Through the help of his Italian friend Professor Pesca, Walter Hartright is engaged as drawing master to the nieces of Frederick Fairlie, of Limmeridge House in Cumberland. On the day before he leaves to take up his new position, he meets a young woman dressed in white wandering about the outskirts of London. Walter discovers that she knows Limmeridge and once went to school there with Laura Fairlie. The young woman leaves him very suddenly, and soon after a coach comes by whose passenger leans from the window to ask a police officer if he saw a girl in white. The police officer did not, and Walter hesitates to intrude. As the coach leaves, he hears the man say the girl escaped from an asylum.
Upon his arrival at Limmeridge, Walter meets the first of his two pupils, Marian Halcombe. Marian is homely but intelligent and charming in manner. Her half sister, Laura, is the beauty of the family and heir of Limmeridge House. The two girls are living under the protection of Laura’s uncle, Fairlie, a selfish and fastidious hypochondriac. Walter falls in love with Laura almost at once. After hearing his story about the mysterious woman in white, Marian searches her mother’s letters and discovers that she must be Anne Catherick, a young woman in whom Mrs. Fairlie took great interest because she so greatly resembled Laura.
After several months, Marian realizes that Walter is deeply in love with Laura. She advises him to leave, as Laura’s father asked her on his deathbed to marry Sir Percival Glyde. One day, Walter meets the woman in white again. She is in the graveyard cleaning the stone that bears Mrs. Fairlie’s name, and she admits that she hopes to thwart Laura’s coming marriage to Sir Percival. Told of this incident, Marian promises to ask Sir Percival for a full explanation.
Walter leaves Limmeridge. When Sir Percival arrives, he explains to Marian that Anne is the daughter of a woman who was in his family’s service in the past and that she is in need of hospital treatment. He says he kept her in an asylum at her mother’s request, and he proves the statement with a letter from Mrs. Catherick. His explanation is accepted, and his marriage to Laura takes place. Walter, heartbroken, goes to Central America as a painter for an archaeological expedition.
When Sir Percival and Laura come home from their wedding trip some months later, Marian finds them much changed. Laura is extremely unhappy, and Sir Percival shows his displeasure at having Marian living with them in his house at Blackwater Park. Count Fosco, a huge and self-assured Italian, arrives with his wife, Laura’s aunt, for a visit. Marian soon learns that the count is involved in money matters with Sir Percival. When Laura is asked to sign a document without looking at it, both she and Marian know Sir Percival and Count Fosco are trying to obtain money from her by fraudulent means. Over Sir Percival’s loud protests, Laura refuses to sign the paper unless he will let her read it. The count interferes and makes Sir Percival give up the matter for a time. Marian overhears a conversation between the two men, in which they decide to get loans and wait three months before trying again to persuade Laura to sign away her money. The household becomes one of suspicion and fear.
By chance one day, Laura meets the woman in white and learns that there is a secret in Sir Percival’s life involving both Anne and her mother. Before Anne can tell her the...
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secret, Count Fosco appears and frightens the woman away. Sir Percival becomes alarmed when he learns that Anne is in the neighborhood. He locks both Marian and Laura in their rooms, but Marian spies on the two men by climbing to the roof during a pouring rain and overhears a plot to get Laura’s money by killing her. Before she can act on this information, however, Marian catches a fever from the chill of her rain-soaked clothing. She is put to bed, and Laura, too, becomes mysteriously ill.
When Laura is better, she is told that Marian went to London. She cannot believe her sister left without saying good-bye and insists on going to London herself. Actually, Marian is moved to another room in the house. When Laura arrives in London, she is met by Count Fosco. She is given drugs, falsely declared insane, dressed in Anne’s old clothes, and taken to the asylum from which Anne escaped. Sir Percival finds Anne in the meantime. Because of her resemblance to Laura, he plans to kill her and bury her as Laura. Anne is already very ill, and when she dies suddenly in London of natural causes, Sir Percival announces that Laura, Lady Glyde, died.
After Marian recovers, she is told that her sister is dead. She refuses to believe either the count or Sir Percival. Determined to find Anne, she discovers that the woman in the asylum is really Laura. She arranges Laura’s escape and takes her back to Limmeridge. At Limmeridge, however, Fairlie refuses to recognize the sickly Laura as anyone but Anne. Laura’s memory is so impaired by the experience that she cannot prove her identity. Marian and Laura go to look at the false tomb bearing the name of Lady Glyde. There they meet Walter, recently returned from Central America. He came to pay his respects at Laura’s grave.
There is no possibility of returning Laura to her rightful estate as long as her mind is impaired by her terrible experience. While she is recovering, Walter attempts to learn Sir Percival’s secret. He finally discovers that Sir Percival’s father and mother were never legally married. Hoping to destroy the evidence of his birth, Sir Percival attempts to burn an old church record that Walter needs. In the fire he sets, Sir Percival burns up the church and himself as well. After his death, Mrs. Catherick hints that Laura’s father was the father of illegitimate Anne as well. After searching, Walter finds that this must be true.
Walter returns to London. Together, the three plan to clear Laura by forcing the count to confess. Walter’s old friend Pesca reveals that Count Fosco is a traitor to the secret society to which both Pesca and the count belong. Through Pesca’s help, Walter is able to frighten the count into giving him a confession and written proof in Sir Percival’s handwriting that Laura was still alive when Anne was buried under the name of Lady Glyde. The count flees England and is killed soon afterward by the secret society he betrayed.
Walter, Marian, and a much-improved Laura are happy to have proof of the substitution that was made. Walter and Laura marry and go to Limmeridge to confront Fairlie with the evidence. He is forced to admit Laura’s identity. The friends then leave and do not return until after Fairlie’s death, when the son of Laura and Walter takes over the estate. Marian lives with the family until she dies.