Women & Villains in “The Woman in White” by Wilkie Collins

The Valkyrie's Vigil by Edward Robert Hughes (detail). I imagine this novel painted in blue and white hues.

The Valkyrie’s Vigil by Edward Robert Hughes (detail). I imagine this novel painted in blue and white hues.

I enjoyed this novel, I really did, only wishing that certain elements were amended. Read on! Note: You don’t have to read everything (obviously!), but do scroll to the end for some secondary literature to do with women & mental health in 19th century, as well as sensation fiction! Also, there are headings for easy navigation. 

I found Walter Hartright to be rather unnecessary. I thought he was an interesting narrator to start the tale, but a horrible replacement for Marian’s wonderful narrative. Marian Halcombe is such a badass lady (my only complaint being that she is constantly likened to a man, especially with regards to her empowering qualities such as her frankness & willingness to go to great lengths to protect those she loves). *MINOR SPOILER* One of the best moments in this novel, if not the best, is when Marian sheds her restraining Victorian gear (for a corset and hoop skirt could hardly be called clothing, it is so unneeded!) to be able to climb out of her window, walk along a ledge and creep above a veranda to eavesdrop on some terrible villainous plans! Was Collins pitching us a metaphor for the woman’s condition in the nineteenth century by allowing her to remove the elements that oppressed her body to be able to achieve quite a feat?! I’d like to think so. Unfortunately, Collins probably thought that his audience would handle no more girl power & he subjected Marian to being soaked in the rain, falling ill, and being replaced by the plain Walter. Walter reminded me of Jonathan Harker from Dracula: that same typical Victorian hero, uninteresting precisely because of his moral goodness & the desire to selflessly avenge the wrongs inflicted on our damsel in distress. Except, ahem, not selfless at all because he wants to marry her! And don’t get me started on Laura. She isn’t even a character so much as a playing card in the events of this novel.

However, don’t let my feminist rant deter you from indulging yourself in the exciting, gripping, dark, and shocking parts of this story. Once the story picks up (around 100 pages in), the next 300 pages are a walk in the park! Or rather, a tiptoe tread through a darkening alley, trees closing in on you, the shadow of a large foreign count lurking between them. And when the ending comes, don’t be too disappointed. It is only alright, but the lead up was worth it.

Narration

This is classic Wilkie Collins style. Although The Moonstone and The Woman in White were published almost a decade apart (1868 and 1859 respectively), I read the former first & was acquainted with Collins’s style after it had developed itself. I am not sure whether The Woman in White was his first attempt at employing multiple narrators, but this seems to be quintessential Collins story-telling. And I think it works well.

I enjoyed it in The Moonstone, and I enjoyed it in this novel (apart from aforementioned criticisms). One implications of using multiple narrators who consciously retell their version of events is that both the narrator and the reader are aware that this is a narrative. Collins likens it to a trial where each witness gives testimony, but I think it is much more convoluted than that. Collins’s “witnesses” are allowed to lie (though each swears to tell the truth), toy with the facts, and otherwise mislead the reader. Most importantly, the characters who deliver a chain of events from memory are always liable to fall into forgetfulness or misremember things. (Please, who can recreate verbatim a conversation they had a year ago!!!) Although it is easy to believe the stories of each character, especially those presented as “the good guys”, we should remember that the characters know they are telling a story & may be unreliable narrators.

The Villain

Ah, this novel would have been nothing without Count Fosco. Especially when paired with the dim-witted and quick-to-anger Sir Percival. I want to compare the Count to the likes of Hannibal Lecter, except the former cultivates a palate for sweets and not human flesh. I love a villain who is both fascinating and repulsive! Fosco is cultured and intelligent and sly. He enjoys opera, plays with his white mice, and eats tarts for supper. Count Fosco can wile his way into being trusted and can compliment a lady yet leave her shivering from fear, anticipation … disgust? He is just great! As a villain, that is.

Collins was aware that he was creating a brilliant villain in Fosco, and that to embellish the evil with a brain he had to add a pathetic brainless villain as a sidekick – Sir Percival. I also think Collins was aware that he might come off as xenophobic (Count Fosco is Italian) and for that reason included a benevolent, almost comical, though ultimately influential, character in Professor Pesca (possibly based on Gabriel Rossetti). The backdrop of real politico-historical context and allusion to the Carbonari added a darker undertone to the story, probably because of the realism (or at least pseudo-realism).

However, I do insist that Collins was not xenophobic for reasons mentioned below!

The Author

My Penguin Classics clothbound edition offered some very interesting & curious notes in the introduction and annotations.

I knew Collins was close with Dickens, but I loved reading a little bit more about their relationship. It is very possible that the two knew of each other’s murky relationships. (Collins lived out of wedlock with the widow Caroline Graves and her daughter; and Dickens was attached to Nellie Ternan, an actress much younger than himself.) Supposedly, the meeting scene in The Woman in White was inspired by a similar meeting between Collins and Caroline.

I also enjoyed the random bits of information on Collins which made me like him more and more. For example, he was against the English custom of separating the ladies from the gentlemen after dinner. He actually received a rather unpleasant and xenophobic letter which I’ll quote here to show that Collins himself was actually very attached to customs from other countries, such as France.

“Sir, … you are not English to the backbone. You have more than once set up the foreigners – the jabbering, unshaven foreigners, who live on kickshaws and sour wine – as examples to us. I doubt whether you really believe that one Englishman is equal to two Frenchmen, and six of any other nation. I doubt whether you know your Rule Britannia as you ought … Yours, J. Bull” (from ‘A Breach of British Privilege’, Household Words, 19 March 1859, p. 361).

I think the letter funny to a degree. The writer seems very narrow-minded, stereotypically hating the French, and drawing on crude malicious caricatures of foreigners. I can’t help but chuckle at the line “you are not English to the backbone”. Ha! 🙂 Perhaps Collins was not, since he lived in Italy and France during his youth.

I was also pleased to find out that Collins was against restrictive corsets and preferred a woman’s natural waist, and loved curvy hips. Jolly good! For instance, Marian is introduced to us first through her body – she is not wearing a corset & has a lovely curvy shape. I think this would have been unusual for a woman to actually do, but I applaud Collins all the more.

Women & Asylums

I’m interested in the way mental illnesses were viewed and treated in the past, and I love stories that take place in mental institutions (like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). For all the title promises, I was disappointed that the novel did not dwell more on the Woman. Nor did it venture into the asylum & describing the chilling horrors of nineteenth century mental institutions. However, my curiosity was beyond peaked & the introduction offered some more material. I’d like to read some of the following texts and find out more about asylums & how they were often used to silence women.

A Dark Science: Women, Sexuality and Psychiatry in the Nineteenth Century by Jeffrey Moussaief Masson
The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830 – 1980 by Elaine Showalter
Love’s Madness: Medicine, the Novel and Female Insanity 1800-1865 by Helen Small

FINALLY, I should mention that The Woman in White is considered to be the first sensation novel. I would love to read more about sensation novels, too, because this seems to be the genre that first allowed women to emerge as active characters (Marian!) and not passive damsels of Gothic fiction (Laura). Though Collins does blend in many Gothic elements, I think The Woman in White is progressive in its sensationalism.

Mixed Feelings: Feminism, Mass Culture and Victorian Sensationalism by Anne Cvetkovich
Dead Secrets: Wilkie Collins and the Female Gothic by Tamar Heller
‘La Cage aux Folles: Sensation and Gender in Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White’ by D.A. Miller in The Nineteenth-Century British Novel (ed. J. Hawthorn)
The ‘Improper’ Feminine: The Women’s Sensation Novel and the New Woman Writing by Lyn Pykett

Alright, friends! I hope you got something out of this torrent of lazy words and poorly formulated thoughts!

4h

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2 responses to “Women & Villains in “The Woman in White” by Wilkie Collins

  1. Wow. That is quite a full-bodied review of The Woman in White. It sounds interesting. I, too, find books about asylums to be interesting. Though I’m currently learning more about the deinstitutionalization movement in which humanitarians and government officials who wanted to save money closed asylums, leaving many mentally ill people homeless or in prison.

    • Yes, I’ve heard of that and it is very sad. From one extreme to the other… The Woman in White doesn’t really cover the asylum part, though. Thanks for visiting & plowing through the post! 🙂

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