"The Woman in White" is an early form of the detective novel. The operative riddle of the plot: Who is this Woman in White who appears and disappears at random? Why does she look so much like Laura Fairlie: And why does Sir Percival want so much to get this woman out of the way? Funny. You too can probably guess what's going on, which does rather damped the "suspense" of the mystery and make one wonder why everyone seems so very naive. It's certainly explained by the fact that the "detectives" are both amateurs--Marian, Laura Fairlie's half sister, and Walter Hartright, Laura's drawing master; Laura, as one expects from such melodramas as this, falls in love with Mr. Hartright, but cannot marry because he is poor and of a lower class.
Right. We are deep in the world of mid-nineteenth century England, a culture consumed by social rank, the importance of reputation and money, and the obedience of women to the men who "protect" them. But if the novel leaves much to be desired as a mystery story, reading it does make clear how far women have come in the past 150 years. All of the stuff here about woman's place and so on are quite taken for granted: there isn't a shred of authorial resentment or irony anywhere. So when one is feeling a bit as though women haven't come all that far on the quest for social equality, this is a good story to read. It will snap one quickly to the realization that Oh yes, we have come a long long way baby. I can't imagine any young woman in contemporary America (except maybe one living maybe in a some ultra conservative fundamentalist community far far out in the country) putting up with what Laura puts up with as a matter of course--always requiring a chaperone, for example; being married off to the man her dead father once promised her to, despite her own strong inclinations elsewhere; feeling guilty about not wanting to sign a legal document her boorish and demanding husband shoves in front of her, even though she guesses (quite correctly) that her signature means she will give her fortune to her hated husband; and so on; and so on. And then there's Marian--ugly and hence unmarriageable--although Marian is obviously the more admirable and intelligent character. Well, I could go on and on with this. Perhaps in his wily way, my father, intended me to see that women in the sixties had come far, and thus hoped to dampen my high enthusiasm for women's liberation. Who knows. I certainly can't ask him about it.