“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.