Tuesday, 2 June 2015

The female characters in The Woman in White and The Moonstone

So people*, here and there, tell me that in The Woman in White the sweet, gentle, innocent, trustful but boringly passive Laura Fairlie, the perfect woman according to Victorian standards, is contrasted with the independent, intelligent, sharp, resourceful Marian Halcombe. Excuse me, are we reading the same book? Those qualities, which Wilkie Collins tells us through Walter Hartright and Count Fosco and which others tell me, are not shown anywhere once we come closer to Marian. Marian is interesting at the beginning, in the way she talks freely, has none of the irritating affectation or coquettish behaviour common to many women around that age, makes decisions in the house where others are either indifferent or weak, notices everything, acts with determination, does what she says, talks to Walter with admirable frankness and directness. When Sir Percival appears and later when trouble begins, she loses her strength of mind and remains most of the time confused, indecisive, uncertain about what to do. Several times she wishes Walter to be there, to tell her what to think and how to act. There are about 2 moments when she shows the qualities for which she's so praised. The 1st time is when Laura, for fear of conflict, prepares to accept the date of the marriage decided by Sir Percival and her uncle Mr Fairlie that she finds too early, and Marian bursts out "Who cares for his causes of complaint? Are you to break your heart to set his mind at ease? No man under heaven deserves these sacrifices from us women." The 2nd time is when Laura, again for fear of causing trouble, suggests yielding to Sir Percival and Marian insists on not signing anything without knowing what it's about. 
Other than these 2 moments, she's passive, indecisive, slow, dim-witted, careless. I've written about these things before, there's no need to repeat. That she's simultaneously charmed by, afraid of and repulsed by Count Fosco makes him a fascinating, colourful character, but it at the same time makes me have some strange feelings about her personality that I can't articulate.
About Laura, there isn't much to write. She's dull in her goodness and virtue. She's not unrealistic, I don't doubt that such women exist, but she's dull in her "perfection". In contrast, Anne Catherick is tedious in her mental deficiency.
The female characters in The Moonstone, in comparison, are a lot better. I like Rachel and Rosanna a lot, who are probably responsible for my high expectations when I got hold of The Woman in White. Rachel Verinder's a wonderful character, who is so real in her love, her resolution to remain silent and conflicted feelings for doing so whilst watching Franklin, and her outbursts for believing that he's a false, deceitful man. Rosanna Spearman's also wonderful, and there's something so beautiful, albeit sad and pitiful, in her unrequited love and sacrifice, which is depicted with understanding and sympathy and which is not at all sentimentalised. Miss Clack is of course another great character, but she's different.
If anything, The Woman in White deserves praise for the variety of female characters. Besides Marian, Laura and Anne, there are 2 women that are also silly and gullible- Mrs Michelson (the housekeeper, who should be praised for having her principles and resigning as her way of reacting against the deceit) and Mrs Clements (the woman helping Anne and being used for the switch), but we have the insolent Margaret Porcher (Percival's housemaid), the quiet but rather "dangerous" Mrs Rubelle (the nurse), the cold, unpredictable, manipulative Countess Fosco and the hard, proud, fearless, self-possessed Mrs Catherick. How I like Mrs Catherick's firm, calm, defiant, no-way-you-can-shock-me attitude in her encounter with Hartright. There should be more room for her.

*: I came across a blog and saw these lines:
"Ms Marian Halcombe is most probably the greatest character in the novel. She is the half-syster of Laura and spends her life protecting her and taking care of her interests. Witty, intelligent, and resourceful, Marian somewhat reminds me of Jane Austen's Elizabeth Benet. The two of them are most probably the finest creatures in the Victorian Age. Strong and independent, they the role of the woman is not merely to be a part of her husband, but to have her own opinion and character. Throughout the story I got to admire Marian, her clever judgment, her strength, and her mind."
OK... OK... "greatest character", Elizabeth Bennet, "finest creatures".... put that aside. Hello, Jane Austen'd died before Queen Victoria was born! 

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