Dangerous Woman: Anne Catherick and the Guarding of Sexual Purity

Anne’s responses to moments of suspicion regarding her sexuality are representative of a trend within Victorian culture of women being held responsible for guarding and maintaining their sexual purity.

Within moments of her introduction, Anne assures Walter that her presence on the road late at night does not indicate a flawed moral character. The words that she chooses, such as “suspect” and “wrong”, imply that Anne feels guilty and recognizes that strangers will regard her with distrust (Collins, 25). The underlying subtext of this passage implies that Anne believes Walter suspects her of prostitution. Her readiness to disabuse Walter of this notion (a notion he does not suggest in the narration) speaks to the Victorian sensibility that women must always guard their purity.  Additionally, it also suggests that women who transgress boundaries (as Anne is doing) must be especially careful to protect their reputations from censure. Despite her child-like demeanor, Anne seems aware that others interpret her sexuality as dangerous.

Later in the narrative, Walter considers Anne’s possible motives for penning the anonymous letter. He thinks that her “misfortune” may refer to sexual impropriety (Collins, 101). The words that Walter chooses such as “common” and “ruin”, both have sexual connotations. In the 18th century, for example, women who engaged in sex before marriage were considered “common” or vulgar (http://www.dictionary.com/browse/common?). Furthermore, Walter believes it is also typical (or common) for women to seek to destroy the relationships of the men who wronged them in love. “Ruin” is explicitly sexual, as it refers to a woman’s premarital loss of virginity and thus the destruction of marriageability and honor. Walter checks Anne’s expression for signs of shame that might indicate the nature of her misfortune (Collins, 101). This checking for guilt further indicates that this conversation is really about Walter suspecting Anne of improper sex. Anne understands the ramifications of Walter’s line of questioning, which compels Anne to re-affirm her purity.  In response, she asks Walter “what other misfortune could there be” other than her Asylum confinement (Collins, 101). Her question reads as almost defiant, willing Walter to openly question her romantic history while also indicating to Walter–and the audience–that Anne is innocent. In spite of this, she still remains perplexed about the nature of Walter’s questions, as indicated by the “bewilderment of a child” that Walter attributes to her (Collins, 101). She knows enough about Victorian mores to deny sexual deviancy, however, she still appears to be ambivalent or oblivious about why Walter would suspect her of such wrongdoing. In this manner, she denies all suspicions of promiscuity.

Mrs. Fairlie is likely responsible for Anne’s implicit knowledge of Victorian moral sensibilities as well as responsible for her understanding sexual expectations. For instance, Mrs. Fairlie told Anne to dress in white because “little girls…look neater and better” and thus more innocent and pure (Collins, 61). If Anne is an illegitimate child (perhaps Mr. Fairlie’s), Mrs. Fairlie may have sought to purify Anne (a living reminder of Mr. Fairlie’s infidelity) by forcing her to wear only white. If, however, Anne is Mrs. Fairlie’s illegitimate child (and mention of Anne’s “mother” is merely a red herring), Mrs. Fairlie could have forced Anne to wear white as a means of correcting the impurity and sin she sees in herself and subsequently projects onto Anne.  Mrs. Fairlie may never have explicitly instructed Anne to regard her purity with vigilance, but Anne could internalize Mrs. Fairlie’s obsession with whiteness and purity.  As a result, Anne understands that she must always be attentive to how others view her sexuality while also being ready to affirm her innocence if brought into question.

One thought on “Dangerous Woman: Anne Catherick and the Guarding of Sexual Purity”

  1. I really enjoyed reading this analysis of female sexuality and purity. Your analysis relates back to a post called, “How Does a Victorian Man React to Seemingly Identical Women,” where carlossb analyzes Walter’s interactions with Anne and Laura. I enjoyed reading both of these posts and hear others’ ideas on some of the same things I am interested in: the role of whiteness in the novel along with its portrayals of female propriety. I think that both of these posts are correct in that Walter’s first interaction with Anne on the streets lead to him believing that she was improper and possibly a prostitute. This could be the leading cause as to why he fell in love immediately with Laura, a woman clearly of high stature, compared to Anne who assumed to be of a lower class. I really enjoyed that you took this post further to understand whiteness in relation to purity, especially because many of these ideas are relevant today. Women today are still thought of as ruined if they lose their virginity and are thus seen as impure. I definitely agree with you that Mrs. Fairlie instilled these ideas of whiteness and purity into Anne in a destructive manner and I would say these ideas are still very prevalent in today’s society.

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