Gender Roles in The Woman in White

What's a footnote?
I haven't finished the review for The Woman in White yet, but this rant forced its way out of me as I was trying to write the said review. Since the order in which I post won't make much of a difference, I thought I'd post a footnote about the book before posting a proper review. (I know, I know, some (wo)men just want to watch the world burn.) Here it is then.

When a book starts with a sentence such as "This is the story of what a Woman's patience can endure and what a Man's resolution can achieve," you might be tempted to think that there's nothing left to discuss. Case closed from the very first words: this book will be based on the most traditional of traditional gender roles. Women are passive and patient; men are active and determined. Women endure; men achieve. And one shouldn't blame Wilkie Collins for that, because he lived in the 19th century and was not as bright as John Stuart Mill (few people were, so that's not necessarily an insult either).

But then it looks as if the book doesn't exactly align to the roles prescribed in its very first sentence. You have male characters that are feeble, like the comically selfish Mr. Fairlie, and male characters that have a more emotional and artistic personality, like our hero, Walter Hartright. And, on the other side of the Great Gender Divide, you have Miss Marian Halcombe, who can walk on roofs, is as brave and resolute as any man, and seems to be a generally kickass Victorian heroine. So perhaps this book is pretty enlightened after all? The answer, alas, is no.

Let's start with Marian Halcombe. The very first time our hero sees her, he notices one thing about her: she has the body of a woman, but the face of a man:
Never was the old conventional maxim, that Nature cannot err, more flatly contradicted--never was the fair promise of a lovely figure more strangely and startlingly belied by the face and head that crowned it. 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. To see such a face as this set on shoulders that a sculptor would have longed to model--to be charmed by the modest graces of action through which the symmetrical limbs betrayed their beauty when they moved, and then to be almost repelled by the masculine form and masculine look of the features in which the perfectly shaped figure ended--was to feel a sensation oddly akin to the helpless discomfort familiar to us all in sleep, when we recognise yet cannot reconcile the anomalies and contradictions of a dream.
Marian is a freak, an anomaly, halfway between a man and a woman. Why is it important for her to have masculine features? Because, in this book's world, the alignment between 'masculine' virtues and the male gender is absolute. Intelligence, courage and determination are not virtues a woman can have. No other woman in this book has them. Women can be cunning, like Mrs. Catherick or Countess Fosco; they can have bursts of reckless courage, like poor Anne Catherick, driven by her illness; they can endure, like Laura Fairlie. The only female character that is intelligent, brave and determined the way men are is Marian Halcombe. That is why we need to know upfront that she has the physical features of a man as well. Because this correlation between mental and physical attributes is assumed to be constant. And because in this scheme Marian is not supposed to be a woman, not entirely.

One might think that tying Marian's unconventional qualities to a masculine streak in her is a way of praising her person by insulting her gender. And one would be right, because this is indeed a constant strategy in her characterization, highlighting all the ways in which she departs from the conventional roles assigned to women and belittling traditionally feminine characteristics in the process. This is something she starts herself. Her first conversation with Walter is littered with derogatory remarks about her gender, an impressive number of them in just one page and a half:

  • "How can you expect four women to dine together every day, and not quarrel? We are such fools we can't entertain each other at the table."
  • "You see I don't think much of my own sex [...] no woman does think much of her own sex, although few of them confess it as freely as I do." 
  • "I will [...] do all a woman can (which is very little, by-the-bye) to hold my tongue." 
  • "I am inaccurate as women usually are." 
  • "Women can't draw--their minds are too flighty, and their eyes too inattentive."
  • "With the inevitable female drawbacks..." 

What is the purpose of these remarks? Why does she draw attention again and again to all the stereotypical flaws of women in front of a man she just met? These lines function as signals both within the narrative (sending a message to Walter), and outside of it (sending a message to the readers). They accomplish two things: on one hand, they work to set her apart from other women. For the most part, Marian does not have the characteristics she claims to despise in them. These remarks are ironical, because she, Marian, is perfectly able to make entertaining dinner conversation, hold her tongue and give accurate descriptions. But even if she weren't free of these flaws, the fact that she is aware of them and ready to openly denounce them makes her special. She's carving a place for herself as Walter's equal by distancing herself from other women. And since this also serves as her introduction to the readers, we can tell she's being set apart from the other female characters, singled out for a greater role in the action.

But on the other hand, this way of talking also serves to subtly enforce a different idea that will be at play later. If Marian's qualities derive from her having something of a man in her, her flaws come from the fact that she's a woman. Even though Marian transcends her gender, she's still not as good as a man. And the clearest instantiation of this idea is the way her part of the story ends. Her diary shows remarkable intelligence, courage and planning. For a while, she manages to stay one step ahead of two villains and protect her sister. She is the opposite of the Too Stupid To Live heroines, the kind that agree to go alone and unarmed to meet their blackmailers in Dark Dangerous Alleys. Marian thinks ahead and takes precautions. And then... then her frail female body betrays her. Exposed to rain, she gets terribly sick and temporarily loses her agency. This undoes all of her previous efforts, and both she and her sister become victims.

And who takes over when Marian fails? Walter Hartright. At the beginning of the story, he seemed to be a somewhat theatrical art teacher, who does little in the way of standing up for himself. But then disappointment in love sends him on a journey of initiation to Honduras, and he returns A Man. Somehow, Walter, who showed no sign of extraordinary abilities before, is now brave, determined and competent and he manages to single-handedly unravel the evil plot of the two villains and exact revenge for his sweetheart. Once Marian fell, society kept her down. She managed to save her sister from the asylum, but not to restore her identity. That is Walter's job. His social status is a hindrance, but less so than Marian's status as a woman. He succeeds where Marian failed, and he does so with ease. That is not a meaningless decision on the author's behalf.

This is a story about a woman who was accidentally placed in a man's position. Marian Halcombe finds herself with no one to defend her family in a crucial moment. Because she's an orphan, because she's unmarried, because her uncle is a selfish caricature. She has to assume the role of a man and defend her family and she manages to do so, because she has unusual qualities for a woman.

This is a story about a man who was accidentally placed in a woman's position. Walter Hartright cannot make his own destiny. Because he is poor, because he abides by social conventions, because he's not fully a man yet. He cannot protect the woman he loves. He has to leave her and she endures horrible things in his absence. 

But this is, above all a story, where order in the universe is restored, where things return to normal. And normal means that the unconventional heroine Marian fails and becomes first a very conventional victim, and then a minor help to the hero. Normal means that the unconventional hero Walter returns from his journey of initiation very conventional indeed and saves the day. 

In other words, this book does what it sets out to do in the first sentence. It tells a story in which women are supposed to endure and men are supposed to achieve. But I still enjoyed Marian's brief stint at the wheel...


  1. I read from another review before that Wilkie Collins tried to go beyond the standard gender roles of his time, but held back at the last minute. Your review proves that again, and I really want to get my hands on a copy so I can see for myself.

    1. Yeah, I think he had good intentions. He did have a strong female character and pointed out the way the asylum system could be abused. Looking forward to your opinion once you read it :)

  2. Oh my gahhhhhhhhhhh, you're making me want to re-read The Woman in White! But I have so many other things to read! Decisions, decisions.

    1. Haha, I have the same problem every time I see someone discussing a book I read.