“She has escaped from my asylum!” (31) Thus begins the fifth chapter of Wilkie Collins’ sensation novel The Woman in White. Walter Hartright, who has just helped a woman escape from an asylum and find her way to London, ponders the consequences of his actions while torn between two possibilities. “What had I done? Assisted the victim of the most horrible of all false imprisonments to escape; or cast loose on the wide world of London an unfortunate creature, whose actions it was my duty, and every man’s duty, mercifully to control?” (32) Anne Catherik’s appearance and situation while puzzling reminded me of the runaway bride, and while that has yet to be determined as the case it bears striking similarities it is reminiscent of the story of Joanna, and of many other women wrongfully put in asylums, from Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
Joanna is in the care of an elderly and corrupt Judge Turpin who had her father sent to prison overseas because he wanted to possess her mother, and after he proposes to his ward (and she refuses) he has her thrown into the asylum until she “consents” to marry him. While this may not be the exact case with Anne, both characters represent a common problem for women of the 19th and early 20th centuries. According to the London Science Museum website a multitude of women who “rejected domesticity” faced the potential danger of being thrown into the insane asylum. They were then subjected to moral treatment, in which a patient is treated like a child rather than an animal and the doctor/caregiver must view themselves as the father running a strict household. Women in asylums were regarded as needing a strong masculine authority in order to be “healed.”
Many people were outraged by how women were treated in asylums, which the London Science Museum also notes contributed to the trope of the “madwoman in the attic” in Victorian literature. If this is the case, and Walter clearly recognizes that women are often unjustly sent to asylums, why does he doubt his actions? While there is the possibility that someone escaping from an asylum has committed some horrible crime but due to their condition were put there, it is highly unlikely. Walter knows the reality of how common cases of innocent women in asylums are. Yet whether or not Anne is in the asylum there is still the problem of a woman on her own, who needs to be controlled by all men.
Thus comes a problem of not only The Woman of White but of society in general. If we think of Walter as all men (and so far the book has only been read from the narration of men), then there is an internal struggle of power due to societal standards and the forced “masculine responsibility.” Men recognize that women are in a troubling social position, yet don’t want to help for fear of relinquishing their power. Therefore, Walter’s thoughts after helping Anne reflect some form of male anxieties and the supposed necessity of male dominance.
 While the book The String of Pearls on which the musical is based takes place in the late 18th century, the musical adaptation is based around 1847 in Victorian London.