Wilkie Collins = Mansplaining Misogynist?

“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” (Collins 60*).

This quote was said by Marian Halcombe, shortly after she met Mr. Hartright. There are a few things that we can gather from this quote. We have learned about Mariam’s appearance which, in the novel is described as “masculine” and “ugly” (58). Therefore, as we discussed in class, she can be friends with Hartright because there is no risk of him falling in love with her.

In this passage, it seems as if she wanted to elevate herself from other women by bringing them down and generalizing that other women dislike each other but she talks “freely” because she is not like the other women. It seems as though Wilkie Collins wanted her to be more likable than other female characters because she is “just like one of the boys”. It also stands out to me that she is “natural” (60), “confident” (60), and generally quite quirky which none of the feminine women in the novel seem to be. Are these tributes that are reserved for “masculine” characters?

But why would women dislike each other? One reason could be that they see each other as competition. Taking William Rathbone’s writing and The Norton Anthology into account, there was a “surplus” of women and they were “redundant” (Rathbone 157, Norton Anthology 992). Because there were significantly more women than men in Great Britain, many women remained unmarried. There must have been a huge desire for women to marry, thus they stood in direct competition with each other. Maybe they were taught from early on to dislike other women. This could especially be the case with the Darwinist idea of “survival of the fittest”. “If you want to survive as a woman you must hate other women”. This leads to an internalized misogyny that (sub-)consciously accompanies them their whole lives.

Another reason why women dislike each other in the novel could be that “The Woman in White” is written by a male author. Nevertheless, it is directed at a predominantly female readership. It is an interesting reflection of the Victorian gender roles that a male author would make so many generalized assumptions about what women think, desire, and feel. In modern language, we might use the term “mansplaining”, here. Other examples from Collins’ “mansplaining-through-Mariam”-collection:

“Women can’t draw – their minds are too flighty, and their eyes are too inattentive” (61).

“I am as inaccurate as women usually are” (60).

“I will give you some tea to compose your spirits, and do all a woman can (which is very little, by-the-bye) to hold my tongue” (60).



*Penguin Classics edition from 1974


4 thoughts on “Wilkie Collins = Mansplaining Misogynist?”

  1. As you pointed out, Marian’s character seems like a man clumsily trying to enact a woman who is “different”. My first thought at her dialogue was that she sounded like a “pick me girl” as she is somewhat masculine in a non-threatening way. Each of her masculine characteristics or mannerisms is undercut by her admittance that she is inadequate due to her gender, such as her “inevitable female drawbacks” (38) at “manly” games such as billiards. As we discussed in class, the only reason Marian is not the love interest is because of her appearance. In every other respect, she is the absurd ideal: intelligent, but not too intelligent and funny, but not threatening.

  2. Hi! I think your points connect really well and there is so much evidence that Collins is mansplaining through Mariam. But I do not understand why he would want to pin women against each other, considering his readership is largely female. A flaw lies in the fact that women spent most of their time together, without men. They confided in each other and were friends. I think a large part of Collins understanding of women came from men and from gossip. Therefore I am not sure he truly understood the way women thought or how they socialized. On the opposite it end, it is possible that Collins is making these comments sarcastically because he knows women are capable of more and female readers would understand that he was connecting with them in their hardships of being patronized. Mariam’s comments about women are so blatantly generalized and degrading that it seems obvious, at least to the modern reader, that they are absurd.

  3. Hello! I think your view on Marian Halcombe as connected to our various readings on “redundant” Victorian women is fascinating, specifically Collins’ “mansplaining through Miran.” I wonder if his views of how women perceive themselves comes not from a knowledge of female competition (though that definitely was and still is a thing) but from influences like Freud’s “penis envy” and other male voices on the female psyche. We talked in class about how men in prominent positions (the medical and psychological fields) saw women. These views would have been readily available to Collins and it’s my opinion that that held some influence in his perspectives on women. I wonder how that changes our reading of Marian’s character if we look at her through the lens of Victorian psychology and pseudoscience.

  4. I really like the point you make about Wilkie Collins mansplaining through Marian, and I fully agree with it. While men at this time likely felt as though they had much power and ability to say what they wanted, they also may have felt their words would be taken better by women if they were delivered by a woman. By Collins writing his degrading words about women through the character of a woman, he opens the conversation for women to take these words and even agree with them, better than they would if they were coming from a man.

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