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Female Identity In 'The Woman In White'

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 3403 words Published: 5th May 2017

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Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White was first published in a serialized form in Charles Dickens’s periodical All the Year Round between November 1859 and August 1860 and according to Lyn Pykett it “has often been singled out as the first sensation novel.” (90) The sensation novel, as I have mentioned before, is a genre powerfully influenced by the Gothic novels and The Woman in White “raises questions about class, money, and gender, issues which have their roots in an earlier Gothic tradition.” (Smith, Gothic Literature 74) According to Lyn Pykett “sensation novels were often, like many domestic novels, also ‘marriage problem novels’ and ‘novels-with-a-purpose’, concerned to expose social and moral ills of various kinds”(92) and Wilkie Collins’s novel does not deviate from this rule so to say.

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The plot of The Woman in White is focused on the lives and characters of two half-sisters Laura Fairlie and Marian Halcombe and that of Walter Hartright who at the beginning of the novel is their drawing teacher but who in the end becomes Laura’s husband and Marian’s brother-in-law. Laura and Walter fall in love and despite that she marries Sir Percival Glyde not from love but because her father arranged the marriage and she has to obey him. Later on in the novel Laura is confined in an asylum under the identity of the mad Anne Catherick, who resembles her very much, by her husband that was after her money all along and declared dead. Eventually, she is rescued from the madhouse by her half-sister Marian who was unable to save her from the first place from being locked up there because of her temporary illness. Afterwards Marian and Walter struggle to restore her identity and succeed to by demonstrating that she was the victim of a fraud. In the end of the novel Sir Percival Glyde and Count Fosco, his Italian friend that helped him with his villainous scheme of incarcerating Laura and taking her money, die as well as Ms. Fairlie who is the uncle of the two half-sisters. The married couple inherit Limmeridge house and move there with their fist born son and Marian Halcombe.

The two heroines, Laura Fairlie and Marian Halcombe, are the representations of two different types of woman, “the angel in the house” and respectively the independent woman, and the differences between them are emphasized throughout the whole narrative. If I would be asked to indicate a verb that characterizes each of them I would say that Marian is characterized by the verb ‘to act’ and Laura by the verb “to be’. The first to be introduced to the reader, through means of a physical description made by Walter Hartright, is Marian Halcombe

The instant my eyes rested on her, I was struck by the rare beauty of her form and by the unaffected grace of her attitude. Her figure was tall, yet not too tall; comely and well-developed, yet not fat; her head set on her shoulders with an easy, pliant firmness; her waist, perfection in the eyes of a man, for it occupied its natural place, it filled out its natural circle, it was visibly and

delightfully undeformed by stays. (…)The easy elegance of every movement of her limbs and body as soon as she began to advance from the far end of the room, set me in a flutter of expectation to see her face clearly. She left the window–and I said to myself, The lady is dark. She moved forward a few steps–and I 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! (…) Her expression-bright, frank, and intelligent–appeared, while she was silent, to be altogether wanting in those feminine attractions of gentleness and pliability, without which the beauty of the handsomest woman alive is beauty incomplete. (Collins, The Woman in White 24 – 25)

This passage is very important as it reveals the fact that Marian is not in the standards of Victorian femininity because firstly she does not wear a corset as women in that period had to and this can be interpreted as the first sign of her independent and rebellious nature and secondly because she is ugly. Thirdly, “her expression- bright, frank and intelligent” (Collins 25) is another sign of her lack of femininity as the three adjectives, in the Victorian period, would rather be used when talking of a man, and of her strong and independent nature. Hartright judges Marian by the standards of the ideal of Victorian femininity and affirms she is ugly but this ugliness is just a physical one and not one that reflects her inner self and according to Kenneth Friedenreich the description “shows the grace of Marian Halcombe, a grace that overcomes her lack of physical beauty in conventional senses and points to her indefatigable intelligence and loyalty so crucial to future events in the novel.”(Notable British novelists 192-193) Hartright supposed that if her body is attractive her face is too and “the oddity of Marian’s physical appearance involves in Hartright a feeling of “helpless discomfort” because he cannot articulate nor comprehend the apparent contradictions of her appearance.” (Erickson 98)

The same Walter Hartright is the one that describes Laura Farlie but this time he is not amazed by the beauty of her body only as it was the case with Marian but by her whole being, she possesses traits that from the start qualify her as the Victorian ideal of femininity, as the “angel in the house” a light, youthful figure,clothed in a simple muslin dress, the pattern of it formed by broad alternate stripes of delicate blue and white(…)Her hair is of so faint and pale a brown– not flaxen, and yet almost as light; not golden, and yet almost as glossy–that it nearly melts, here and there, into the shadow of the hat (..) the eyes are of that soft, limpid, turquoise blue, so often sung by the poets, so seldom seen in real life.(…) A fair, delicate girl, in a pretty light dress, trifling with the leaves of a sketch-book, while she looks up from it with truthful, innocent blue eyes ( Collins 39-40)

From this description we can infer some of Laura’s features, such as beauty, innocence, fragility. She dresses very plainly, in white, and this further more accentuates her innocence. She is in contrast with her half-sister who is not beautiful, innocent and surely not fragile, as can be inferred from her description discussed above. They are very different physically and on other levels too. Marian Halcombe herself admits that and openly confesses to Walter

Except that we are both orphans, we are in every respect as unlike each other as possible. My father was a poor man, and Miss Fairlie’s father was a rich man. I have got nothing, and she has a fortune. I am dark and ugly, and she is fair and pretty. Everybody thinks me crabbed and odd (with perfect justice); and everybody thinks her sweet-tempered and charming (with more justice still). In short, she is an angel; and I am—- Try some of that marmalade, Mr. Hartright, and finish the sentence, in the name of female propriety, for yourself. (Collins 26)

Marian acknowledges the fact that she is inferior to Laura because she is poor and ugly and defines her as an angel but she refuses to define herself and according to Erickson “whereas Laura is interpellated into the domestic sphere as the Victorian ideal of “angel in the house”, Marian is not easily contained. Her definition is left open.” (100) She cannot be inscribed in any category of women established by the Victorian society because she is neither an angel or a domestic woman nor a demon or a fallen woman but a new type of woman, the woman whose behavior and appearance defies the limits of conventional femininity assuming the consequences and acknowledging her unconventionality .

The “angel in the house” besides the fact that she had to limit her activity to her home, had to do certain activities within the private sphere, activities that were compulsory but recreational and that emphasized her artistic side, such as playing the piano and singing, drawing, and even if she was not good at doing one of these things she had to respect the convention and take private lessons. For instance, the two sisters take private drawing lessons from Walter Hartright, Laura because “drawing is her favourite whim mind” (Collins 27) and Marian because she wants to please her sister. Laura Fairlie is presented in the first part of the book as fond of music and playing the piano.

On the other hand Marian does not play the piano and she explains to Walter “Miss Fairlie plays delightfully. For my own poor part, I don’t know one note of music from the other; but I can match you at chess, backgammon, ecarte, and (with the inevitable female drawbacks) even at billiards as well.” (Collins 27) Marian indulges in activities that are specific to men and that require from her intelligence and the ability to build strategies. This also says something about her, she knows she is a capable woman and she positions herself at the same level with men .She has no artistic talents but she is intelligent and resolute and she makes the most of her qualities by playing these games. Thus again, her transgression from conventionality is exposed.

Throughout the whole novel, Laura Fairlie fills her role of “angel in the house” with success by being feminine, passive, innocent, childlike, submissive, a victim and fragile. Her weakness that was regarded as a part of her femininity is emphasized from the beginning of the novel when Hartright arrives at the Limmerdge and Marian says “My sister is in her own room nursing that essentially feminine malady, a slight headache; and her old governess, Mrs. Vesey, is charitably attending on her with restorative tea.” (Collins 25) She is fragile and easily impressionable and this can be seen after she is rescued by Marian from the madhouse because she cannot recuperate from the awful experience “At the slightest reference to that time she changed and trembled still, her words became confused, her memory wandered and lost itself as helplessly as ever.” (Collins 504) Although she is not a child anymore her look has “the innocent perplexity of a child” (Collins 55) and she is still considered and treated like a child by Marian and Walter because of her childlike behavior. Marian refers to her as a “poor child” (Collins 163) because she thinks she will be with her for the rest of her life and after her rescue from the asylum Marian and Walter buy her all sorts of games for children in order for her to recover from shock of losing her identity. She senses that the two treat her like a child because of the fact she is helpless and this makes her unhappy “”I am so useless–I am such a burden on both of you (…)! Oh, don’t, don’t, don’t treat me like a child!”” (Collins 432)

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Among other things it is her submissiveness too that ruined her life because when she had the opportunity to be released from the marriage engagement with Sir Percival Glyde she refused to cancel the marriage because she had promised her father on this death bed that she will marry the one that he choose for her. When she found out about the arranged marriage “she herself neither welcomed it nor shrank from it-she was content to make it”. (Collins 60) She keeps her promise even if she does not love Glyde but Hartright. She is incapable to decide what is best for her and she relies on others to arrange her life, in this case her father and she is not used to express whishes of her own. She says to Sir Percival

I ventured to tell you that my father’s influence and advice had mainly decided me to give you my promise. I was guided by my father, because I had always found him the truest of all advisers, the best and fondest of all protectors and friends (…) I believe at this moment, as truly as I ever believed, that he knew what was best, and that his hopes and wishes ought to be my hopes and wishes too. (Collins 147)

In the Victorian period, a woman’s destiny was to get married and have children. Laura, as she embodies the ideal of femininity gets married but Marian is a spinster and she does not want to get married because marriage is not compatible with her independent nature and she knows that it implies sufferings and sacrifices she is not willing to make. She expresses her contempt towards men and marriage implicitly when Laura is about to get married “Men! They are the enemies of our innocence and our peace–they drag us away from our parents’ love and our sisters’ friendship–they take us body and soul to themselves, and fasten our helpless lives to theirs as they chain up a dog to his kennel.” (Collins 159)

When Laura asks Marian to go with her even in her honeymoon she shows how innocent and childlike she is. Again, Marian’s reaction and response to her request show that she is much more anchored in reality than her sister and that she is aware of what a wife’s life implies. She tells her that she cannot go with her and apparently she puts her in guard about the suffering of a wife and the changes for worse that are going to happen in her life of newly-wed

It nearly broke my heart to dispel her delusion, and to bring her face to face with the hard truth. I was obliged to tell her that no man tolerates a rival–not even a woman rival– in his wife’s affections, when he first marries, whatever he may do afterwards (…)Drop by drop I poured the profaning bitterness of this world’s wisdom into that pure heart and that innocent mind, while every higher and better feeling within me recoiled from my miserable task. It isover now. She has learnt her hard, her inevitable lesson. The simple illusions of her girlhood are gone, and my hand has stripped them off. (Collins 163)

Unlike her sister Laura who is always helpless and submissive, Marian is strong and independent. In addition, she knows how to handle the men that she encounters in her life and even more, she does not do what they say her to do like her sister but they do what she says them. For instance, when Marian tells Walter to go away from Limmeridge because Laura is about to get married with Sir Percival Glyde he obeys her and leaves. Furthermore, she has an influence on Mr. Fairlie, her uncle, and when he receives a letter where he is being asked to receive Laura at Limmeridge again and he finds out it is from her he reads it without complains “The moment I heard Miss Halcombe’s name I gave up. It is a habit of mine always to give up to Miss Halcombe. I find, by experience, that it saves noise. I gave up on this occasion. Dear Marian!” (Collins 305-306)

There are very many moments when Marian acts in an unconventional way and shows she is courageous but the most important one is when she undresses her habitual costume and dresses in clothes that permit her to move easily “I took off my silk gown to begin with (…) I next removed the white and cumbersome parts of my underclothing, and replaced them by a petticoat of dark flannel. Over this I put my black traveling cloak, and pulled the hood on to my head” (Collins 287) and climbs to the roof of the verandah in order to spy on Sir Percival Glyde and Count Fosco. Her action is very dangerous and it transgresses the norms of the proper feminine. No respectable Victorian woman would have done what she did and according to Valerie Peddlar “Marian is a fearless and unconventional heroine but although she dares to hitch up her petticoats and to clamber out the window to spy on her adversaries, she acts with moral probity, selflessly pursuing her half-sister’s interests.” (65) Peddlar’s affirmation is true because Marian does not spy on Glyde and Fosco to pursue some scheming plan of finding some incriminatory information and then blackmailing them for example but because she wants to protect her sister from their villainous plans.

However, Laura has always been dependent on the others and especially on Marian and Marian has always protected her and has stood up for her. For instance, just before her act of spying she confronted Sir Percival because he locked Laura in her bedroom “Take YOU care how you treat your wife, and how you threaten ME,” I broke out in the heat of my anger. “There are laws in England to protect women from cruelty and outrage. If you hurt a hair of Laura’s head, if you dare to interfere with my freedom, come what may, to those laws I will appeal.” (Collins 262) Marian encourages Laura after her door has been unlocked and tells her that “”you are not quite helpless so long as I am here with you” (Collins 269) She is courageous and she is always prepared to deal with Sir Percival because she says “As long as I had him to deal with alone I felt certain of not losing my presence of mind. Any woman who is sure of her own wits is a match at any time for a man who is not sure of his own temper.” (Collins 277)

Marian is always admired for what she says and does and the curiosity is that men admire her most. Vincent Gilmore characterizes her as “resolute”, “clear minded” and “a sensitive, vehement, passionate nature, a woman of ten thousand in these trivial, superficial times” (117). The villain Count Fosco considers her because of her courage a “grand creature”, “magnificent woman”, “firm as a rock” and admires her with all his soul. (Collins 291) Whilst he talks in admiring terms about her he says about Laura that she is a “poor, flimsy, pretty blonde.” (Collins 291) In my opinion through Count Fosco’s voice it is Collins himself who speaks and rejects the “angel in the house” in favor of the independent, strong willed and courageous woman.

After the spying episode Marian gets ill because she stayed outside in the rain and disappears so to say from the narrative for a while. Meanwhile Laura is confined in the asylum and loses her identity since her sister’s condition prevented her to protect her from the two villains. However, Marian gets better, saves Laura all by herself and although she is weakened by the illness she manages to keep her former energy, courage, determination and spirits “Marian’s spirits rallied, and her natural energy of character began to assert itself again, with something, if not all, the freedom and vigour of former times.” (Collins 504) Walter Hartright returns from his journey in Africa and helps Marian to take care of Laura and restore her identity. They move together in London and Walter is the one that goes after Count Fosco and Sir Percival and Marian takes care of Laura most of the time and does the chores. In addition, Marian expresses her wish to help Walter if a dangerous situation occurs “”I am not quite broken down yet,” she said. “I am worth trusting with my share of the work.” (…) “And worth trusting with my share in the risk and the danger too.”” (Collins 390) Walter believes in Marian’s strong nature and she is the fist to know about Pecival’s death and not Laura “In the case of any other woman, less courageous and less reliable, I might have hesitated before I ventured on unreservedly disclosing the whole truth.” (Collins 472) The novel ends with Walter’s words “Marian was the good angel of our lives.” (Collins 569) In my opinion the word “angel” is not a reference to the ideal of Victorian femininity, the “angel in the house” and she is seen as a good angel because she was the one that protected them and guided them in the hard moments of their lives. She was their guardian angel.


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