The Treatment of Female characters Wilkie Collins a Woman in White
“What the devil did Mrs Catherick want at this house? “… Wilkie Collins’ The Woman In White is a book of mystery, madness and escape. Wilkie Collins uses the idea of madness to capture mystery and playing with the idea of the unknown. At the time Victorian reactions to people with any type of mental problems were to instantly lock them up. In The woman in White Collins uses different language and perspective to portray differences in treatment towards women and explores their relations with Male characters in the book.
Wilkie Collins explores how three women all brought up in the same way, take different paths in life and have different relationships with Males in the novel, he also shows how, a typical quaint man, with nothing complicated about him, can travel on a journey from an art teacher, to a masculine Heroic figure. Collins creates a big confusion of gender types cleverly within the novel, with male characters having feminine traits, and female characters having strangely “male friendships” with male characters. Walter Hartright is Probably the main character focused upon for the most part of the novel in The Woman In White.
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However, although he is, eventually, the seeming hero, and throughout portrayed as a good natured, well meaning character, he is not the typical type. Most heroes in Victorian novels are, strong, masculine men, with a hardened personality and high risk job, the type who stands up for what is morally right, and always helps good come out on top. Walter however, is a mere shadow of this when the novel starts. He is a quiet, “nothing-special” kind of person. An Art teacher, who teaches young women how to paint pictures all day, with no partner or love life, he is barely Robin Hood.
However, Walter’s half hearted life is interrupted suddenly, which throws him in to a swirl of change, causing him to come out a different man too the quaint art teacher. Anne Catherick, has credit too claim for this, as she changed Walters life, involving him in a whirl of mystery. However, the main cause for Walters progression, from weak, kind hearted man, too heroic, bold, masculine figure to return and get what he wants, is the beautiful Laura Fairlie. Seemingly, Walters transformation starts the moment he sets eyes on this deliciously beautiful, prize beauty.
He falls in love unintentionally, the first time he sets eyes on her. The way Walter deals with his new love, gives me the impression, he is a novice in the area. He acts emotional, flustered at times. Also, towards the end of his first part of the narrative, he cracks under the thought of having to leave his new found love and bursts into tears whilst saying good bye, he then kisses her hand, showing an ultimate respect and affection. So we can tell, he wants to do all he can to keep their relationship going well.
This gave me the impression he does not come across a woman like Laura often, and the women he teaches, do not share this type of relationship with him and he has never been this close too another woman. “She approached nearer — and I said to myself (with a sense of surprise which words fail me to express), The lady is ugly! “. Although Miss Fairlie takes Walter’s love, his heart has room for more than one woman, however the second woman who Walter has a strong relationship with, has a much more verbal and active relationship with him.
Marian Halcombe is far from Walters’s lover, however, it is as if the two share a brain, they click the minute they first meet. This was unusual for a Man and Woman in those days, as usually, a man would have one main woman in his life, his wife/spouse. From a distance, Marian looks a prize, as her body shape is almost perfect, but up close she is “ugly”. Walter and Marian conduct the investigation into Laura Fairlie, “The Woman in white” and Sir Percival Glyde. Walter and Marian have a manly relationship, a very unusual, mutual friendship; they are similar in the way their minds work.
Marian is a prime example of characteristics, which are specific to a male, as she is an investigator, in general she is a masculine figure. The way she thinks, speaks and acts, implies she would feel comfortable being in a males position. She even says “If I only had the privileges of a man, I would order out Sir Percival’s best horse instantly, and tear away on a night-gallop, eastward, to meet the rising sun”, this gave me the impression, she considers life as a male often and can identify the benefits. Also, unlike other women, she thinks outside the box, she considers the larger picture.
For example, no ordinary woman would ever consider going against a male, or challenging his thoughts or ways. Marian does this in conversations with Walter often, expressing herself clearly, which, in Victorian times, was unheard of in an ordinary home. Marian also says (in the quote above) “If only I had the privileges of a man” which again, gives evidence towards her wishes too be a man, which any middle or upper class Victorian, would find strange and perhaps even assume the Woman in question had something wrong with her mind.
Throughout The Woman In White, Walter becomes a hero, not just for Laura, for everyone. However, his role of detective would not have gone nearly as well or straight forward as with the help of Marian Halcombe. Marian becomes A heroine taking the right hand side of Walter Hartwright as Detective, again, she shows a more masculine side, as detectives, police and judges etc were almost always Men in those times. In Limmeridge house, there seems too be a huge male presence, missing from its everyday running.
As, the only “man” if he can be called that, in the house when Walter moves in for the first time, is Mr Fairlie, or more appropriate for my perception of him Frederick Fairy!. Frederick Fairlie cannot be referred to as a man, he is a large, weakling, who really has no control over the goings on in his house and would be oblivious to three thousand immigrants moving into the floors beneath him, all that concerns this nuisance of a creation, is himself and his food.
When Walter and Frederick meet, they are clearly two very different personalities and never should be mixed for long, there are few people who Frederick Fairlie can stand too be around for more than two minutes at a time, Walter is not an exception. Although Walter is not the most masculine male too come across, he is a far sight better than Frederick Fairlie, Frederick is panicky, paranoid, feminine, frail, quaint, delicate and a poor excuse for the man of the house. Walter is polite, calm, dedicated and kind hearted.
This is one of the only contacts Walter has with Mr Fairlie, but we can perceive the most part of his personality through this short meeting and we can also tell that something changed him, from a family producing man, too a shrivelled old wreck. Mr Fairlie shows his weakness also, later on in the novel, when he is broken down into giving Glyde the 20,000 pounds inheritance, which was intended for Laura. “On the Tuesday I sent in the altered settlement, which practically disinherited the very persons whom Miss Fairlie’s own lips had informed me she was most anxious to benefit.
I had no choice. Another lawyer would have drawn up the deed if I had refused to undertake it. ” This shows his feminine side and his incapacity with problems, if a problem cannot be solved first time with a simple solution, Mr Fairlie cannot handle it, he cracks and gives in, passing it on too any hands who will take it, from then on, it becomes their problem and no concern of his. “It absolutely startles me, now he is in my mind, to find how plainly I see him! ” Count Fosco, the close friend of Marians, is a slimy personality.
He sneaks around, whilst Marion and Walter are playing the role of detective for Laura, he sneaks past the barriers when they are at there weakest (Marian is ill and Walter is away in America) and plays detective for the opposite side. Fosco, is also similar to Marian, in the way he carries female traits, such as his smooth, feminine skin, his obsession with small pets “He seems to be even fonder of his mice than of his other pets, smiles at them, and kisses them, and calls them by all sorts of endearing names” and his love for gossip.
This is weak and very feminine for a man of high position like a count, it shows weakness and strangeness in Fosco’s Personality. Yet Marian still seems slightly obsessed with him, constantly thinking to herself about him and perceiving him in different ways. Gender in The Woman In White is a complicated topic, it is purposely made like this by Wilkie Collins, as I believe it is the main part of this novel, there are so many twists, turns and confusions in the Gender of this novel, it is hard to focus and analyse it at times. But the main focus in this novel, is the swap in gender roles.
I think Wilkie Collins based a large part of this novel on the fact that there are so many Gender changes, so as to make it different from any other published or unfinished novel written at the time. He achieves this well, by cleverly using Gender specific characteristics and aspects to create strange “break-the-mould” characters such as Marian, Fosco and Frederick Fairlie. But he then goes further, to create clichi??d characters such as Laura and Walter, then mixes them up well with the stranger characters in the story. This creates twists and turns in the story, with a surprisingly balanced finish at the end.