Unfemininity, Masculinity, and Miss Halcombe

Wilkie Collin’s The Woman in White may have a lot to offer contemporary debates surrounding trans identities. In particular, the ways in which Walter Hartright describes and then alters his description of Marian Halcombe highlight some surprising attitudes towards gender expression and gendered expectations in Victorian Society. In brief, Hartright’s perspective of Miss Halcombe initially rests on her hips (literally). Upon noticing her “ugly” (34) face, his narrative shifts from her feminine traits to her masculine personality. What makes this significant is that Hartright first acknowledges Miss Halcombe’s female anatomy before writing her as a man. In a world where trans identities are routinely denied because of their reproductive parts, what could this example imply for the history of gender identities? And what might it mean that Marian’s gender seems to radiate, not from her hips, but from her head?

At this point, it is worth acknowledging that Miss Halcombe is not a Victorian era, trans man. The concept of a trans (or even gender non-binary) identity did not exist in Victorian society like it does today. Despite this, Marian Halcombe still presents an interesting example of gender-nonconformity. In fact, her character may even suggest that Victorian society viewed gender as connected to the mind (or individual), rather than genitalia. For example: although Miss Halcombe first enters the narrative through the male gaze (Hartright notably comments that “her waist” was “perfection in the eyes of a man” (34)), she manages to use her own wit and will to distinguish herself from Victorian femininity. Marian, through her own action, aided in making her character seem more masculine. Hartright’s narrative may have ceased to depict her in overtly sexual and feminine terms, but she took her own steps to ensure that she would been seen as unfeminine. Miss Halcombe comments how, “[she doesn’t] think much of [her] own sex” (36), and that “[she doesn’t] know one note of music from the other; but [she] can match [Hartright] at chess” (38). In both instances, she focuses on her unfemininity through her use of negation. In doing so, her sentence structure emphasizes her identity, in part, as unfeminine.

For Hartright, and a Victorian audience more generally, this must raise some questions. If Marian is not quite feminine, then what is she? This societal anxiety appears in how Miss Halcombe must offer an alternative gender performance. Rather than offer to play music, she offers “chess, back-gammon,” or “écarté” (38). These games all connote some type of logical thinking which traditional gendered expectations attribute to men. Yet, because Marian cannot fulfill traditionally feminine, Victorian standards, these games become, in part, a form of her gender expression. They become a tool for Marian to distinguish herself and for her to perform a type of overt masculinity and craft an identity for herself. Interestingly, these games all tie back to her unfeminine head. So, despite her ‘perfect feminine waist,’ Miss Halcombe is able to perform, identify and exist outside of Victorian femininity and despite her anatomy.

2 thoughts on “Unfemininity, Masculinity, and Miss Halcombe”

  1. Thinking about our conservation last class, it is interesting to compare Marion to the women in the paintings that we looked at. We talked about how Laura was “a blank to be filled by male desire” as specified in the Perkins and Donaghy reading and how Marian was essentially the opposite of that. many of the women in the paintings looked very similar or exhibited very similar tropes of long hair and pale skin, fitting a mold of an “ideal woman.” Marian, as we know from the novel, does not fit this mold.

  2. “And what might it mean that Marian’s gender seems to radiate, not from her hips, but from her head?” This is such a compelling point. I think you did a great job of illustrating (poetically, I might add) the Victorian ideas of gender that may surprise us. The concept of “unfeminine” as based on her use of negation and constant comparison with women is convincing. It reminds me of a popular theory people like to circulate to account for trans identity; that when a trans person’s brain is scanned, it mimics cisgender people of the same gender they identify with. I didn’t initially connect that phenomenon with the language used in the novel, but these concepts feel very similar to me after reading your analysis.

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