“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