A drawing teacher, Walter Hartright, is employed by Mr Fairlie of Limmeridge House in Cumberland to teach his niece, the beautiful heiress Laura Fairlie, and her devoted half-sister Marian Halcombe,who is poor and plain but clever. Hartright and Laura fall in love, but he is penniless and Laura is promised in marriage to Sir Percival Glyde, a friend of her late father. The pair part andHartright leaves England to forget her.
Laura begins married life with Marian as a companion. It soon becomes clear that Sir Percival has money troubles and has married his wife for her fortune. His friendCount Fosco, whose wife is Laura's aunt, appears to be involved with the plot and Marian is deeply suspicious of him, despite his open admiration of her. Trying to eavesdrop on their plotting, she issoaked in the rain and taken very ill. Recovering, she is told that Laura has died suddenly while visiting her aunt in London.
A strange woman dressed in white appears several times during the firstpart of the novel. Anne Catherick, the daughter of a former housekeeper to the Glydes, bears a striking resemblance to Laura. She knew Limmeridge as a child and wears white in remembrance of Laura'slate mother, who was kind to her. Hartright meets her first under mysterious circumstances in the opening pages of the novel, and later learns that she had just escaped a private asylum where she hadbeen confined by Sir Percival and her mother. Mentally and physically frail, Anne hints repeatedly at a scandalous secret associated with Sir Percival, whom she hates and fears. Later, after Laura'sdeath is reported, Anne is said to have been recaptured and returned to the asylum.
Hartright returns to England, and at Laura's graveside encounters Marian with Laura herself. He learns that AnneCatherick suffered heart failure when recaptured by Sir Percival and Fosco, who took advantage of the resemblance between the women; they buried Anne as "Lady Glyde", confined Laura in the asylum as...
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