian will be left alone. Concerned about her fragile health, Mrs. Michelson agrees to stay on with her, especially since she gets him to agree to rehire Dr. Dawson. Mrs. Rubelle leaves immediately, and that night while Mrs. Michelson is tending to Marian, she is startled to hear Percival swearing wildly, and then rushing out of the house in the middle of the night. Mrs. Michelson stays on to nurse Marian back to health, alluding to events that will be covered in the narrative of others. When Marian is recovered, she travels to Limmeridge House and Mrs. Michelson goes to stay with relatives in London.


While the narratives up until this point have been dominated by central characters, the novel now enters into a stretch of shorter narratives told by more minor characters. Mr. Fairlie's account is particularly interesting in that it highlights the retrospective nature of these accounts. He makes it clear that he is being asked to recall events long after they took place, and that he finds that inconvenient and stressful. While a reader is unlikely to be sympathetic to Frederick Fairlie's whining, and his selfish focus on how all these events present an inconvenience to him, the reminder that characters are recalling the events at a later time, and that their accounts might not always be entirely accurate, has an unsettling effect on the narrative, making the reader unsure of what is true and what is not.

Frederick Fairlie's narrative also reveals how his selfishness makes him easy to manipulate, and how he again completely fails to safeguard the well-being of his niece. He has a snobby disdain towards Fanny because she is a servant, and is too preoccupied with his disdain to take her seriously. He does not want to get caught up in any marital quarrels and despite warning signs that something seems seriously wrong at Blackwater Park, he refuses to interfere. This attitude is in a sense emblematic of a more widespread Victorian notion that domestic matters should be kept extremely private, and that no one should interfere with what is happening between a husband and a wife. This perspective could leave women like Laura in serious danger. Fairlie is not only lazy, he is also weak, and readily gives in to Fosco's charm and manipulation. It seems very suspicious that Fosco would insist on this letter of invitation, but Fairlie just wants to get back to his luxurious idleness. Once Fairlie writes the note, there is another written document that Fosco and Percival can potentially use as part of their scheme and to bolster their credibility.

The narrative from Mrs. Michelson also reflects the way in which gullibility and class prejudice make it easier for Fosco and Percival to carry out their scheme. Mrs. Michelson is very concerned about her social respectability and talks repeatedly about her husband's position, and the status she once held. Her desire to please her employer and to be well regarded outweigh the nagging sense that something is not right. She repeatedly carries out instructions that seem bizarre, sinister, and potentially dangerous to Laura, but her regard for Percival as someone in a position of power is such that she does not challenge him.

Despite this obedience, Mrs. Michelson is an ambivalent character since she does become increasingly worried that Laura is in danger, and does eventually involve herself in Laura's plan to evade Count Fosco when she arrives in London. When Mrs. Michelson learns that both she and Laura have been deceived about Marian's whereabouts, she also resigns, since she does not want any part in whatever Percival is doing. Her affection for Marian and fears of what would happen if no one is there to nurse her, however, entrap her into staying longer. Like other characters, Mrs. Michelson knows something is wrong, but also does not feel like she has many options to do anything about it.

Laura's vulnerability is particularly highlighted in this section. While readers do not yet know what happened to her after she got to London, Mrs. Michelson's allusion to helping Marian cope with the bad news she received signals some unfortunate fate. Once Marian is ill and incapacitated, Laura has no one to help or advise her. She is not physically strong enough to cope with the stress of what is happening, and while she senses something is wrong with the plan for her to go to London, she cannot come up with an effective way to resist it. The threatening and foreboding that comes with her isolation shows just how little recourse she had to try and ask for help.