Is Laura Fairlie in Love at all?

Laura Fairlie lies in the center of the romance in “The Woman in White.” Walter Hartwright hopelessly falls in love with her during the period of his narrative, then after the parting, gets reduced to a bitter mess both Gilmore and Marian are surprised and sorry to find. Then there is Sir Percival Glyde, pursuing his engagement with “unchangeable love and admiration of two long years” (174), apparently not only for Laura but her inheritance. And then, there are Gilmore and Marian. They appear to be armed with a different kind of love, but the bitterness by which Marian writes–“She will be his Laura instead of mine!”–makes a reader wonder if she, too, may act as one of the voices driving Laura into confusion.

And yet, for the woman in the center of all this attention, Laura is given very little power. This is not to argue that her environment is at fault. True, the Victorian era gives no legal power for women, but Marian is doing just fine with her “robust nervous system,” to the envy of Mr. Farlie (176). Upon coming of age, Laura is also entitled to an inheritance of twenty-thousand pounds, a sum that is “absolutely Miss Fairlie’s own” (150). And on account of her marriage, it is not, to be strict, a forced one, either. Sir Percival Glyde, as pale as he gets when Laura calls to talk to him (165), still voluntarily leaves one window open by passing onto Marian that he could, under Laura’s desire, “sacrifice himself by leaving her perfectly free to withdraw from the engagement” (138).

She is not yet of age–three months short of being twenty-one (146). And while this puts her in roughly the same area as the readers in our class, her emotional state does not seem to be parallel at all. Again and again, she is referred as not only a ghostly figure in white, but as a child.

Her encounter with Gilmore is especially so. On trying to express her desire to leave some inheritance to Walter Hartwright, she bursts into tears and Gilmore “drie[s] the tears that were gathering in her eyes, with [his] own hand, as if she had been the little Laura Fairlie of ten long years ago” (144). And from the way she leans towards him and smiles, she apparently is still a little girl of ten, at heart. The later page supports this by mentioning that she was “[s]till clinging to the past – that past which I represented to her, in my way, as Miss Halcombe did in hers!” (145).

Her love for Walter, too, then becomes questionable not in its existence but its meaning. Is it actually love, or is it a form of idolizing admiration and affection that a little girl might have towards an older man? The time spent alone upstairs looking at the album Walter had given her, the act of pinning her hair to it and asking to give it to him upon her death, and of saying to Marian “say for me, then, what I can never say for myself – say I loved him!” (173) all points to a kind of love that is just pure and selfless. This is comparable to Walter’s remembering “at one time to be bending over her, so close to her bosom as to tremble at the thought of touching it” (65). There is nothing sexual about Laura’s love at all–not just, I daresay, because this is a Victorian novel and women are not “qualified” to have such thoughts, but because her love does not include any at all.

She is, in this way, caged and deprived of power not by her environment or her situation, but by the limits of her own naive self. All she can do in the center of attention, is to do what she thinks she “should do,” then cry in her bedroom in secret. She is too young in spirit to execute her right to refuse her marriage, or pursue her romance–which may not be romance at all.

4 thoughts on “Is Laura Fairlie in Love at all?”

  1. On behalf of dudzinsj:

    This is SUCH an interesting post, Diane. I think you have a really good point when you say that it is her own naive self that stops her from being able to have sexual thoughts. This isn’t something that I’ve noticed about her thoughts but it also isn’t something I’ve fixated on and analyzed. Though I have a hard time believing that just because she isn’t having any sexual feelings for Mr. Hartright means she doesn’t love him as a potential partner. Maybe she really is naive and doesn’t know about sex, or maybe sex just doesn’t interest her. Your point about her attraction to him being an attraction of an ‘older man’s admiration’ is really interesting though because, this being a Victorian novel, the author would never actually explain if she isn’t interested in sex or if she is unaware of it; so we will never truly know what the deal is, I guess.

  2. I too wondered while reading the novel if what Laura was so strongly experiencing was love or simply a childish obsession. From how Laura’s life is described throughout the novel, it seems as if she has been rather lonely: her parents are dead, her uncle is practically a shut in, and she has no one to interact with besides her sister (Mrs. Vesey doesn’t count, she is a human vegetable). That being said, it seems that Walter is the first man she has had prolonged exposure to, however, it is questionable whether she is experiencing some kind of sexual awakening, true love, or a childish first crush. Laura is often portrayed in a childish way, which leads me to believe that her feelings for Walter are not much more than a crush. With that in mind, and knowing that this is a Victorian novel (aka written in code), than perhaps Collins is suggesting some kind of Freudian Electra complex between Laura and Walter, however that might be taking it a bit too far.

  3. This post addresses Laura Fairlie’s role in The Woman in White and it challenges Victorian ideals about the expression of sexuality. I found the child-like descriptions of Laura Fairlie disturbing, but I disagree that her reactions are purely the “idolizing admiration from a little girl towards an older man.” Although the “white” garments that Laura and Anne are customarily cloaked in typically symbolize purity and virginity, I believe that Laura has an underlying sexuality that exists implicitly throughout the text. During Marian Halmcombe’s description, Laura “[lays] the book on the table and [draws] out the comb that fastened her hair. It fell, in its matchless beauty, over her back and shoulders, and dropped round her, far below her waist. She separated one long, thin lock from the rest, cut it off, and pinned it carefully, in the form of a circle, on the first blank page of the album.” (150) I feel like this is pretty sexy, no? (From a Victorian perspective, this is the equivalent of a sext!)

    However, I do agree that Laura has a limited range of power because she is essential to the plot point, but she is not necessarily a strong character. Whilst the story is focused on her, she never has the opportunity to narrate her own tale. I thumbed through the entire novel and did not see a single entry by Laura Fairlie. This is fascinating because women in the Victorian Era were treated like property; they were talked about, but they were never respected as individual human beings.

    Disclaimer: The page numbers from my book are different because I am using a different version of the text, but it’s chapter I from Marian Halcombe’s diary.

  4. I’ve found Walt and Laura’s “love” rather suspect as well. My post mainly analyzes the relationship from his perspective, but there is another that I thought touched on it better. In “Walter’s Creepy ‘Love’ for Laura,” the poster discusses how he always refers to the young woman in terms of her appearance. I disagree with that assessment only slightly; her personality is what makes her “acceptable” or “agreeable” to him. Her submissiveness and generosity are what should please any man. But it is Laura’s appearance that spurns Walt on and causes him to become infatuated with her to the point that he can hardly contain himself. Her love, on the other hand, is portrayed as chaste and pure. Since this is a mystery novel (or a precursor to one), I am almost certain that Laura Fairlie’s true, less idealized self will be revealed later on in the novel.

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