What is your level of comfortability, of vulnerability, of safety, when approaching a man like Mr. Hartright?
Within Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, most of the female characters are not given agency, as they are essentially described through Mr. Hartright’s first-person narrative. Miss Fairlie and Anne Catherick, in particular, are two women that catch the eye of Hartright, both based on their physical appearance and their mannerisms. Ultimately, however, I am arguing that Mr. Hartright is infatuated with the two, not solely because of their looks or the way in which they act, but also characteristically, the way in which they appear to him.
Prior to arriving at the Limberidge house, Mr. Hartright is abruptly approached, by what and who the reader knows to be the “women in white”, and later on within the novel, Anne Catherick. At first, weary of her appearance and the abrupt manner in which she speaks, he then begins to become interested in her, not sexually, but rather peculiarly. The reader essentially is able to enter his mind and thoughts, when he states, “The loneliness and helplessness of the woman touched me. The natural impulse to assist her and spare her, got the better of the judgement…” (25). In this specific excerpt, through word play, we are able to see how Mr. Hartright preyed on Anne Catherick because of her outward vulnerability. Adjectives such as “loneliness” and “helplessness”, often terms associated with having a negative connotation, were used by Collins to portray him as predatory. Furthermore, the use of it being a “natural impulse to spare her”, unveils the idea that Hartright always wants to be seen as heroic, and selfless…always at a women’s rescue.
Later on within the novel, shortly after arriving at the house as a drawing instructor, he meets Miss Fairlie, who immediately catches his attention. Through thorough physical characterization, he deems her as “wanting something” and him, the same. The reader is able to contextualize and believe what, according to Hartright, they both want, is sex. As the narration continues, the two embark on conversations that include drawing, nature, and finally trust. The two show their immediate connection, when Miss Fairlie simply states, “Because I shall believe all that you say to me” (54). Shortly afterwards, the reader gains insight into Mr. Hartrights’ view and characterization of Laura, when it states, “In these few words, she unconsciously gave me the key to her whole character; to that generous trust in others, which in her nature, grew innocently out of the sense of her own truth. I only knew it intuitively then. I know it by experience now” (54). In this specific excerpt, Hartright is unknowingly, taking advantage of Miss Fairlie’s outright trust and vulnerability towards him. The use of “unconsciously” further demonstrates the unfortunate sense of her being completely and utterly oblivious to her, as Collins states, ‘giving the key to her whole character’, thus making her to be a woman of vulnerability.
Both Anne Catherick and Miss Fairlie unfortunately fall victim to Mr. Hartright’s outward obsession towards them, and furthermore, display a sense of vulnerability, which he takes advantage of. While Anne Catherick does so implicitly, through her weary and unstable mannerisms, Miss Fairlie explicitly does so, speaking of the utmost trust she has developed for him. Unfortunately, the two women succomb to Mr. Hartrights’ heroism in ways that many women do today.