Marian Halcombe: Sweet or Sassy?

Wilkie Collins introduces Marian Halcombe as a bold and defiant young woman. She challenges conventional gender norms in both her outward appearance (her mustache) and in her demeanor. Upon meeting Walter, she says:

You see I don’t think much of my own sex, Mr. Hartright…no woman does think much of her own sex, although few of them confess it as freely as I do. Dear me, you look puzzled. Why? Are you wondering what you will have for breakfast? or are you surprised at my careless way of talking?…In the second case, I will give you some tea to compose your spirits, and do all a woman can (which is very little, by-the-by) to hold my tongue. (Collins 37)

She openly refers to herself as unusual when she tells Walter that few women speak as frankly as she does about her own sex. Furthermore, she attributes Walter’s surprise to either his choice of breakfast or to her unusual manner of speaking, recognizing that her behavior may perhaps be off-putting to a stranger.

However, Walter quickly becomes accustomed to Marian’s openness, and respects her immensely. He acknowledges her intelligence and audacity, and although he doesn’t love her in the same way that he loves Laura, I believe it’s arguable to say that he and Marian become partners in crime while attempting to solve the mystery that unfolds.

After Walter’s departure, however, Marian shows a change in character. Suddenly, she seems unfocused and somewhat incapable. For instance, when speaking to Mr. Gilmore after hearing Sir Percival Glyde’s explanation for Anne Catherick’s resentment, she says, “…I almost wish Walter Hartright had stayed here long enough to be present at the explanation, and to hear the proposal to me to write this note” (135). Surprised, Mr. Gilmore asks Marian how Walter’s presence could have any influence on the current situation. Distracted, she tells Mr. Gilmore that it was only a thought; Gilmore’s experience and guidance was the only thing she needed and desired.

Mr. Gilmore then remarks in his narrative:

I did not altogether like her thrusting the whole responsibility, in this marked manner, on my shoulders. If Mr. Fairlie had done it, I should not have been surprised. But resolute, clear-minded Miss Halcombe, was the very last person in the world whom I should have expected to find shrinking from the expression of an opinion of her own. (135)

Mr. Gilmore is right to be surprised by this discrepancy in Marian’s personality. Once bubbling with opinions, Marian now lacks, or at least keeps to herself, any opinions on the matter. Instead, she wonders how Walter would respond to Sir Percival Glyde, and blindly follows Mr. Gilmore’s guidance. Is she turning into the quiet and stereotypical woman of the Victorian Era that she seems to despise when she first meets Walter?

I hope Marian returns to her old self again soon!

3 thoughts on “Marian Halcombe: Sweet or Sassy?”

  1. I think that Marian is simply mourning the loss of her friend. As she puts it on page 185, “Before another month is over, she will be *his* Laura instead of mine! *His* Laura! I am as little able to realize the idea which those two words convey–my mind feels almost as dulled and stunned by it–as if writing of her marriage were like writing of her death.” Yet despite the change in behavior that has accompanied her despair, Sir. Percival still seems to recognize something of her previous impulsiveness. At the very least, Marian thinks so, and on page 174 she speculates that he may be counting on her impulsiveness to give him some answers about Laura. I think it’s a testament to her will that she does not, and that instead of becoming passive she is perhaps growing into a more self-aware character as a result of her emotional trials.

  2. I am skeptical about Marian’s place/identity in the novel, specifically relating to her relationship with Laura. I think it is correct to think that she’s a very strong, masculine figure in the beginning of the novel, but I think there may be a different reason for why she has begun to change as the marriage approaches. Whilst reading, the way in which Marian describes her relationship with Laura has some very blatant sexual undertones. Their relationship is described as extremely close, to a point where one begins to question. For example, Marian says, “She flung her arms around my neck, and whispered the last words in my ear with a passionate delight in uttering them which it almost broke my hear to hear,” (173). The way in which Marian describes their embrace appears to be much more similar to a lovers’ rather than a familial one. Having Laura’s arms wrapped around Marian’s neck just sounds steamy. Then Laura whispers something passionately into Marian’s ear, I mean come on. Laura then breaks Marian’s heart with the word she says. This passage in particular is riddled with coded sexual language. But the fact that it’s between two women, and even sisters, all the more taboo.

    So maybe Marian’s character is shifting because she’s mourning the loss of a emotional lover rather than a sister.

  3. While I agree that there is a definite change in Marian, especially in how us as readers perceive her loss of conviction when she takes action, I do not think this change relies upon the loss of Walter. On the other hand, I feel this change arrives in that we finally get Marian’s perspective directly, instead of through the lens of a man. The fact that her account is from her diary also provides testament that these are her true thoughts and feelings at the moments they are written. I contend that her anti-feminist speech and sentiments in the beginning are all an act and that she is simply playing up her more masculine aspects by holding Victorian era masculine views on women and their roles. I believe she does this in order to appear more powerful to men she interacts with as it make her seems more like a companion. Deep down in her true feelings I think Marian is actually a feminist. This is evidenced especially in this passage: “Are you to break your heart to set his mind at ease?…And what does the best of them give us in return? Let me go, Laura- I’m mad when I think of it!” (181)

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