Mystery and intrigue accompany the mood-setting mist and fog in The Woman in White, the new drama on PBS. The five-part series is an adaptation of the novel that launched the Victorian literary genre called “sensation fiction.” Shocking secrets, insane asylums and criminal misdeeds provided the page-turning elements in The Woman in White, author Wilkie Collins’ most famous work. The five-part series premieres Sunday, October 21 at 10 p.m.
We’ll sweep all spoilers under the rug here, but you’ll get glimpses of the dark future in store for the characters in every step of the series, which leaps forward and back in time. The opening scene is that of a woman’s body being sealed in its coffin.
Ben Hardy (Bohemian Rhapsody; X-Men: Apocalypse; EastEnders) stars as Walter Hartright, a young artist drawn into a web of intrigue. He’s been hired to serve as tutor to the orphaned – but upper crust and adult – half-sisters Laura Fairlie (Olivia Vinall) and Marian Halcomb (Jessie Buckley). The night before he leaves London to journey to their estate many miles away, he has a chilling encounter with a ghostly, nervous woman dressed all in white. She’s familiar with the small town he is traveling to, but their conversation is broken off when she is startled and flees. Moments later, he learns the woman has escaped from an insane asylum.
When Walter and the sisters meet on their uncle’s estate, they fall easily into a friendly rapport, though Walter is taken aback by Laura’s resemblance to the woman in white. She’s schooled in the traditional manners of the upper class, but openly expresses the intensity of her senses – she sees color when playing music on the piano, pines after the tobacco smell of her deceased father, and would rather jump into a body of water than paint it.
Marion is practical, jaunty and wry – and the first woman in any 19th-century drama I’ve seen to wear palazzo pants and her long locks air-dried. After confiding in Marion, Walter discovers that there may be a connection between the sisters and the strange woman. Marian remembers their deceased mother writing about a young girl she knew in the village. Laura recalls that that girl died young. Soon enough, the woman in white appears to Walter again.
Before publishing The Woman in White in a form one could “binge-read” – a novel – in 1860, author Wilkie Collins released his lurid tale of domestic violence, mistaken identity and forced institutionalization in serial form. In 1859 it began mesmerizing the public as it rolled out weekly in both Charles Dickens’ All the Year Round in London and in Harper’s Magazine in New York.
If you want to read along with the PBS series, you can download the 40 original installments and illustrations from this meticulously organized Woman in White site, created by the Wilkie Collins society to celebrate the novel’s 150th anniversary. The first 13-page installment leaves us at minute 10 of the first episode.
The Woman in White remains popular with British readers. It was ranked No. 77 as a favorite book in the BBC series The Big Read, a precursor to The Great American Read on PBS.
Marriage and Property Laws in England
As the series unfolds, women’s legal disadvantages in marriage and in controlling her inheritance will be exploited by unscrupulous characters. The Woman in White was set during a time when divorce was new and women lost many legal and ownership rights once they married.
Author Wilkie Collins was no devoted husband, and even though he had children out of wedlock he did not divorce – most people couldn’t in England until new laws were passed in 1857. Yes, King Henry VIII got his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled and broke with the Catholic Church, but the empire’s new Church of England did not grant divorces either.
Starting in 1857, English couples could divorce if the husband or wife could prove the other’s adultery. Married women’s legal identities and right to hold their own wealth wasn’t restored until 1882 with the passage of the Married Women’s Property Act.
The Dark History of Mental Asylums
The 19th-century English public was not unfamiliar with “insane asylums,” where people with varying disabilities and mental illnesses were often doomed – usually for life – to utterly inhumane treatment that included severe physical restraints and unhygienic conditions. Visiting London’s Bethlem Royal Hospital, or Bedlam, was even once a perverse entertainment: one could pay to gawk at what could more accurately be described as sentenced inmates than patients.
England had both private and public asylums, and release from a private asylum was rarer than that from a public one. Some families and husbands even conspired to have an unwanted relative or wife committed, despite there being no mental illness to be treated. The case of Lord and Lady Bulwer-Lytton came to the public’s wide attention in 1858, the year before The Woman in White was first released. Rosina Lytton’s complaints against her husband resulted in him having her confined to an asylum for weeks before the public’s outrage over the situation led to her release.
How to Watch
The five-episode series The Woman in White premieres Sunday October 21 at 10 p.m. The first episode will be available to stream concurrently with broadcast. Members of THIRTEEN can binge the entire series starting that night with the member benefit THIRTEEN Passport. Episodes stream here on THIRTEEN.org and our THIRTEEN Explore apps.
Correction: This post originally identified The Woman in White as a Masterpiece drama. It is not.