Patriarchy and Women in “The Woman In White”: the Ambiguous Border between Men and Women

(1) Introduction
In The Woman in White, which has been acclaimed as one of Wilkie Collins’ masterpieces, one of its chief characters, Walter Hartright begins the story with his disputable narration: “This is the story of what a Woman’s patience can endure, and what a Man’s resolution can achieve.”(5) This sentence shows Walter fixes a clear border between men and women. Associating “women” with “patience” “endurance,” “men” with “resolution” “achievement,” he regards women as passive while men active. Such a distinction may be convenient to keep the oppressor/ oppressed structure which is indispensable for patriarchy. However, we find a number of “masculine women” and “feminine men” in the novel, by which the base of patriarchy, the border between men and women becomes unstable. Let us examine how the failings of patriarchy are disclosed as well as how women’s subversive force is exerted in the novel.

(2) “Femininity” in Men
It is notable that several male characters are depicted as possessing “femininity” in The Woman in White. The most conspicuous example is Mr. Fairlie, Esquire of Limmeridge House. Employed as a drawing-master, Walter visits Limmeridge House, where he meets Mr. Fairlie for the first time. Mr Fairlie is thus described: “His feet were effeminately small, and were clad in buff-coloured silk stockings, and little womanish bronze-leather slippers.”(39)
“…he had a frail, languidly-fretful, over-refined look-something singularly and unpleasantly delicate in its association with a man, and, at the same time, something which could by no possibility have looked natural and appropriate if it had been transferred to the personal appearance of a woman.”(39-40)
His face is not natural as a man’s nor woman’s; it is as if “femininity” were gradually eating into the parts of his face and his face had lost “masculinity.”
Furthermore, Mr. Fairlie complains about the state of his nerves: “In the wretched state of my nerves, loud sound of any kind is indescribable torture to me. You will pardon an invalid? I only say to you what the lamentable state of my health obliges me to say to everybody.”(40) Thus, “femininity” is associated with “nervousness” in Mr. Fairlie, which D.A.Miller discusses, when he states “nervousness remains a signifier of femininity”(151)
It is noteworthy that Walter is also feminized as a drawing-master. Since he has many chances to meet young and pretty female students, he has trained himself to repress his sexuality: “I had trained myself to leave all the sympathies natural to my age in my employer’s outer hall, as coolly as I left my umbrella there before I went up-stairs.”(64) Thus Walter is “castrated” in order to do his job as a teacher. In spite of this self-repression, Walter falls in love with Laura, Mr. Fairlie’s niece. Noticing Walter’s state of mind, Marian, Laura’s half-sister tells him that Laura is engaged to Sir Percival Glyde. Walter decides to leave Limmeridge House, intending to work as a draughtsman for an expedition to Central America. Before leaving England, Walter meets Vincent Gilmore, a solicitor, who is surprised at Walter’s appearance: “His face looked pale and haggard -his manner was hurried and uncertain….A momentary nervous contraction quivered about his lips and eyes,…”(157) Walter looks as if he erased his “masculinity” by repressing his sexuality; “nervousness,” a signifier of “femininity” is engraved in his face. Hence, we find “femininity in men” is illustrated by the examples of Messrs. Fairlie and Walter. 

(3) “Masculinity” in Women 
Let us examine “masculinity” in women by studying Marian, Mr. Fairlie’s niece. When Walter meets Marian for the first time, he thus describes her appearance from the back at some distance: “The rare beauty of her form, and by the unaffected grace of her attitude.” (31) However, as Marian turns to him and approaches him, Walter’s impression of her changes: “The lady is dark….The lady is young….The lady is ugly!”(31) In addition, he thus describes her face and hair: “The lady’s complexion was almost swarthy, and the dark down on her upper lip was almost a moustache. She had a large, firm, masculine mouth and jaw; prominent, piercing, resolute brown eyes; and thick, coal-black hair, growing unusually low down on her forehead. 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” (32) Marian has a dark complexion and facial hair like “a moustache” as well as “resolute brown eyes,” which is contrary to Walter’s principle that “resolution” belongs to manly virtue. In addition, Marian also has a large, firm, “masculine” mouth and jaw. In this way, a “masculine” face connected to a woman’s shapely figure makes Walter feel uneasy.
After knowing Laura is engaged to Sir Percival, Walter leaves the Limmeridge House, and he exchanges farewells with Marian. “I [Walter] could add no more. My voice faltered, my eyes moistened, in spite of me. She [Marian] caught me by both hands - she pressed them with the strong, steady grasp of a man…” (125) Though Walter’s narration in the beginning defines men as active and women passive, this dichotomy never works here. In this way, there are several “feminine” men and “masculine” women in the novel. These characters more or less undermine the structure of the 19th century England patriarchy, in which a man should act like a man and a woman a woman.

(4) Subversive Power of Anne Catherick
To unearth the absurdity of patriarchy, we will examine Anne Catherick, who is locked up in a lunatic asylum by Sir Percival. Anne, being the most unfortunate victim of patriarchy, knows too well how unfair and false the male-oriented society can be. She poses a threat to a society, by laughing at people who abuse paternal power.
Let us turn to the scene in which Walter and Anne meet for the first time. The night before Walter goes to Limmeridge House, on his way back from Hampstead to London, the woman in white, Anne, taps him on the shoulder. Walter feels a cold shiver: “every drop of blood in my body was brought to a stop by the touch of a hand laid lightly and suddenly on my shoulder from behind me.” (20)
Why is Walter frozen with horror by Anne’s light touch on his shoulder? According to Tamar Heller, Anne has the ability to “be a Medusa figure who paralyzes men - a power suggested when her first touch causes the blood to stop in Hartright’s body….”(121) Anne’s femininity seems contagious to Walter and her touch arouses his fear of being feminized/ castrated. Mr. Merriman, Sir Percival’s solicitor describes Anne as a “dangerous woman to be at large….nobody knows what she may do next.”(156) This statement shows that the unbridled power of women could shake the false order of patriarchy. As women like Anne are dangerously subversive, men like Sir Percival try to lock them up.
When Anne meets Walter, she escapes from the lunatic asylum. Anne asks Walter to help her go to London: “Only say you will let me leave you when and how I please -only say you won’t interfere with me. Will you promise?” (23) To Anne’s request, Walter says “yes” as if he was bewitched into doing so. Here is Walter’s comment on his reaction: “One word! The little familiar word that is on everybody’s lips, every hour in the day. Oh me! And I tremble, now, when I write it.”(23) Walter, yielding to Anne’s power, is reduced to a passive being, which means that his “masculinity” is in danger.
Next, let us turn to Sir Percival’s case. Why is Sir Percival threatened by Anne Catherick? This is related to his secret “crime” in which Mrs. Catherick, Anne’s mother is an accomplice. Mrs. Catherick helps Sir Percival add a false entry in a register to conceal his identity as an illegitimate child. Sir Percival gives Mrs. Catherick a handsome allowance four times a year to make her keep the secret and confine her within Welmingham. One day, Mrs. Catherick asks Sir Percival’s permission to go out of Welmingham but he refuses. Prompted by anger, Mrs. Catherick tells him: “a low imposter whom I could ruin for life, if I chose to open my lips and let out his secret.”(549) The following day, being upset by Sir Percival’s word “idiot,” Anne repeats her mother’s words: “Beg my pardon, directly….or I’ll make it the worse for you. I’ll let out your Secret. I can ruin you for life, if I choose to open my lips” (549) Anne, perceiving the power of her mother’s words, repeats them without understanding what she means. These words have such a great influence that Sir Percival is totally confounded.
Hearing Anne’s words, Sir Percival believes Anne knows the secret, and locks her up in a lunatic asylum. After Anne escapes from the asylum, Sir Percival tells Count Fosco: “She’s just mad enough to be shut up, and just sane enough to ruin me when she’s at large…” (337) The secret disclosure means not just that Sir Percival will be ruined but also that the whole meaning of the society will be thrown into question.
Here is the man, who acquires the status of “a baronet” by adding the false entry in the register and bears the name “Sir Percival Glyde.” People believed such a lie for many years and order is maintained based on this falseness. Laura’s father chooses Sir Percival, the man of false identity, as his daughter’s husband-to-be. This fact reveals that “fathers” also make errors, and again questions the meaning of patriarchy.

(5) Masculinization of Walter and Feminization of Marian
It is remarkable that after returning from Central America, Walter describes himself as a “masculine” man: “From that self-imposed exile I[Walter] came back, as I had hoped, prayed, believed I should come back - a changed man. In the waters of my new life I had tempered my nature afresh. In the stern school of extremity and danger my will had learnt to be strong, my heart to be resolute, my mind to rely on itself. I had gone out to fly from my own future. I came back to face it, as a man should.” (415) Coping with difficulties such as the shipwreck, fatal disease, and attack by Indians, Walter becomes a different man. “Resolution” defined as men’s attribute by Walter is expressed as “my heart to be resolute.”
However, concerning “death by disease” “death by Indians” “death by drowning” (414) Walter does not describe them in detail. Therefore, all these incidents seem unreal and Walter’s description of himself as “a changed man” looks like “fiction.”
To reinforce Walter’s “fiction,” in which he is represented as masculine, it becomes necessary to “feminize” Marian, a “masculine” woman. Here, let us turn to Marian’s battle against Count Fosco, Sir Percival’s villainous friend, through which Marian is feminized. Marian lives with Laura after her marriage in Blackwater Park where Count Fosco is staying with Sir Percival. Marian describes how Count Fosco skillfully manipulates Marian: “He [Count Fosco] flatters my vanity, by talking to me as seriously and sensibly as if I was a man.” (225) This must be an effective strategy for dealing with women like Marian who despises women generally. Marian, being flattered, finds herself attracted to Count Fosco against her will. Marian has never met such a man with whom she is unwilling to make an enemy of. Marian asks herself: “Is this because I like him, or because I am afraid of him?” (226)  Thus her feelings about Count Fosco are complicated and ambiguous.
While Marian suffers from typhoid fever, Count Fosco reads her diary without her permission, and after examining it thoroughly, he writes his own note after Marian’s description: “Admirable woman!” (343) “the charming outbursts of womanly feeling” (343) Furthermore, he describes his own note as “grateful, sympathetic, paternal lines” (344) This word “paternal” implies that Count Fosco gives himself “paternal rights.” Heller points out that “Fosco’s language here is that of a male critic commenting on the work of a woman writer.”(134)
Count Fosco and Sir Percival conspire to lock up Laura in a lunatic asylum and succeed in seizing her inheritance. Laura is officially reported to be dead and forced to live as Anne Catherick who is actually dead and whose appearance matches Laura’s.
After Marian successfully rescues Laura from the asylum, they meet Walter in the graveyard. Walter rents a house in the far East of London under a pseudonym and lives there with Marian and Laura pretending that they are his sisters. Marian is engaged in housework instead of their maid. Marian thus describes: “What a woman’s hand are fit for….early and late, these hands of mine shall do.” (441) Compared with her description “my hands were, and always will be, as awkward as a man’s” (233), we find even her hands are feminized by compulsion. In addition, Marian cries: “I [ Walter ] saw the big tears rise thick in her eyes, and fall slowly over her cheeks as she [ Marian ] looked at me” (441) Here Marian is described as a weepy woman, which works as “signifier of her new femininity”(237) as Elizabeth Langland discusses.
In the end, Walter highly praises Marian’s virtue: “that sublime self-forgetfulness of women, which yield so much and asks so little, turned all her thoughts from herself to me”(558) If women’s virtue lies in repressing her own desire and devoting herself to others’ happiness, this can be said to be an ideology fit to support patriarchal order. Thus Marian is transformed into an embodiment of virtue and reduced to “the good angel” (643)

(6) Conclusion
As we are approaching the end of the story, we find the roles of men and women are fixed and patriarchal order is reinforced. Through Walter’s energetic activity, the conspiracy by Count Fosco and Sir Percival is uncovered and Laura’s identity is reestablished. Sir Percival perishes in the fire by accident and Count Fosco is murdered by a secret society and found dead in a morgue in Paris. Walter and Laura get married and Laura gives birth to their son. Thus patriarchal order is strengthened even at the end.
It can be said that the social background of 19th century England requires such a conventional ending. According to Lillian Nayder, “Collins demonstrates that women lose their property rights and their legitimacy when they marry, and undergo a type of “civil death.”(74) At the same time, Collins suggests that “coverture may be a necessary evil, a means of providing for innately dependent women and counteracting the dangers of female emancipation.” (74) Collins thus considers “cultural anxieties about the sexual and economic autonomy granted women by the 1857 Divorce Act”(74) and adjusts to such social tendencies by making the ending moralistic and conservative.
However, if we pay attention to the details of the ending, we find Collins does not totally flatter the male-oriented society. When Walter almost finishes his story, he writes “The pen falters in my hand”(643) Walter thus abandons his “metaphorical penis”(3) as Sandra Gilbert & Susan Gubar discusses. Furthermore, he adds, “let Marian end our Story”(643) and proclaims that he is prepared to hand a pen to Marian. This means creative ability in writing is not just exercised by men: The Woman in White is the story composed by both male and female narrators.

Works Cited
Collins, Wilkie. The Woman In White ( Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998 )
Gilbert, Sandra M. and Guber, Susan. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteen-Century Literary Imagination ( New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979 )
Heller, Tamar. “The Woman in White: Portrait of the Artist as a Professional Man” in Dead Secret: Wilkie Collins and the Female Gothic ( New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1992)
Langland, Elizabeth. “New Woman in Old Guises” in Nobody’s Angels: Middle-Class Women and Domestic Ideology in Victorian Culture ( Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press, 1995 )
Miller, D.A. “Cage aux folles: Sensation and Gender in Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White” in The Novel and the Police ( Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988)
Nayder, Lillian. “Sensation Fiction and Marriage Law Reform: Wives and Property in The Woman in White, No Name, and Man and Wife” in Wilkie Collins ( New York: Twayne Publishers, 1997 )


About estherhawdon

a University lecturer, teaching English, engaged in translation, research on British novels from the 19th century to 21st century, love movies, music, meeting new friends
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Patriarchy and Women in “The Woman In White”: the Ambiguous Border between Men and Women

  1. Jason Whittaker says:

    Wonderful stuff – I’ve long been a fan of The Woman in White ever since I first encountered Collins as an undergraduate far too many years ago. The BBC recently repeated its radio serialisation of the novel (much superior in my opinion to the TV version). It’s also available as an audio book at (though the fact that it’s a cassette probably means its unplayable now!)

    Thanks also for drawing attention to your blog – there’s a lot of great stuff here!

  2. angad says:

    great piece esther!

  3. Andi Bob says:

    I have to say that reading your blog is truly inspiring. Thank you, Kazuko-san! 🙂

  4. Very interesting and well-argued. Is this something you wrote for a class? It seems to go beyond the traditional “review.”

    I haven’t yet read this one (though I did recently win the book in a Giveaway), so I can’t comment much on your findings, though I am glad you used external references as well. One point I would add to is this:

    ‘”You will pardon an invalid? I only say to you what the lamentable state of my health obliges me to say to everybody.”(40) Thus, “femininity” is associated with “nervousness”’ – I would say, in addition to the association of nervousness with femininity, there also seems to be a clear pairing of femininity-in-men with “illness” or unnaturalness. This would be a typical sentiment in literature of the time, though no less disheartening for that.

    Great job!

    • EstherHawdon says:

      Thank you for encouragement and insightful opinion! As you pointed out, “femininity in men” can be regarded as “illness” by some people who are obsessed with conservative and narrow-minded views. ( I guess it’s the story of not just Victorian England but also even today ) I once wrote this article in Japanese ( about 10 years ago ) and this time revised it and translated into English so that astute readers like you (all over the world) can read my work.
      Next time I’m going to write something on “Lady Audley’s Secret.”

  5. Hi,
    Hey, cool review, I find it new. Also got to know more about the Novel and the novelist. Introduction got my attention which what made me read on.

    “Ambiguous Border between Men and Women”
    Didn’t recall anyone saying this sentence. As a matter of fact I Google searched and found only you who came up with it. 🙂

    Femininity in men. Masculinity in Women.
    Reading between the story and what you’ve wrote, had this vision on the storyline and your note which you gave new participative. You’ve highlighted one of the main elements that give the story it’s name.
    Valuable subjects, you gave the reader a chance to grasp more, novelists and writers themselves discussed to clarify! Yes you cleared, a reader can have this vision to understand what’s going around/in the story.
    Not only educational, it somehow entertain me! I was not only reading the novel but also reading Kazuko-chan content which was like watching behind the scenes of a cool movie with bonus! Yaa 🙂

    At (5)
    “it is remarkable that after returning from Central America, Walter describes himself as a “masculine” man: “From that self-imposed exile I[Walter] came back, as I had hoped, prayed, believed I should come back - a changed man.”
    This part of the novel gave hope, added some light to the story like a painting that needs dark and light value. “Walter come back” is one of the parts kept me on exploring between the novel and Kazuko-chan review. Otherwise, I may had lost the depth and feel of the story and so as this review.

    Ahh Count Fosco ! This is one of the character that moves the story ( from my point of view). Wilkie somehow add a special touch to his novel by introducing Count Fosco. Count Fosco is a kind of character that supports other characters also the main ones. This alone itself is a discussion.

    Ending of your review was spot on. when you highlighted (643) and wrote “that he is prepared to hand a pen to Marian. This means creative ability in writing is not just exercised by men: The Woman in White is the story composed by both male and female narrators”.

    My bad! I just brush fast over this, a fast comment that is!
    I did not want to go into details, otherwise I may end up over text your own review on the novelist!

    This is not only A review, but a you have somehow take the novel to a new level.

    I’ve learned from this. I say to you Kazuko-chan was great really.

    • EstherHawdon says:

      Thank you for an interesting comment. I agree that Count Fosco is an attractive villain without whom this novel would be much flatter. I’m glad to know my review “entertains” you and I’m also entertained by your comment.

  6. Salma Javid Khan says:

    “let Marian end our Story”(643) … Where’s the end by Marian?
    I didn’t find it in any PDF or online version with her narrating the end. Please explain, thanks.

    • estherhawdon says:

      Hi Salma! Thanks for an interesting comment.
      By “let Marian end our Story,” Walter Hartright expects Marian to speak further, but (As you point out) the silence follows after this line. It’s ironic for Walter to expect to speak through a woman who has been silenced (as Tamar Heller discusses, in Dead Secret, pp. 140-141 Yale University Press) In my view, Collins expects readers to imagine freely how Marian will narrate the sequel by letting the novel end with a blank.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s