This Week In My Classes: Men and Women and The Woman in White

The Woman in White isn’t the only thing going on in my classes this week, but it’s by far the most fun–and happily, it seems as if the students like it too. They had to submit their questions today for the next round of letter exchanges, and I saw more than a few comments about how much more suspenseful and enjoyable it is than our first two novels. I’m a bit surprised that they didn’t find Great Expectations suspenseful: Collins doesn’t have any moments better than the one in which Pip returns to London from a visit to Miss Havisham, only to be met at the gate by the note in Wemmick’s writing, “Don’t go home!” But I can see why they are feeling the suspense more in The Woman in White: Collins sets a faster pace than Dickens, and he builds the suspense less by images and intimations and more through heavy-handed foreshadowing and cliff-hangers. It really is great fun–and part of the fun comes, I think, from the impression the whole novel gives off of a writer having a blast with his own material.

Today we talked about gender roles in the novel. We started with our hero Walter Hartright, whose heart certainly is in the right place, but who doesn’t exactly live up to the promise of that noble-sounding name in his actions. The advantages that accrue to him (socially, legally, economically) because he’s male are undercut by the disadvantages of his class position. It’s even made explicit that he is effectively neutered by his role as a drawing master:

It had been my profession, for years past, to be in this close contact with young girls of all ages, and of all orders of beauty. I had accepted the position as part of my calling in life; 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.

It’s possible to read the rest of the novel as the story of how Walter learns the value and use of his, um, umbrella. His polite propriety has costs, after all: when he learns that the woman he loves, Laura Fairlie, is engaged to the creepy Sir Percival Glyde, he mopes, weeps, and runs off to South America, leaving her to the ineffectual protection of her girly uncle Frederick  (“he had a frail, languidly-fretful, over-refined look–something singularly and unpleasantly delicate in its association with a man”) and the ardent but also ineffectual care-taking of her manly half-sister Marian (“altogether wanting in those feminine attractions of gentleness and pliability”). Laura herself is almost too ideally feminine: “Think of her,” Walter muses, “as you thought of the first woman who quickened the pulses within you that the rest of her sex had no art to stir. . . . [she has] all the charms of beauty, gentleness, and simple truth, that can purify and subdue the heart of man”).

Laura epitomizes the ideal Victorian woman: she is pure, virtuous, innocent, and unworldly. Of course our hero falls in love with her! But actually Laura is so perfect she’s boring, and so Walter’s love for her seems oddly uninspiring and unheroic. It also seems significant that her double in the novel is a woman who has escaped from an asylum and is twice mistaken for a ghost. Readers since the novel’s first publication have found Marian much more attractive–in spite of (or is it because of?) the “dark down on her upper lip [which is] almost a moustache.” What do we really want in a woman, Collins seems to be asking? Or, for that matter, what do we expect in a man? If Walter, our good guy, disappoints by becoming so predictably infatuated with Laura, what does it mean that Count Fosco, Sir Percival’s flamboyant co-conspirator, is the only man in the novel with the good sense and good taste to appreciate Marian? “Under happier circumstances,” he effuses, “how worthy I should have been of Miss Halcombe–how worthy Miss Halcombe would have been of ME.”

13 thoughts on “This Week In My Classes: Men and Women and The Woman in White

  1. Stacey Donohue February 8, 2012 / 5:29 pm

    I would love to take your class, Rohan! I love The Woman in White but have never enjoyed a class discussion about it. NOW I know why I have always preferred Marian! What lucky students you have.


  2. Amateur Reader (Tom) February 8, 2012 / 8:02 pm

    So that double – there were several points where I was expecting – or hoping – that the doubles would pull the old switcheroo, if for no other reason than to make Laura more interesting.

    And since I, thinking that maybe they had switched places, was carefully studying her every word and smallest gesture for evidence of the switch, she did, in fact, become more interesting. A good trick.


  3. Elisabeth Czerwinski February 8, 2012 / 11:34 pm

    Unbelievable. I just scrounged this from the classics shelf at Value Village (a terrible habit) yesterday! I shall follow along with the class…. that is if I can put down the George Martin series. So much reading, so little sleep…

    xo and hoping all is well with you and yours,



  4. Rohan February 9, 2012 / 9:21 am

    @Stacey, they didn’t think they were so lucky while we were reading through Barchester Towers–more fools they! I often teach Lady Audley’s Secret as my token ‘sensation novel,’ and they like that a lot too, but I really think The Woman in White is a better novel qua novel (LAS is certainly sensational!), so I feel as if this is a win-win scenario for us.

    @Tom, I think something similar happens with Walter, who’s nearly as dull as Laura except for the oddity of his loving Laura and being so dull!

    @Liz, sleep is overrated! 🙂 I think The Woman in White is pretty un-put-downable. If your edition shows them, pay a little attention to where the breaks are for the serial installments. These guys really knew how to make sure readers came back for the next one!


  5. Amateur Reader (Tom) February 9, 2012 / 11:26 am

    True, and there is actually a related piece of narrative tension attached to Walter: will his affections switch to Marian (as they well should)? Not that a reader of any experience really expects it, but the possibility hovers there.


  6. Veronica Abbass February 10, 2012 / 10:44 am

    Off topic:

    Have you heard about/read Firmin by Sam Savage first published in hardcover in 2006? An excerpt from the Los Angeles Times claims, “Firmin is a hero in the Dickensian mode. . . .” I have read 101 pages of the novel’s 164 pages but am ambivalent.



  7. Rohan February 10, 2012 / 11:05 pm

    I haven’t heard of Firmin, Veronica. I’m always skeptical when a book is described as “Dickensian,” though. It doesn’t sound as if you’d recommend it.


  8. Ali February 11, 2012 / 10:24 am

    Oh, I love The Woman in White! I actually decided to read it after I saw your posts about it a while back. Such a great and supenseful book! And I never thought about the fact that Laura’s double contains many elements of the intriguing personality that Laura does not. Though I intend to read Armadale at soem point, I also am interested in some of the modern historical fiction that mimics the works of Collins and Dickens. In want try The Quincunx by Charles Palliser and also The Meaning of Night: A Confession by Michael Cox.


  9. Rohan February 11, 2012 / 12:09 pm

    Ali, have you read Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters? I don’t usually like “neo-Victorian” fiction but this one is sheer genius, and especially great if you’ve read some examples of Victorian sensation fiction already. I tried The Quincunx once long ago but didn’t get far. You’ll have to report how you like it: maybe I should give it another try. But often when I end up thinking is that I still have real Victorian novels to read that ought to take priority, like Dombey and Son, say.


  10. Ali February 12, 2012 / 10:29 am

    I think you make a good point about reading “neo-Victorian” fiction, Rohan, when we have the real deal available to read–and there is so much real Victorian fiction that I have not yet encountered! I have not yet read Fingersmith, but actually it is on my list for this year. I am currently a little more than halfway through Waters’s The Little Stranger, which I am reading because Litlove from Tales from the Reading Room wrote such a glowing recommendation of it. And I am really enjoying it! I know it is not your favorite book by Waters as I have perused your old posts about it, but I think you might have mentioned that Waters is able to pull off historical fiction because of her PhD in and familiarity with English literature of the past–and I agree with you. I am usually not a fan of historical novels at all, but I think I respect and like Waters because she is such an intelligent writer and thinker. I do believe her intelligence shows through in her writing, which is so essential for me if I am going to read historical fiction because it is not a genre I tend to prefer.


  11. Gayla February 13, 2012 / 12:27 pm

    Fingersmith is amazing, although I actually prefer Waters’s earlier novel Affinity. It is darker and I think the characters are more complex and interesting.

    I also thoroughly enjoyed The Little Stranger.


  12. Rohan February 13, 2012 / 1:43 pm

    It’s funny how responses differ, Gayla: Affinity is the only Sarah Waters novel I didn’t like!


  13. Veronica Abbass February 14, 2012 / 1:06 am

    My favourite “neo-Victorian” novel is The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber. I saw a paperback copy featured in a bookstore this week and wondered why it has been reissued. Then I discovered the book was made into a BBC mini-series in 2011.

    Another “neo-Victorian” novel I recommend is Drood by Dan Simmons, mostly for the Simmons’ portrayal of the Dickens-Collins friendship. If I remember correctly, there is some mention of Nelly Ternan in Drood.


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 )

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.