Walter Hartwright has an enviable life. He’s painting on a sunny roof in London, enjoying wine with his friend Pesca, when a boy brings him a letter offering him unsolicited employment. A Mr. Fairlie requires an artist to restore his damaged collection of valuable drawings and to instruct his two nieces in draftsmanship and painting. Walter is reluctant to leave London for Fairlie’s country estate in northern England, but he’s convinced to take the job by both his widowed mother and Pesca, who recommended him for the position.
As Walter stumbles home from the pub on his last night in London, he encounters a frightened woman in the woods. He agrees to help her find a carriage and struggles to learn more about her as she slips in and out of lucidity. “I’ve been in hell,” she says, in between repeating “Frances good, Frances loving.” When Walter tells her that he’s leaving the next day, she says she knows Limmeridge, the estate he is going to, and mentions a baronet there. She also reveals that she only wears white – and then she disappears into a carriage and is gone.
Close behind her, Walter sees a man ride up on a horse and ask someone if they’ve seen a woman in white: she’s a “deranged” escapee from the asylum. Walter says nothing.
Walter is still dwelling on the startling events of the previous night when he arrives at Limmeridge and meets Marian Halcombe, one of the nieces he will be teaching. Marian and her half-sister Laura had the same mother, but Marian’s father was poor where Laura’s, the brother of the Mr. Fairlie on whose estate they now reside, was rich. Marian gives Walter a tour of the isolated estate, and when he sees Laura he is so shocked by her resemblance to the woman in white that he tells Marian about his encounter. Marian reveals that their mother was named Frances – perhaps the woman was talking about her.
Limmeridge is an unconventional place. As Marian and Laura tell Walter, “We’re not the most traditional of ladies.” Unlike most Victorian women, they “speak [their] minds.” Laura seems to be synesthetic, hearing music and feeling the wind as colors. Mr. Fairlie is an invalid sensitive to light and sound who stays cooped up in his chambers. And the women’s nurse and caretaker, the cheery Mrs. Vesey, is still a constant companion to Marian and Laura. But everyone seems to be happy there; as they paint on a striking vantage point over the sea, Laura tells Walter that this is how she imagines Eden – except Adam has two Eves.
Marian’s curiosity has been piqued by Walter’s woman in white. She recalls that, while she was studying in Paris, her mother wrote letters about a girl who sometimes came to Limmeridge and took old dresses – but only white ones. The girl acted younger than she was, and may have had a difficult childhood. Marian asks Laura about the girl, who was named Anne, but Laura believes that Anne died. Marian does discover a letter from her mother that describes Anne as looking strikingly similar to Laura.
The investigation might have ended there, but then Walter sees the woman in white on the grounds of Limmeridge. He tries to catch up to her, but she once again disappears.
Soon she interferes in affairs at the estate. Laura and Walter are falling in love with each other, and she eventually kisses him. Marian sees and admonishes Laura – “you know this is impossible,” she tells her. For Laura is engaged to be married, to a baronet named Sir Percival Glyde. The engagement was the deathbed wish of Laura’s father. But Laura’s feelings about the engagement become further troubled when she receives an anonymous letter warning that Percival is a bad man. Walter suspects that the woman in white wrote it, given that she had mentioned a baronet to him.
This suspicion seems confirmed when a scared boy runs up, claiming he saw the ghost of Laura’s mother by her grave. Walter decides to stake out the cemetery to see if the “ghost” returns. And she does – it’s the woman in white. This time Walter is able to speak to her before she runs away. Again, she slips in and out of coherence, but she does warn, “she will suffer if she marries him.” When Walter presses her, she says that it was Percival who put her in the asylum, and that “he has done terrible things – and will do worse.”
Given the intermittent flash-forwards to various characters distraughtly asking a lawyer where Walter is and hinting that Laura is dead, it seems that the woman in white is right.