#WilkieWinter ~ The Woman in White, Epoch I

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I first started reading The Woman in White last year for John Wiswell‘s National Novel Reading Month. I managed about half. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the book, but it’s a bit of a slog and I seem to experience a slight reading slump in Jan/Feb. It feels like it happened last year as well. But! I soldier on. The following contains SPOILERS.

Considering my previous experience with the text, I decided to take some notes this time.

  • Walter Hartright – first author, teacher of drawing
    • Mother
    • Sarah, his sister. Doesn’t like Pesca
    • Professor Pesca – Italian, very short, language teacher, owes “life debt” to Hartright
  • Frederick Fairlie of Limmeridge House
    • Marian Halcombe, the dark one, half sister to Miss Fairlie. Talks like a 20s dame.
    • Miss Laura Fairlie, daughter of Mr. Fairlie, half sister to Miss Halcombe, niece to Frederick Fairlie (younger brother to Miss Fairlie’s father)
    • Mrs. Vesey, old governess
    • The mother of the Misses set up a school in Limmeridge
  • Mrs. Catherick, from Hampshire
  • Woman in White (Anne Catherick)
    • fears a Baronet
    • once happy in Cumberland, Limmeridge House and Village.
    • claims Mrs. Fairlie is dead, and her husband is dead, their little girl is married and gone (she isn’t). (presumably, this is Misses Halcombe and Fairlie’s mother and Miss Fairlie’s father)
    • two men looking for her, had given her lavender clothes, says she escaped from an Asylum.
  • Sir Percival Glyde
  • Vincent Gilmore, family solicitor
  • Magdalen, Arthur Fredrick’s daughter, cousin to Laura, far inheritor if Laura died single or childless.
  • Aunt Eleanor (Philip Fairlie’s sister)
  • Count Fosco

Life-interest – On Mr. Frederick’s death, interest (3000 pounds/year) to Laura/Laura’s husband, inheritance of Limmeridge to his son.
On Laura’s coming of age: 20K plus 10K life-interest (to go to Aunt Eleanor on Laura’s death, to Magdalen if Eleanor dies first); after marriage, to her husband (interest), to children (principal), to Miss Holcombe, etc. (principal) — What Glyde wants: all of it.

To be honest, I’m still not clear on the money issue, aside from knowing that Glyde is doing something unreasonable and underhanded and, by the end of Epoch 1, Miss Fairlie and Miss Halcombe know nothing of it.

General impressions:

From the very beginning, it’s stated that this story involves a great injustice, possibly something litigious. There is also an ever-present cloud of foreboding. In what doesn’t seem to be retrospective, Mr. Hartright is reluctant to take the job at Limmeridge, even though his family is very keen about it. It is, I suppose, to be seen as the inciting event.

The repetition of Miss Fairlie walking outside while Miss Halcombe reads of Anne Catherick is spooky. There’s also an interesting juxtaposition between the anonymous letter and Miss Halcombe telling Mr. Hartright of Laura’s impending nuptials. As a reader, we are never given any choice but to think poorly of Sir Glyde. The Frozen Deep had a strong theme of predestination and its reversal. It’s not being harped on yet in The Woman in White, but many of the characters feel they have no choice in matters, at least if they don’t want to part from the ways of polite society. All of Laura Fairlie’s goodness works against her. And what did Glyde whisper in her ear?

Laura’s custodians utterly fail her, but again, their choices seem to be made by circumstances. All Laura wants (since she cannot have Mr. Hartright) is to not be parted from Marian Halcombe. She has no concern about her fortune, which is all everyone else seems to be interested in (aside from Miss Halcombe and Mr. Hartright, for whom it is only an impediment). Mr. Gilmore, a lawyer, only has reservations when it is the law that Glyde is manipulating.

Questions:

1. Class. Class plays such a huge part in this novel. Laura is obviously a higher class than Walter, but also higher than her sister Marian. How does this affect her relationships with the two characters? How does class enable Mr. Fairlie to be the, uh…grouch, that he is?

Unfortunately, class is the big impediment for Laura and Walter, and the aspect of novels of this time period that make me face-palm the most.  Marian’s lower class seems to mean that she gets placed wherever someone else see fit. Not that she seems to mind, but she doesn’t really have any position in life other than as her half-sister’s companion. And then there is Mr. Fairlie. He uses his class to do whatever he pleases, which is mostly sitting in his darkened room with his collections and letting the rest of the world rot. If this had been a Shirley Jackson novel, Mr. Fairlie would quietly be poisoned (probably by his long-suffering servant, not the Misses) and everyone would be better off for it.

2. Sex. Marian is described as being manly. How does this affect her life? Laura is more womanly. How does this affect her?

Marian is given more leeway in how she can act. She’s often the go-between, the voice, and the researcher. In many ways, Marian is a more active character than Walter Hartright. Unfortunately, since she is still a woman, this doesn’t giver her much more freedom in decision-making. Laura is pretty much a pawn. Her efforts at being a good, true woman work against her. She tries to honor the promise her father made by appealing to Glyde’s generosity and finds that he has none. Her own virtue works against her since it gives Glyde no reason to end their engagement.

3. Sir Percival Glyde. What are your first impressions of Laura’s husband?

We’re never given any opportunity to think well of him. Even when the characters are given reasons to find him…reasonable, readers have been given every indication that he’s scheming to get Laura’s money. And what horrible thing did he whisper in Laura’s ear?!

4. Anne Catherick. What do you think of her? What is her part in this elaborate story?

I think Anne is a little simple and maybe a tad delusional. It sounds like she’s always been that way, but she’s probably been driven in that direction further, probably by Glyde. I won’t be surprised to find that she’s been stripped of a fortune by him too.

5. What do you think it would have been like reading this novel back when it was published? Do you think you would you feel different about the characters of Laura and Marian back then as opposed to how you feel about them now?

Reading this in 2014 America, the issues of class are more difficult to fathom. The consequences of Laura admitting that she can’t marry Glyde because of Walter are never even touched on, presumably because readers of 1860 would know that would play out. I imagine such a novel written now would include a digression on how fallen of a woman Laura might become if she goes against her family’s wishes. I am rather surprised at the character of Marian. She seems pretty outspoken for a female character of that era, even if she is the homely one.

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3 thoughts on “#WilkieWinter ~ The Woman in White, Epoch I

  1. I’ve been reading all these post on The Woman in White, remembering that I enjoyed the book, and trying to remember exactly what it is everyone is talking about. I should put it on a re-read list, but my TBR list of unread books is tremendous.

  2. I love Wilkie Collins (reservedly) for letting Marian be such an outspoken and active character in her own story. Even as hemmed in as she is in this book by class and gender, she still gets a ton of good stuff to do!

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