Our Two Favorite Women. Oh, and a Palace.

Taj Mahal – Agra, engraved by Robert Wallis

This image of the Taj Mahal depicts the palace from across the Yamuna River; it is unclear what year this piece was created. The way that the Taj Mahal sits forebodingly in the background, almost overlooking the men in the front, reminds me of the way a slave owner or master would monitor his slaves. The men seem to be performing duties; for whom and to what end, however, the engraving does not make clear. One seems to be gathering water, the others perhaps resting or preparing to defend themselves. These simple tasks directly contrast with the larger force of the palace in the background. The men seem to be skirting their main duties, and the smaller boats might be on their way from the palace to punish them.

In addition to this feeling of punishment and a power dynamic between the palace in the background and the men in the foreground, the shades of grey in the engraving speak volumes (I would say color but it’s all black and white, so, you know). The palace is stark white against the sky, pale and standing out against the water, clouds, and dark rock formation on the left side of the engraving. In addition, the palace is a palace, meaning it is a symbol of riches and wealth, and as such is a striking, detailed building that is admired by many. In contrast to this, the men in the foreground are dark and more easily blend in with their surroundings. They display signs of their poverty by wearing only rags around their waists, not wearing shoes, and allowing themselves to be unkempt.

This image and its depiction of the relation between classes and races directly relates to Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. Just like the rich, white Taj Mahal and the poor, dark men in the engraving, Collins’ novel has its two main female characters, the rich, white Laura Fairlie and the poor, dark Marian Halcombe. All the characters throughout the novel, including both Laura and Marian themselves, emphasize the class and race (at least in terms of beauty) differences between the women. It is a prominent theme; we, as readers, are hyperaware that Marian will never be as beautiful or as rich as Laura, because nobody can stop talking about it. As observers of this engraving, too, we are aware that the men in the foreground will never be as beautiful or as rich as the palace or the people that live and work within it; for both Marian and these men, it is due to the fact that they are simply not white enough to be accepted by society into this position.

2 thoughts on “Our Two Favorite Women. Oh, and a Palace.”

  1. This is an incredible analysis. When I first looked at the picture I did not think about this approach at all, but it makes so much sense! The superiority that you describe is also evident in the title of these works: The Taj Mahal gives the picture its title although it is only in the background. Therefore, we have an omnipresence of the white object. It is similar for the “Woman in White”. Because of the confusion between Anne and Laura, it is up for discussion who the woman in white really is. Laura, however, even has the whiteness in her name: fair-lie. Consequently, the woman in white is always in the back of our minds when reading the novel. Although it sometimes does not seem like it (because of the men in the novel trying to obtain power), the women are the catalysts of the story.
    Your analysis is really eye-opening and thought-provoking!

  2. I find the relationship in Victorian art and literature between color (white and black) and society very fascinating. Obviously, women who were pasty pale were labeled as desirable, like Laura, or any of the women in the paintings we looked at outside as a class. Marian, who is not as pale as Laura, is quite frequently described as less desirable than Laura. I think your analysis of this etching is so interesting because it shows how those concepts of color were applied in different contexts to show what is desirable (a luxurious building like the Taj Mahal) and what is undesirable (a life as a servant or slave). Even the structure in the foreground of the painting is darker than the brilliant white Taj Mahal in the background, emphasizing the brilliant life of luxury that the people in the foreground do not have.

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