How Does a Victorian Man React to Seemingly Identical Women?

Upon my first time reading The Woman in White, I had an expectation for the interaction of male and female characters and I made certain assumptions about female characters being portrayed through the male gaze. I was surprised by Walter Hartright’s first interaction with the Woman in white who later appears to be Anne Catherick. Walter explains “There was nothing wild, nothing immodest in her manner; it was quiet and self-controlled, a little melancholy and a little touched by suspicion; not exactly the manner or a lady, and at the same time, not the manner of a woman in the humblest rank of life” (Collins 24). Walter did make simple evaluations as he describes what he saw that night. Yet, when I expected him to make significant judgements of this woman, he seemed to refrain. This seemed like an opportunity for a Victorian man to admire the pure white garments even if he did not find the woman particularly pretty, or even to assert that the circumstances create a ghostly presence. Such judgements are completely lacking from Walter’s account of the interaction and his thoughts at the time. To me, this seemed strange on its own, but it becomes more questionable once Walter meets and describes Laura Fairlie.

Once Walter falls in love with Laura Fairlie (which seems to occur pretty quickly upon meeting) who bears a noticeable resemblance to Anne Catherick, I began to question the differences in their meeting and interactions. Walter goes into great detail about Laura’s looks and personality: how lovely and gentle she is (51). He quickly concludes he is in love with her. The idea that this man can have completely different reactions and completely different relationships with almost identical women even after meeting them only once or twice creates some burning questions for me: how and why? Based on Walter’s limited account of what happened, I have to consider a few likely possibilities. The circumstances of Walter meeting Anne as the woman in white are so unconventional that Walter distances himself from the occurrence, there is a stigma against possible mental illness that keeps Walter from becoming close with Anne, or Walter is simply choosing the woman that he concludes could be a more beneficial match. All seem possible; continuing to read from different perspectives may shed more light on why Walter gravitates strongly towards one woman and has less significant impressions of the other.

2 thoughts on “How Does a Victorian Man React to Seemingly Identical Women?”

  1. I thought your comments about the word “common” both as a statement about the frequency of an occurrence, and also as a judgement of it as something befitting the lower classes. You point out a dual negative applied to women and lower classes. Victorian society frequently attributed both with poor morals, judgement, and mental fortitude, and your analysis of Collins’ diction supports that argument.

    I am similarly alarmed by the victim-blaming that lies under the surface of Hartright’s narration. I would push it further to say that the standards for Victorian (and modern) women were engineered in a way that would ensure failure regardless of behavior. The idea that a woman falls prey to premarital relations because she is too innocent directly contradicts the expectation that she be pure (mentally as well as physically). Your post draws attention to this issue, and I look forward to seeing how this paradigm continues to play out in the remainder of the novel.

  2. After reading the blog, “Badass Lady with a Stache”, which compared the Victorian standards of beauty in Laura and Marian, I wondered the same thing you did- How can Walter be so into Laura and not Anne, when they are almost identical? It is very strange how even from the beginning, Anne is never seen as someone who could be a possible love interest to Walter. The way he interacts with and even judges Laura upon their first meeting is so drastically different from how he interacts with and judges Anne. You suggest some excellent reasons for this- Anne’s appearance in the road is so bizarre that Walter could think it’s best to stay away, or perhaps Walter is just picking the woman who would be a better wife. It’s also interesting to look at the class divide between Laura and Anne- a woman out walking through the city at night probably isn’t from an upper class, while Laura clearly is. Had Walter first met Anne in a different situation than in the road at night would he have been attracted to her like he was to Laura?

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