Woman in White

Women’s Rights Collins hammers home the point that women in England, regardless of their social standing, their education, their moral behavior or their finances, have few legal rights for protection. Laura Fairlie is robbed of her identity and her inheritance by a greedy, unscrupulous husband. Mrs. Catherick has her reputation ruined by a misunderstanding that leaves her divorced and alone at the mercy of the man who caused the misunderstanding. Anne Catherick is falsely imprisoned in a mental institution, as is her half-sister Laura Fairlie.
Both escape without the help of any man and go into hiding. Countess Eleanor Fairlie Fosco is denied her rightful inheritance by her older brother Philip simply because he disapproves of her marriage. This drives her to crime to gain back her inheritance. Laura Fairlie is assaulted by her husband and finds no help from the law to protect her, and even her guardian, Frederick Fairlie,… An Analysis of Female Identity in Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White   This article looks at the issue of female identity in Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White.
It analyzes two key scenes from the novel to reveal how construction and style inevitably influence the representation of identity, as well as assessing the text in relation to genre, particularly the role of the Gothic in Collins’s narrative. A prevalent theme in The Woman in White is confinement. Both Anne Catherick and Laura Fairlie are confined in a mental asylum by Sir Percival Glyde. The novel effectively reworks traditional Gothic conventions in its depictions of confinement and the female characters’ jailer.

The Woman in White belongs to the genre of ‘sensation’ fiction, Collins’s novel being regarded as innovative as it is the first, and arguably the greatest, of the English sensation novels. Sensation fiction is generally considered a hybrid genre in that it combines the elements of romance familiar to readers of Gothic fiction and the domestic context familiar to readers of realist fiction. In The Woman in White the terrors of eighteenth-century Gothic fiction are transferred from their exotic medieval settings, such as those employed in the novels of Ann Radcliffe, and relocated in contemporary nineteenth-century English society.
Melodrama is a genre closely related to sensationalism. Some of the features of melodrama, such as extreme states of being, situations, actions; dark plottings and suspense, are clearly apparent in the storyline of The Woman in White. The character of Laura Fairlie comes closest to a typical melodramatic heroine, especially in terms of physical appearance, being young, fair and beautiful. She also embodies both purity and powerlessness. However her role in the story is curiously passive as she is denied a formal narrative voice.
Her passivity is the counterpart of her half-sister Marian Halcombe’s activity. Marian is a complex individual whose characterization falls outside conventional literary or social models, partially evinced in the striking physical contrast between her face and body. Walter informs the reader that her figure is “tall, yet not too tall; comely and well-developed… her waist, perfection in the eyes of a man” (p. 31). Yet her facial features are somewhat inconsistent with her body: “the dark down on her upper lip was almost a moustache. She had a large, firm, masculine mouth and jaw” (p. 32).
The formal nature of Walter’s description employs melodramatic techniques yet the incongruous content of this description appears to challenge melodramatic conventions. Sensation fiction’s emphasis on plot means that it often depends on secrets, which seem never-ending: as when one secret is uncovered, another is revealed. The presence of secrets inevitably invites spying, an action Marian chooses to take in one of the novel’s most suspenseful scenes, when, fearing that her half-sister’s livelihood may be in danger, she spies on the villains Sir Percival and Count Fosco in the dead of night.
A forbidding atmosphere is swiftly established with an air of menace clearly apparent in the imminent rain, described as being “threatening”, while the adjectives “black”, “pitch” and “blinding” are used to evoke the impenetrability of the night’s inevitable “darkness”. Marian’s decision to listen at the window seems to be partially determined by Count Fosco’s opinions of her “sharpness” and “courage”. Later on in his and Percival’s conversation, Fosco asserts that Marian has “the foresight and resolution of a man” (p. 30). The shedding of her womanly attire in order to facilitate her position on the roof goes someway to consolidate this identity as a ‘masculinized woman’, a type fairly common in sensation fiction. However Marian is somewhat at odds with the heroines of most sensationalist novels in her fundamental moral probity, evinced in this scene with her eagerness to find one factor to justify her subsequent actions to herself: “I wanted but one motive to sanction the act to my own conscience” (p. 24), finding it in the form of her half-sister: “Laura’s honour, Laura’s happiness – Laura’s life itself – might depend on my quick ears and my faithful memory tonight” (p. 324). The actual passages detailing her spying on Percival and Fosco are especially tense, partially through Marian’s situation – her position on the roof is precariously close to the Countess’s bedroom and it is apparent, from the light behind the window, that the woman is not yet in bed.
The paragraph that discloses this fact to the reader is composed of sentences comprising numerous short clauses, some of only two words in length, as well as a copious use of dashes – stylistic effects that succeed in bringing the reader ever closer to the “strangeness and peril” (p. 328) of Marian’s situation, and the “dread”, which she “could not shoulder” (p. 328). Also Collins’s use of direct speech in depicting the villains’ conversation consolidates this effect, and added with the moodily Gothic ambience, succeeds in bringing the reader into uncomfortably close proximity to Marian’s current situation.
The style of narrative an author adopts inevitably effects the nature of their characters. In The Woman in White we see the characters of female protagonists shaped by both formal and contextual decisions. This article has gone some way into revealing how identities are constructed through a combination of narrative methods and genre conventions, as well as the actual content of Collins’s novel, such as other characters and settings. The Woman in White was an incredibly popular novel.
Collins’ masterful creation of suspense made for an immensely successful work amongst the Victorian populace. SENSATION FICTION: Contemporary Reviews and Responses The following reviews of Victorian sensation fiction are arranged according to theme and author. The reviews included here are are only a small sampling of Victorian reaction to and enthusiasm for sensation fiction. In future, this collection will be more thorough and will feature full reviews rather than selected sections.
Sensation Fiction in General At no age, so far as we are aware, has there yet existed anything resembling the extraordinary flood of novels which is now pouring over this land — certainly with fertilising results, so far as the manufacture itself is concerned. There were days, halcyon days — as one still may ascertain from the gossip of the seniors of society — when an author was a natural curiosity, recognized and stared at as became the rarity of the phenomenon.
No such thing is possible nowadays, when most people have been in print one way or other — when stains of ink linger on the prettiest of fingers, and to write novels is the normal condition of a large section of society. Margaret Oliphant on Count Fosco from The Woman in White: The violent stimulant of serial publication — of weekly publication, with its necessity for frequent and rapid recurrence of piquant situation and startling incident — is the thing of all others most likely to develop the germ, and bring it to fuller and darker bearing. What Mr.
Wilkie Collins has done with delicate care and laborious reticence, his followers will attempt without any such discretion. No divine influence can be imagined as presiding over the birth of [the sensation writer’s] work, beyond the market-law of demand and supply; no more immortality is dreamed of for it than for the fashions of the current season. A commercial atmosphere floats around works of this class, redolent of the manfactory and the shop. The public wants novels, and novels must be made — so many yards of printed stuff, sensation-pattern, to be ready by the beginning of the season.
H. L. Mansel, Quarterly Review, 113 (April 1863): 495 – 6. Sensation Fiction and the Woman Reader [Today’s heroines in English novels include] Women driven wild with love for the man who leads them on to desperation before he accords that word of encouragement that carries them into the seventh heaven; women who marry their grooms in fits of sensual passion; women who pray their lovers to carry them off from the husbands and homes they hate; women … who give and receive burning kisses and frantic embraces, and live in a voluptuous dream. … the dreaming maiden … aits now for flesh and muscles, for strong arms that seize her, and warm breath that thrills her through, and a host of other physical attractions which she indicates to the world with a charming frankness. On the other side of the picture, it is, of course, the amber hair and undulating form, the warm flesh and glowing colour, for which the youth sighs. … this eagerness for physical sensation is represented as the natural sentiment of English girls. * * * * * * * [Lady Audley’s Secret] brought in the rein of bigamy as an interesting and fashionable crime, which no doubt shows a certain deference to the British relish for law and order.
It goes against the seventh commandment, no doubt, but it does it in a legitimate sort of way, and is an invention which could only have been possible to an Englishwoman knowing the attraction of impropriety, and yet loving the shelter of law. There is nothing more violently opposed to our moral sense, in all the contradictions to custom they present to us, than the utter unrestraint in which the heroines of this order are allowed to expatiate and develop their impulsive, stormy, passionate characters.
We believe it is one chief among their many dangers to youthful readers that they open out a picture of life free from all the perhaps irksome checks that confine their own existence. … The heroine of this class of novel is charming because she is undisciplined, and the victim of impulse; because she has never known restraint or has cast it aside, because in all these respects she is below the thoroughly trained and tried woman. Wilkie Collins The Woman in White Mr. Collins is an admirable story-teller, though he is not a great novelist.
His plots are framed with artistic ingenuity — he unfolds them bit by bit, clearly, and with great care — and each chapter is a most skilful sequel to the chapter before. He does not attempt to paint character or passion. He is not in the least imaginative. He is not by any means a master of pathos. The fascination which he exercises over the mind of his reader consists in this — that he is a good constructor. Each of his stories is a puzzle, the key to which is not handed to us till the third volume.
With him, accordingly, character, passion, and pathos are mere accessory colouring which he employs to set off the central situation in his narrative. … Men and women he draws, not for the sake of illustrating human nature and life’s varied phases, or exercising his own powers of creation, but simply and solely with reference to the part it is necessary they should play in tangling or disentangling his argument. He is, as we have said, a very ingenious constructor; but ingenious construction is not high art, just as cabinet-making and joining is not high art.
Mechanical talent is what every great artist ought to possess. Mechanical talent, however, is not enough to entitle a man to rank as a great artist … Nobody leaves one of his tales unfinished. This is a great compliment to his skill. But then very few feel at all inclined to read them a second time. Our curiosity once satisfied, the charm is gone. All that is left is to admire the art with which the curiosity was excited. In response to Saturday Review commentary above: The Woman in White is the latest, and by many degrees the best work of an author who had already written so many singularly good ones.
That mastery in the art of construction for which Mr. Wilkie Collins has long been pre-eminent among living writers of fiction is here exhibited upon the largest, and proportionately, the most difficult scale he has yet attempted. To keep the reader’s attention fairly and equably on the alert throughout a continuous story that fills three volumes of the ordinary novel form, is no common feat; but the author of the Woman in White has done much more than this. Every two of his thousand and odd pages contain as much printed matter as three or four of those to which the majority of Mr.
Mudie’s subscribers are most accustomed, and from his first page to his last the interest is progressive, cumulative, and absorbing. If this be true — and it appears to be universally admitted — what becomes of the assertion made by some critics, that it is an interest of mere curiosity which holds the reader so fast and holds him so long? The thing is palpably absurd. Curiosity can do much, but it cannot singly accomplish all that is imputed to it by this theory, for it is impossible that its intensity should be sustained without intermission through so long a flight.
If The Woman in White were indeed a protracted puzzle and nothing more, the reader’s attention would often grow languid over its pages; he would be free from the importunate desire that now possesses him to go through every line of it continuously; he would be content to take it up and lay it down at uncertain intervals, or be strongly tempted to skip to the end and find out the secret at once, without more tedious hunting through labyrinths devised only to retard his search, and not worth exploring for their own sake.
But he yields to no such temptation, for the secret which is so wonderfully well kept to the end of the third volume is not the be-all and end-all of his interest in the story. Even Mr. Wilkie Collins himself, with all his constructive skill, would be at fault if he attempted to build as elaborate story on so narrow a basis… Unsigned Review, Spectator, 33 (8 September 1860): 864. [pic] Henry James on Wilkie Collins: To Mr Collins belongs the credit of having introduced into fiction those mysterious of mysteries, the mysteries which are at our own doors. Mary Elizabeth Braddon M. E. Braddon] might not be aware how young women of good blood and good training feel. . [pic] Lady Audley is at once the heroine and the monstrosity of the novel. In drawing her, the authoress may have intended to portray a female Mephistopheles; but, if so, she would have known that a woman cannot fill such a part. The nerves with which Lady Audley could meet unmoved the friend of the man she had murdered, are the nerves of a Lady Macbeth who is half unsexed, and not those of the timid, gentle, innocent creature Lady Audley is represented as being. …
All this is very exciting; but is also very unnatural. The artistic faults of this novel are as grave as the ethical ones. Combined, they render it one of the most noxious books of the modern times. Marian Halcombe from The Woman in White “I said to myself, the lady is dark. She moved forward a few steps –and said to myself, the lady is young. She approached nearer – and I said to myself with a sense of surprise which words fail me to express – the lady is ugly! ” – The Woman in White Victorian novels with poor, plain heroines are nothing unusual, but it’s rare to find one who is downright ugly.
Then again, Marian Halcombe, the heroine of Wilkie Collins’ sensation novel The Woman in White, cares very little for social convention. In 1860, when even the first wave of feminism was yet to hit, Marian refuses to be content with a life that limits her to “patience, petticoats and propriety”. She knows that in a world where a woman is her husband’s legal property, marriage was not the happy ending for women of her era that convention claimed: “No man under heaven deserves these sacrifices from us women…they take us body and soul to themselves, and fasten our helpless lives to theirs as they chain up a dog to his kennel.
And what does the best of them give us in return? ” She has a point – the novel revolves around a rather melodramatic plot by the sinister Sir Percival Glyde and the fiendish Count Fosco to gain control over the considerable fortune of Laura Fairlie, Marian’s angelic half-sister, and the attempts of both Marian and Walter Hartright, Laura’s equally poor would-be suitor, to rescue her from an abusive marriage.
Our first glimpse of her is through Walter’s eyes, and the description is hardly intended to be flattering – she’s sporting a bit of a ‘tache, and he finds her pallor unattractively “swarthy” (Laura’s later reference to “Gypsy skin” suggests that Marian is of mixed heritage). But before feminist readers have time to draw an outraged breath, Marian proceeds to launch into a five-page monologue that establishes her as one of the most sparkling creations in the whole of literature. Ever.
Although Walter is the overall narrator and inexplicably believes himself to be the hero of the hour, all the risks and major discoveries are made by Marian. It is her diaries that provide a large portion of the narrative, and her quick thinking that saves her sister from a grisly fate. In addition, she can beat any man at billiards, she’s a bit of an intellectual goddess, and she singlehandedly runs the entire household. On the downside, she’s a bit of a snob and prone to making rather rash decisions like taking off most of her clothes, climbing onto the roof and then doing a bit of eavesdropping.
She is driven by her near-obsessive love for Laura and whilst their relationship is emotionally complex, it is never cloying or mawkish – instead it is intense, co-dependent and rather more passionate than their sibling bond should allow. Their closeness is such that Laura’s one act of assertiveness in the entire novel is to insist that Marian’s constant presence in her life be written into her marriage contract, and Laura extracts a promise from her that she “will not be fond of anybody but [her]”.
When the wedding night approaches, it is Marian who explains what Laura is to expect: “The simple illusions of her girlhood are gone; and my hand has stripped them off. Better mine than his – that’s all my consolation – better mine than his. ” Steamy stuff for 1860. But neither her implied queerness or her supposed ugliness stopped countless readers writing to Collins asking if Marian was based on a real woman, and if said woman happened to be single. Even the evil (and married) Count Fosco is taken with her, although he seems to be more attracted to her as a potential partner in crime as a candidate for a mistress.
Whilst Marian may lack the ethereal beauty of her sister, critic Nina Auerbach describes her as “a truly sexy woman”, noting that she is in fact the embodiment of androgynous pre-Raphaelite sensuality. The end of the novel has drawn criticism from feminist readers – the plucky, independent heroine is now content to stay at home and help her sister and brother-in-law raise a family in true domestic bliss. However, true to the spirit of their multilayered relationship, Marian is less Laura’s unpaid babysitter than a co-parent, still threatening the bonds of hetero happiness long after the supposedly happy ending has occurred.
In a world that presented marriage and motherhood as the only options, Marian rejects what Adrienne Rich would later describe as “compulsory heterosexuality” in favour of life as the devoted partner of another woman. She is an amateur detective, early feminist and, despite her vulnerable position, refuses to be a damsel in distress. She was a groundbreaking character when she first appeared, and even 150 years later she remains one of the most memorable characters in Victorian literature.

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