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.”