Foreign Devils and Funny Foreigners: Approaching The Woman in White

The Woman in White, with its many twists and cliffhangers, reflects the turmoil of Victorian England, which was becoming a multicultural society. London’s hosting of the 1851 World Fair, a lavish affair hosted in a massive “Crystal Palace”, reflected both this transformation and England’s pride in its important place on the world stage. Yet the growing waves of immigrants arriving in England also provoked fear and tension; caricatures in the then-popular magazine Punch reflect the fear of competition for jobs and of foreign thieves. In his novel, Collins represents attitudes towards Italian immigration through the characters of Fosco and Pesca. The two men embody a variety of Victorian stereotypes of Italians specifically and foreigners generally: Fosco is both the suave charmer and Machiavellian poisoner; Pesca is simultaneously an irremediably foreign buffoon and member of a dangerous political society. By giving these two characters personalities based around often-conflicting stereotypes, Collins gives them more depth than a number of his British characters; by seemingly pandering to his audience’s clichés, he subverts them, giving the presumed “funny foreigner” or “foreign devil” archetypes nuance and credibility.

Collins makes Pesca and Fosco Italian characters, allowing him to cover a variety of the often-conflicting stereotypes the British had about foreigners. In the 19th century, the Risorgimento, a political and social movement attempting to create a unified Italy, resulted in the political exile of many. Pesca represents these refugees, a number of which came to Britain, welcomed with both disdain and fascination. Annemarie McAllister explains that

“Italians inhabited a particularly contested cultural area. They were dashing revolutionaries, winning their liberty, they were the inheritors of Rome , they were sensuous, exciting, musical, handsome, and therefore represented a threat to the self-esteem of the Englishman. So other strands of discourse about them were necessary—the bourgeoisie could constitute Italy as a place of peasants, whose much-vaunted cultural superiority stood revealed as a sham—a degenerate animal-like race who used music as a weapon for blackmail and legitimized crime.” (180)

The Hartright family’s treatment of Pesca reflects these contrasting attitudes; elderly Mrs. Hartright is rejuvenated by his presence, and delights in his antics – to her, Pesca is the archetype of the “Funny foreigner”, whose mannerisms and unfamiliarity with British culture are a great source of amusement. By contrast, Walter’s sister struggles to accept Pesca’s “un-Britishness”, which offends her sense of propriety. Collins condemns the latter feeling through Walter, who wonders whether “[we are], in these modern days, just the least trifle in the world too well brought up?” (Collins 14). As the reader’s main “guide” throughout the novel, Walter appears trustworthy and likeable. Collins’ choice to give him these sentiments gives them particular weight, as he has established himself as something of a hero by rescuing a drowning Pesca – and yet is also a likeable, ordinary young man. This use of average British characters to praise tolerance and open-mindedness shows Collins’ desire for his message to be heard; for instance, Mrs. Michelson’s plea to benevolence towards foreigners is easy to relate to for Collins’ Victorian readers, because she herself is a comfortingly familiar figure: a clergyman’s widow, respectable and very ordinarily British.

This argument for more understanding of foreigners does not initially seem very radical, as Mrs. Michelson speaks in pious terms of the need for “a feeling of humane indulgence for foreigners. They do not possess our blessings and advantages;” (Collins 362). Yet this form of close-mindedness, as well as Mrs. Hartright’s limiting Pesca to an amusing distraction, are subtly mocked by Collins. Mrs. Michelson is well-meaning but easily fooled character, letting Fosco charm her immediately. Collins even appears to mock her, when it is revealed that Fosco, whom she praised as a “most considerate nobleman”, is probably not a real count, and details how he took advantage of her “simple confidence” (Collins 601). Mrs. Hartright is equally blind, in another way – Walter comments that she believes Laura is a madwoman tricking him, and she abandons them, unlike Pesca. Pesca overthrows the image she has of him when he reveals his affiliations with a secret society, in which he has a high rank. Fosco and Pesca are not helpless foreigners in a strange country – Fosco speaks English with more ease than most British, and Pesca has great responsibilities in the English branch of his organization; Collins makes clear that they do not deserve pity or suspicion based on their foreignness.

It may seem ironic that Pesca escapes the stereotype of the foolish, funny foreigner by representing another one, that of the revolutionary Italian, part of a mafia-like secret society. These real-life organizations, such as the Carbonari, doubtlessly added to the Victorian idea of Italians as “dashing revolutionaries” invoked by McAllister. Yet Pesca and Fosco subvert this stereotype. Fosco is an elderly, obese man with almost childish mannerisms, and Pesca is almost a dwarf; neither could truly be described as “dashing”, despite Fosco’s enormous charm. Collins presents a balanced, realistic view of Italy, a country that he traveled to and appears to have been fond of – according to Mariaconcetta Costantini, he “felt a strong attraction for the culture of the Mediterranean country, which he strove to represent from a realistic, unbiased perspective” (Costantini 13). He acknowledges the political reality of secret societies, and creates characters well-anchored in these realities, but rather than pander to his audience’s imagination of handsome revolutionaries fighting in the streets, he reminds them that people are full of surprises – including foreigners, and that Italy’s politics are more complex than we understand.

Pesca and Fosco have been established as characters that surpass the stereotypes concerning their nationality; yet Collins goes beyond using them as devices to prove his point, and makes them central figures both in the plot. It is Pesca, the short Italian who speaks broken English, who starts and ends the action of the novel, first by securing Walter his position as Laura’s drawing-master, then by becoming the key to Foso’s undoing. That he becomes Walter and Laura’s son’s godfather is a testimony to his crucial role in the book – more than just an amusing friend, he gains a place of honor in the family, along with the very British Mr. Gilmore, an indication from Collins that foreigner and British have equal weight in his novel; he radically makes the godfather of the aristocratic Earl of Limmeridge an Italian member of a secret political organization, who admits to having led a tempestuous life. Furthermore, by choosing to make Pesca the instrument of Fosco’s unraveling, Collins shows that what Walter could not accomplish alone, he can do with Pesc, who remained his steadfast friend when he went into hiding with Laura and Marian, more so than his own family. He even states that “his honour and his courage were to be implicitly relied on” (Collins 565), attributing to Pesca qualities that were considered quintessentially British. As further proof of Walter -and, by extension, Collins’ – regard for Pesca, his confession of his link to the Count is in Italian. Walter reveals he himself “learnt to read and understand his native language…in the earlier days of our intimate companionship” (Collins 574) For once, Pesca is not struggling to speak English; it is Walter, the British hero, who is adapting to a foreign language he learned from his friend. The revelations that follow are crucial to Walter’s victory over the Count, and to the novel’s resolution – and they are translated from Italian. Collins makes it clear that foreignness has its place in the heroes’ fight for justice; here, success comes from collaboration with a political rebel from another culture, rather than from a British representative of law and order like Mr. Kyrle or Mr. Gilchrist.

Fosco also has more depth than just being the “wicked foreigner”. He defies that role by proving to have a real philosophy behind his actions, and by being much more capable of thought than the very British villain, Sir Percival. Fosco plans the switch of Laura and Anne Catherick, rather than be a simple sidekick to Percival. Marian, whose judgment the readers trust, warns Walter that “…if you are obliged to spare one of them, don’t let it be the Count” (Collins 448), indicating that he is the real threat. Fosco, for all his melodramatic theatrics, is also one of the most nuanced characters in the novel. He excels at chemistry, and uses it to create poisons; yet he also correctly identifies Marian’s typhus, and is willing to use his talent to save her, despite being her enemy. His attraction to her also reveals an inner turmoil – he is clearly capable of deep feelings, even when they impede his plans. The force of his personality is best shown by Marian’s attraction to him in return – she admits he is one of the few men that could have “tamed” her completely. Fosco further shows the genuine depth of his character by his discussion with Marian, in which he argues “I have met, in my time, with so many different sorts of virtue, that I am puzzled, in my old age, to say which is the right sort and which is the wrong” (Collins 234). By giving Fosco a voice to argue his position – and, later, allowing him to narrate the story – Collins points out the narrow-mindedness of the British, and the ability of foreigners to express their own ideas and live by their own values. It is especially significant that Pesca later echoes Fosco’s words, passionately telling Walter to “Leave the refugee alone! Laugh at him, distrust him, open your eyes in wonder at that secret self which smoulders in him…but judge us not!…the long luxury of your own freedom has made you incapable of doing us justice now.”(Collins 575). While readers may not be convinced by the villainous Fosco’s argument for moral relativism, they must be more affected by Pesca’s impassioned plea, in which he attacks the attitudes toward foreigners that have been present throughout the novel. He and Fosco are on opposite sides, one a villain, the other a protagonist, yet they express the same sentiment, forcing readers to wonder whether this is a frustration shared by many foreigners; Collins uses these two very different men as a plea not to judge what is different and unknown. Both Fosco and Pesca defy the readers’ initial judgments by proving to be conflicted characters with real backstories, feelings, and ability to argue their cause – in this way, they are given more life than British characters such as Laura and Mr. Fairlie.

It is interesting to note that Mrs. Rubelle and Louis, the other two foreign characters in the novel, have no voices. Collins lets a count and a respectable teacher of aristocratic women express their frustrations as refugees and outsiders, but the working class foreigners must remain silent – even more so than British servants, such as Mr. Michelson, who at least get a narrative. With this choice, Collins may be reflecting a certain attitude of his era – that the British were willing to accept upper-class, “civilized” foreigners, such as the dashing revolutionaries described by Annemarie McAllister, but not ordinary, unexciting people – the “peasants” she describes as being looked down upon by the English.

Collins’ main denunciation in The Woman in White is of marriage, specifically the way it robs a woman of her identity and rights. Yet he includes a call to his readers to review their treatment of foreigners, by creating foreign characters that seem to comply with the stereotypes of their nationalities – until they subvert them and reveal the full extent of their nuance and depth. Collins gives Laura no voice, the better to denounce her treatment; Fosco and Pesca, however, are rich characters, given unique voices to speak in the defense of what is different and unfamiliar to Victorian England.

Works Cited

Edwardian Era Bernard Partridge Cartoon, Punch (1903) http://punch.photoshelter.com/image/I0000A0vh8Hy7xDw

Collins, Wilkie. The Woman in White. 1860. Penguin Books, 1999

Costantini, Mariaconcetta. “A Land of Angels with ‘Stilettos’: Travel Experiences and Literary Representations of Italy in Wilkie Collins.” Wilkie Collins Society Journal, vol.10, 2007, pp. 13-33.

McAllister, Annemarie. John Bull’s Italian Snakes and Ladders: English Attitudes to Italy in the Mid-Nineteenth Century. Newcastle : Cambridge Scholars, 2007.

The Masculine and Feminine Identity in Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White

Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White portrays the distinctly partitioned sexual spheres in the Victorian era, as is reflected through the weak and victimized female characters and the powerful and domineering male characters. The Victorian femininity is characterized through passivity, endurance and unassertive meekness, while masculinity is characterized by energy, action and resoluteness. The passive Laura Fairlie reflects the prevailing expectation that women should be submissive and obedient. The fair and delicate Laura who exudes feminine weakness exemplifies the passivity of the Victorian femininity in the uttermost, while the plain and energetic Marian Halcombe poses a serious defiance to the prevailing Victorian womanhood by scorning feminine passivity and embracing masculine energy and resoluteness, though with ultimate failure. On the other hand, the active and energetic men like Percival, Fosco and Walter embody the masculine energy and resoluteness. In contrast to the comparatively weak and often victimized women, the men take an active hand to shape the course of their lives, despite their moral discrepancies. Percival and Fosco use their evil energy and resolution to shape destiny to their advantages. Walter Hartridge uses his noble energy and chivalrous resolution to rescue the distressed damsel and save the day, which even the shrewd and energetic Marian fails to emulate. It is ultimately through masculine action and resoluteness that the development of the story is shaped. Marian’s ultimate failure in challenging the prevailing Victorian femininity shows that the established gender spheres could not be easily defied, and that the division of sexual realms remains firm in the Victorian period. The prototype of Victorian womanhood is represented by the character of Laura Fairlie. Laura is the extreme representation of the passive and unassertive Victorian womanhood. She encapsulates the Victorian social expectation that women should be obedient, unassertive and patient. Laura reflects feminine obedience by submitting to her father’s wishes of marrying Percival. Even though she is painfully aware that marrying Percival would transform her into “the most wretched of her sex” (Collins 171), she still resolves to enter into the arranged marriage out of deference to her father’s dying wishes. As Marian observes, Laura was simply “content to make it” (73). Laura embodies the Victorian virtue of female endurance. When being confronted with the prospect of a loveless marriage, she announces stoically that “I must submit, Marian, as well as I can” (172). She stifles her emotional spontaneity by burying her love for Walter, and is resigned to her sufferings at Percival’s hands without complaints. As Marian observes, “there is no under-tone of complaint, to warn me that she absolutely unhappy in her married life” (201). Laura’s passive nature reflects the Victorian expectation that women should be unassertive and demure, instead of being active and resolute like men. She is constantly being pushed and manipulated by others while possessing little individual will power to advance her own interests and desires. She is compelled to give up the man she love and submit to the tyranny of the man she loathes. She is weak in intellect and hasty in trust, making her an easy prey to Fosco’s sharp cunningness that ultimately renders her losing her status of legal existence. Laura’s intellect further degenerates to the point of being reduced to the diminutive status of a child, who helplessly clings to the strong protection of Walter and Marian for guardianship. Laura’s pathetic childlike state reflects Fosco’s patriarchal assertion that women “are nothing but children grown up” (323). Marian grieves that Laura is “socially, morally, legally dead” (413), which can be seen as a lament for the passive state of Victorian womanhood. Like Laura, women of the Victorian era have been too much reduced to passivity and submissiveness, that they are indeed “socially, morally, legally dead” (413) in the figurative sense. Against the backdrop of feminine passivity and submissiveness, Marian Halcombe poses a powerful defiance to the prevailing Victorian womanhood. Marian’s defiance to the feminine prototype is first reflected in her physical features. Unlike the womanly Laura, who is known for her soft and delicate features, Marian’s features have a “masculine look” (35). Her masculine features are symbolic because they serve to reflect the masculine trait in her characters. This transgression of gender boundary in an age where separate sexual spheres are upheld is bound to raise some eyebrows, and Walter is initially “repelled” (35) by the idea that both elements of femininity and masculinity can be found in her. Marian’s characters are equally unfeminine in the Victorian sense. She is full of masculine energy and takes an active hand to shape the course of the story. It is Marian who takes an inquisitive interest by investigating into her mother’s old letters and discovers the identity of Anne Catherick; it is she who intervenes into a hopeless romance by separating Walter from Laura, it is she who protects Laura and shields her from harm; it is she who writes to lawyers for male advices; it is she who eavesdrops on conversation and makes inquiries. Marian possesses the masculine will and the resolution. She is eager to defy the limitations on female freedom and aspires to play an active role in life. She refuses to remain passive and wants to assert her worth as an active being when she cries out “don’t refuse me because I’m only a woman. I must go! I will go” (583)! Marian is painfully conscious of the limitations on a woman’s freedom of action and resents herself for being a woman and being condemned to “patience, propriety and petticoats for life” (198). She envies the masculine power and its freedom of action. At one time, Marian imagines “if I had been a man, I would have knocked [Percival] down on the threshold of his own door” (245). At another time, Marian fancies that “if I only had the privileges of a man, I would…ride to York” (198). Marian has clearly crossed the gender boundary by preferring masculine freedom and resolution over feminine passivity and obedience. Marian can be seen as a member of the “new women” who defy female submissiveness and passivity by aspiring to become the active, independent, thinking woman. Marian is almost an early feminist who takes passionate interests in defending women’s rights against the patriarchal tyranny. Upon learning Laura’s abuses at the hands of Percival, She has the courage to stand up to him and tell him that “there are laws in England to protect women from cruelty and outrage…to those laws I will appeal” (293). Marian is not content to be resigned in female endurance. Upon seeing Laura’s bruises, she brushes aside all pretenses of endurance and announces that “our endurance must end, and our resistance must begin” (299). Her energetic character is given full credit by her admirer Fosco, who calls her a “sublime creature” (336) who stands “firm as a rock” (324) to hinder Percival and Fosco’s evil schemes. Marian defies the Victorian ideal that women should be obedient wives and nurturing mothers. Unlike Laura, who marries at an early age, Marian is unwilling to enter into matrimony out of a reluctance to be subjected under the domineering husband and is contented with the liberties of spinsterhood. The sight of Laura’s sufferings at men’s hands strengthens Marian’s hatred towards the patriarchal social order and the tyranny it entails. Marian hates the state of matrimony and lashes out a passionate tirade against it, “Men! They are the enemies of her innocence and our peace…they take us body and soul to themselves…I’m mad when I think of it” (181)! Instead of rejoicing in the prospect of Laura’s marriage, Marian conceives a “reckless, vindictive, hopeless hatred of the man who was to marry her” (82). Throughout the book, Marian poses a serious challenge to the conventional Victorian womanhood by rejecting the imprisoning passivity and chooses to embrace the liberating experience of masculine action and firmness. In contrast to feminine passivity that defines the predominant Victorian womanhood, the Victorian manhood is characterized by resolution and action. Marian paints a vivid portrait of female passivity and male resolution when she tells Walter to crush his love for Laura, “don’t shrink under it like a woman, tear it out; trample it under foot like a man” (73)! The three important male characters including Walter, Percival and Fosco are all characterized by a firm resolution and energetic action in spire of the discrepancy of their morality. As a socially rejected bastard, Percival is resolute to shape his own destiny by rebelling against what fate has allotted him, and to achieve his ambitious ends through evil resolution. He is not resigned to illegitimacy and poverty and is determined to achieve wealth and respectability. He is the consummate social climber who has no scruples from resorting to fraud, trickery and other immoral practices to obtain his heart’s desire. To achieve power and status, he forges his parents’ marriage, usurps the title and property, and shuts off Anne Catherick in the asylum to hinder the disclosure of the fraud. Percival and his evil adviser Fosco go as far as faking a false death of Laura in order to devour her property, and buried her alive by shutting her in an asylum under the name of Anne Catherick. The scheming Percival and Fosco who actively shape life to their own advantages could not have been more opposed to the truthful and passive Laura who meekly endures the sufferings inflicted on her. Unlike the passive womanhood condemned to endurance and patience, exemplified by Laura, Percival and Fosco are the epitome of masculine action and resolution by taking an active hand to shape the course of their destiny. Their resoluteness is such that they are willing to trample on both law and morality in order to shape destiny to their likings. Percival and Fosco’s evil resolution of usurping wealth and status is contrasted by Walter’s noble resolution of restoring Laura to her identity and social position. Laura’s passive life is predominantly shaped through men’s action and resoluteness. It takes Percival and Fosco’s evil acts to destroy Laura’s life and Walter’s chivalrous resolution to rescue the distressed damsel. It is Walter who actively seeks to restore Laura’s identity by making inquiries, conducting investigations and forcing confessions out of people. Laura’s identity could not have been restored without Walter’s active quest. Marian may possess the resolution to make inquiry and resort to eavesdropping, but she is too ready to lapse into feminine weakness by falling ill at the crucial moment, and leaving Laura at the mercy of Fosco’s devices. Her pathetically emotional behavior after the eavesdropping shows that even the masculine Marian is not free from the physical fragility and mental irritability of women. She easily loses her self-possession by lapsing into feminine weakness and is reduced to “a useless, helpless, panic-stricken creature” (334). As a Victorian woman, Marian is still hampered by the many limitations on a woman’s action which discourage her from taking an active role in restoring Laura’s identity. She often excuses her weakness by lamenting “but I’m only a woman” (245), and therefore incapable of the grand masculine actions. In the third epoch of the book, Marian has lost her domineering presence and has lapsed into feminine subservience by subjecting her and Laura under the masculine protection of Walter. She chooses to be cloistered at home with Laura. The Marian who used to burst with energy and passion now hides under Walter’s protective shield and leaving him to “support, to protect, to cherish [and] to restore” (414) the ill-fated Laura. Despite Marian’s courage and resolution, she ultimately fails to successfully defy the passivity of the Victorian womanhood and is compelled to resort to masculine action and resolution to restore order. Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White portrays the sharp differences in the Victorian gender expectations. The strictly separate gender spheres demand the meek, passive woman and the manly, resolute man. Marian Halcombe’s defiance of the conventional feminine model shows that feminine passivity and unassertiveness can be imprisoning and oppressive, which are incompatible with the energetic characters of the independent, free-thinking “new women”, exemplified in Marian. Despite of Marian’s courage and resolution, she ultimately fails to rebel against the Victorian femininity by lapsing into feminine weakness and clinging onto the masculine protection. Marian’s failed rebellion against the conventional Victorian womanhood shows that the established gender expectation is not easily challengeable, as there are too many deeply entrenched impediments in society to hamper a woman’s freedom of action. The unconventional “new woman” like Marian may enjoy a brief flirtation with masculine energy and resoluteness, but is ultimately forced back to the conventional standards of propriety and decorum, and be condemned to “patience, propriety and petticoats for life” (198). BibliographyCollins, Wilkie. The Woman in White. London: Penguin Books, 2003