“how do you hate rank and family!”

“He was a big fat, odd sort of elderly man, who kept birds and white mice, and spoke to them as if they were so many Christian children.” (p.400)

Count Fosco is, undoubtedly, portrayed as the most villainous character in The Woman In White. He is secretive, mysterious, and charming all in one; and his role in the story prompts conversations about fatness, foreign identity, queerness, and much more. It is my goal to focus on Count Fosco’s proximity to (and from) the Victorian institution of family through a close reading of his servant, Hester Pinhorn’s, testimony in the Second Epoch. In fact, it is in part because of his queer family, that he is such a villain.

The institution of family held many meanings in the Victorian era; it was closely linked to class, politics, and race, and the protection of the aforementioned’s strict binaries, as well as being women’s gendered duty to maintain. In every character’s description in the novel, time is taken to explore their immediate and distant family, as it informs so much of their personality as well as social role. Maintaining a family, whether that be with children, or extended relatives, is key in both gender and social performance. Fittingly, the conclusion of the novel is a remark about the importance of Walter and Laura’s children, as they are the inheritors of the Fairlie estate.

But Count Fosco doesn’t have children – human children, that is. Instead, he has a plethora of domestic and exotic pets which he treats lovingly (almost to an obsessive level). Hester remarks that he treats them as if they were “Christian children”, with a distinct tone of disbelief and amusement (p.400). Count Fosco performs heterosexuality, to an extent, in that he is married to a woman, but the lack of children complicates this. There is no mention of his extended family, as opposed to the thorough genealogy provided for even the most insignificant side characters. Count Fosco is frightening for many reasons, and a compelling one is that he cannot be configured into the social and economic lineage everyone expects.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also touch on the role of madness and circus arts in this. Hester describes Count Fosco as “more like a play-actor than a gentleman”, which conjures up the image of Fosco conducting his animals in a big top (p.400). She also describes him as “a little soft in the head”, a polite euphemism for madness (p.400). I believe both of these comments are significant because madness presents danger to the strong family institution. Wives are unable to dote on children if they are institutionalized (like Anne), so what do they do with that free time? If a parent or older relative is mad, like Count Fosco or Mr. Fairlie, the chance of social or political movement is limited. Madness and disability were central in the Victorian circus, as their taboo nature excited and tantalized audiences. Furthermore, circuses interrupted the family institution and created new found families. Count Fosco, in lieu of human children, has created a found family of animals.

In conclusion, Count Fosco terrifies readers and his fellow characters alike with his distinct posing threat to the concept of family – not to mention the very literal manner he threatens the Fairlie family.


3 thoughts on ““how do you hate rank and family!””

  1. I love this analysis of the coding of Count Fosco! I would be interested to put Madame Fosco into this concept as well. Obviously their marriage is very performance based, with Marian remarking that “his management of the Countess (in public) was a sight to see” (222) and in many ways Madame Fosco also seems like a pet. She is ordered around, sits at his feet, and eats candies out of his hand. While this is frankly creepy, I think it serves to demonstrate the great performance that is Fosco’s marriage. In many ways, Madame Fosco seems to oscillate between animal and furniture as it pleases and serves the Count. Even the Victorians would pick up on the “wrongness” of this relationship and the lack of a heteronormative family.

  2. Such a good point – I think talking about Madame Fosco would have made my argument way stronger. I love the way you describe her as both furniture and animal. In some way, their relationship is normative because the Count has dissuaded her from her feminist/suffragist past, but that’s not quite enough to make up for the other strange (or queer) behavior. I’d love to think more about her as a character, especially after Professor Kersh suggested a kink reading of their relationship.

  3. This is such an interesting argument! I especially find it compelling because of the emphasis that the entire novel places on marriage and family. Throughout the pages of the narrative, the relationship between Marian and Laura as sisters, between the husbands and wives, and among the families of Anne Catherick and Laura Fairlie are huge topics of debate. Major importance is placed on the family and its future (which is emphasized by the fact that the novel ends with the heir to the Fairlie estate), yet you are right: Fosco is the absolute opposite of this. The man constantly fights against the norms set out by the novel: when others hate, he loves, or seems to (see: Percival getting angry, literally ever), and, as an example of a specific scenario, when others mourn Marian’s illness, he takes revenge on her by reading her diary and treats it as nothing. He is absolutely terrifying, yes, because he is chaotic and difficult to control, and even more terrifying because he cannot be categorized.

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