I'm not sure how many of you have read Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White, but he is a stellar writer and this is probably his best (or at least his most famous book). I always recommend Collins for people who don't like Victorian literature because he doesn't beat around the bush like other wordy, flowery Victorian writers did. The book is a straight-up thriller with some great proto-feminist social commentary. I'm going to try to keep spoilers to a minimum, but there will probably be at least a few. Be warned.
Without giving too much away, the book discusses how unfair the marriage system was for women in the mid-Victorian era--how wives became their husbands' sole property (formerly being their fathers' and brothers' sole property), how all their personal wealth and belongings were no longer their own, and how easy it was for men to do basically anything they wanted with women. Women could be beaten, imprisoned in their own home, raped, falsely placed in an asylum, and even killed without too much investigation, provided that the husband made it look like death from natural causes.
The story follows Laura Fairlie who marries Sir Percival Glyde. He quickly has her committed to an asylum and tells everyone she's dead so he can get his hands on her large inheritance. The rest of the story depicts just how difficult it is for anyone except Sir Percival to get Laura released from the asylum. The 'framework of the story happens to be founded on fact. The elaborate method whereby Lady Glyde is parted from her inheritance was taken from the Douhault case, a famous French conspiracy' (Richardson, Maurice. Introduction. The Woman in White. 1860. London: J.M. Dent & Sons LTD. 1955. v-ix. vii)
Collins had read about this case on a trip in France and it makes his outlandish plot all the more remarkable once we understand how much was true. Mme de Douhault married the Marquis de Douhault in 1764 at the age of 22. Her husband had severe epilepsy and eventually died, leaving her his entire fortune. In 1788, despite being a 46-year-old widow with her own property, who had lived on her own for 25 years, she discovered just to what degree her brother still "owned" her.
Her brother, M. de Champignelles, had stolen her portion of their father's fortune when their father died; there was little she could do about it, despite the fact that she was legally entitled to half. Due to the stipulations of the will, he was supposed to pay their mother a yearly allowance, but he paid it sporadically, forcing her to sell her jewels on many different occasions in order to survive.
Finally the brother's behavior grew so terrible that mother and daughter considered a suit against him, since their legal rights were not going to be automatically protected; they knew they were going to have to fight for what was theirs. Mme. de Douhault wrote to her brother, telling him of her intentions and urging him to restore some of their property before it was taken to court. As she was a relatively independent woman with a large fortune at her disposal, he knew she could be a lot of trouble. The only positive thing was that she had no family of her own--not only was her brother her heir (at least for part of her deceased husband's fortune), but he was also the closest male relative she had, and his socio-legal authority trumped hers.
He asked her to meet up with him in person to discuss the issue. She happily complied, but at the start of the journey she had a feeling of foreboding and did not want to go. But since she had no other option, she left for Paris.
She stopped off in Orleans to break her journey at M. de Lude's house; M. de Lude was her husband's great-nephew who, upon her death, would inherit the rest of his great-uncle's estate. As we will see, he was clearly "in on it" with her brother and began acting very shifty when she arrived. M. de Lude refused to entertain her at his own house (likely to keep any servants from seeing her arrival), and insisted that she stay with him at a friend's house, a M. de Ronciere (who was also in on it). He also insisted that her servant be parted from her and stay elsewhere, supposedly to relieve the strain of his friend, M. de Ronciere, from entertaining too many people.
Mme de Douhault was understandably nervous about this clearly suspcious series of events, but she had no other option but to comply. She went for a drive with Mme de Ronciere, who offered her a pinch of snuff. Upon taking it, Mme de Douhault was overcome with a trememdous headache and felt faint. They went back to the house where, according to her brother, M. de Lude, and M. de Ronciere, she immediately fell ill and died. She was buried immediately. Her brother and M. de Lude inherited her property.
Around the time that she was being "buried", she woke up from a drugged sleep and found herself in the Salpêtriète Hospital for Female Lunatics, under the name of Blainville. She, of course, claimed to be Mme de Douhault and was told that she was dead. The doctors believed that this Mme de Blainville was mad and suffering from delusions.
For 17 months she was kept in isolation. All of her letters were intercepted. Eventually she got through to her powerful friend, Mme de Polignac, who looked into the matter and eventually pressured the hospital into realizing that the doctor who had admitted Mme de Douhault had admitted her without verifying the evidence. She was released.
Almost four years later, a veiled woman showed up on M. de Champignelle's doorstep. She addressed his servant by name, asked if he recognized her, and explained who she was. According to the marquise, the servant said, "The marquise died some years ago. You had better withdraw, madame; I have my orders."
She next proceeded to her family's church, entered during a crowded mass, and knelt before her father's tomb and wept. The townspeople, who had known her family for years, remarked about the incredible resemblance between this woman and the supposedly dead marquise. She revealed herself as the dead marquise, calling out many people in the crowd by name to prove her identity. Her identity was so strongly recognized that the national guard threw a party for her and the head of police announced in town that everyone who recognized her should make a declaration to the municipality to help her regain her position. She did not want to create a scandal for her family and thought that the whole thing could be resolved by a direct appeal for the King. It probably would have been, too, had the King not been deposed and killed by the French Revolution.
An inquiry was opened and her brother received a summons. The summons had no effect. Her brother refused to recognize her, denouncing her as a fraud and an adventuress, despite the force of the entire township who officially declared that they knew her. He forcibly kept their mother from meeting up with her. Mme de Douhault even quickly wrote and published a memoir about her ordeal, but it was seen by officials as a cheap attempt to gain publicity.
The case went to court. Unfortunately, she had been incredibly groggy when she had awoken in the hospital and was unsure of some dates and events (as someone who had been drugged for days naturally would have been). This was her downfall, since the court was inclined to believe her brother, anyway. They poked holes in her story, thinking that any discrepency was due to her lying instead of being due to her being drugged. Out of one 114 questions put to her, she was only unable to answer one to their satisfaction, but that one apparently negated all of the rest.
They also overlooked the fact that this "Mme de Blainville" was registered with the hospital as being only 28 years old, where Mme de Douhault was now clearly over 50. They also threw out the entire township's sworn statements that she was who she said she was. She even provided medical evidence, since Mme de Douhault walked with a slight limp, had a scar on her right breast, a scar on her right arm, and a well-known scar on her left hand from the bite of a dog. "Mme de Blainville" had identical marks. The court didn't care and didn't see that as substantial evidence, since scars and limps can be replicated.
They rejected her claim. She brought it before another court. They rejected it, as well. She kept attempting to restore her name and fortune, but without social or financial resources available to her, she eventually gave up. Her horrible brother got to keep her fortune and never admitted who she was. Her mother died without seeing her. When Mme de Douhault eventually died, no one knew what to put on her tombstone, so it was left blank.
Collins chooses a happier ending for his heroine, but the difficulties Mme de Douhault faced were still the realities of Victorian England more than seventy years later. Thankfully The Woman in White was hugely popular and helped to forward marriage reform, which eventually gave women more autonomy inside marriage and in society in general. It was slow going, however. The Woman in White was serialized in 1860. It took a further ten years for Great Britain to pass the Married Women's Property Act of 1870, and even that only gave women slight control over some of their money in marriage. It took a further 12 years for the Married Women's Property Act of 1882 to pass; this law did a great deal more, most notably by forcing courts to recognized husbands and wives as separate legal entities and making total male control much more difficult.
Despite all of our progress, to this day (as far as I'm aware), Mme de Douhault's identity has never been formally restored.