Class Blog

effeminately disabled – gender, disability, and queerness

“Upon the whole, he had a frail, languidly-fretful, over-refined look – something singularly and unpleasantly delicate in its association with a man, and at the same time, something which could by no possibility gave looked natural and appropriate it had been transferred to the personal appearance of a woman.” (p.42)

A note on language used in this piece: I use disabled not as an insult or pejorative term, but as the most commonly preferred descriptor for medicalized peoples. It is important to note, however, disabled as a term was not popularized until the 1990s, so it could be said my use is anachronistic, however I’m trying to employ modern disability theory to my work. Words that were used in the Victorian era include handicapped, affected, idiot, and so forth.

The Victorian era witnessed the simultaneous birth of modern conceptions of gender and disability. This was no coincidence – ideas of health and gender performance went hand in hand with each other. If we understand gender through a performative lens – a process which requires people to exhibit certain behaviors and mannerisms to be “read” a certain way, we can extend that to disability as well. While an Victorian example of gender performance may be a woman covering much of her skin through layered petticoats and dresses, a performance of disability may be a poor disabled person begging on the street. Disability and the medicalization of difference often overlapped with conceptions of gender, especially as it came to body hair, skin color, and body size. One needs only to look to Victorian circus history to see performers labelled simultaneously as medically different (disabled) and gender variant.

In Wilkie Collin’s novel, the gender and ability of all characters are examined through his extremely long and detailed descriptions. Perhaps the most striking example of the gendering of disability is the paragraph introducing Mr. Fairlie. Through the perspective of Mr. Hartright, the reader is inundated with minute descriptions of Mr. Fairlie’s body hair, weight, skin color, and dress. The tone of Mr. Hartright’s description shifts from curious to disgusted. He begins by guessing at the Mr. Fairlie’s age, one of the most important markers for disability. In these modern conceptions of disability born out of the Victorian era, a young body is equated with health, whereas an older body is more likely to be sick. Next, he catalogs Mr. Fairlie’s body hair, which he describes as “beardless”, specifically denoting the lack of something (the beard) which men are expected to have. Mr. Fairlie’s hair is then further described as “scanty” and “soft to look at”. Softness is not typically associated with men. His feet are described as “effeminately small”, wearing “womanish” shoes, perhaps Mr. Hartright’s most transparently stated frustration with Mr. Fairlie’s conflicting gender and gender presentation.

In his conclusion, Mr. Hartright remarks that Mr. Fairlie is womanly, but in a way that would not translate if transferred on to a woman. This is one of the most revealing remarks, I believe, because Mr. Hartright reveals that he sees Mr. Fairlie not as a woman, not a man, but an effeminate (queer) man. His conclusion is directly tied to Mr. Fairlie’s disabilities, and therefore, his anger and frustration with his failure to conform is as well.

Pretty Status

One day before dinner Hartright comments on how Miss Fairlie is dressed compared to Miss Halcombe and Mrs. Vesey. She wore a simple white dress which was a complete turn off for Hartright as he states “It was spotlessly pure: it was beautifully put on: but still it was the sort of dress which the wife or daughter of a poor man might have worn; and it made her, so far as externals went, look less affluent in circumstances than her own governess” (pg. 56). While the color emphasizes her purity and cleanliness both literally and figuratively, he is upset that she does not show off her status as a rich woman through her clothes. In fact he insults her by saying that her governess is dressed better than she is. Furthermore the passage supports the notion that Hartright is very materialistic and cares primarily about class and the presentation of one’s status. By wearing a white muslin dress Hartright feels that she is not presenting herself in alignment with her class status. I think he wants her to dress up because he finds it more attractive while also visually proving to anyone that sees her that she is rich.

I find it ironic that he says “as far as externals went” considering he judges Miss Fairlie solely based off of her external features and looks. When he finds out more about her character he does not agree with her opinions and seems to swat them away as if they do not exist. Hartright is so in love with the idea of Miss Fairlie because of the way she looks, her class rank, and her dainty mannerisms that he chooses to ignore the parts of her that he opposes.

All of these characteristics that Hartright acknowledges and becomes obsessed with align with Victorian ideals of beauty among women. He believes that looks and status are more important than character and personality. While this looks shallow to the modern viewer, no one would have blinked during the Victorian Era at this behavior.

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night…Kind of

At the time that Mr. Gilmore comes back to Limmeridge to meet with Mr. Fairlie to write up the marriage settlement, the weather helps to indicate the tone of the scene. This is quite typical, as weather is the easiest element of a scene to put a reader ‘in the mood,’ but it was particularly interesting the way that the weather and tone of this scene played out. During the night of Mr. Gilmore’s arrival, “The house was oppressively empty and dull…The wind howled dismally all night, and strange cracking and groaning noises sounded here, there, and everywhere in the empty house” (Collins 156-7). However, what was both interesting and revealing was that the servants and other workers of the house matched the tone of the weather. They “were so surprised at seeing [Mr. Gilmore] that they hurried and bustled absurdly and made all sorts of annoying mistakes. Even the butler, who was old enough to have known better, brought [him] a bottle of port that was chilled” (Collins 156-7). Without a doubt, this section of writing set the tone for the rest of Mr. Gilmore’s narrative—he goes on to write away all of Miss Fairlie’s money and property in her marriage settlement, leaving a dark cloud over both Miss Fairlie and Miss Halcombe. However, this small piece of writing also marked a turning point in the entire novel. It created the feeling that nothing will ever be the same as it was before. Mr. Hartright is gone, Miss Fairlie’s money is about to be taken away from her (and given to Sir Percival Glyde, of all people), and a potential relationship between two budding young lovers has been lost. The servants, unable to perform their duties, represent Mr. Gilmore—who is about to be unable to perform his own for the young women—and the weather, hanging over the house threateningly, represents Sir Percival, who seems like he is about to come in and tear through the family when they least expect it.

Gender Dynamics between Miss Halcombe and Mr. Hartright

The relationship between Miss Halcombe and Mr. Hartright is amicable from the beginning of their time together. Although Miss Halcombe expresses her feelings for Mr. Hartright, he is in love with her sister and so their relationship remains a friendly one and nothing more. However, their relationship is more complex than that, as Mr. Hartright relies on Miss Halcombe for support, particularly once she tells him that Miss Fairlie in engaged. Once she tells him that her sister is engaged, Mr. Hartright is devastated as her felt a, “dull numbing pain” (Collins 72). Both Mr. Hartright and Miss Halcombe, who can see the pain on his face, express that the pain has momentarily wiped Mr. Hartright of his masculinity. Miss Halcombe says, “Crush it […] don’t shrink under it like a woman. Tear it out: trample it under foot like a man” (Collins 73). Interestingly, Miss Halcombe challenges Mr. Hartright’s masculinity by insinuating that if he lets his pain persist, he will be feminine. This is interesting because Miss Halcombe, as a woman, is reinforcing gender stereotypes throughout the book thus far of feminine weakness, while acting as a strong, more stereo-typically masculine character. By telling Mr. Hartright that pain is feminine, she buys into and promotes the stereotypes of feminine weakness and masculine strength while simultaneously portraying a woman who does not uphold very feminine stereotypes. Miss Halcombe’s language violent demands of Mr. Hartright when she tells him to “crush” and “rip out” come with a connotation of destruction and violence, followed by the insistence that if he “crushes” his pain, he will be a man. Here, manliness is associated with violence and overpowering/ destroying weakness (pain). This adds to the concept of gender roles which runs throughout the book. It gives us insight into what the characters believe masculinity and femininity look like.  Mr. Hartright agrees with Miss Halcombe’s sentiment saying, We both waited for a minute, in silence. At the end of that time, I had justified her generous faith in my manhood” (73). Interestingly, Mr. Hartright almost admits to not being as masculine as Miss Halcombe gives him credit for because he describes her words to be “generous” implying that he may not believe them entirely himself. However, he did gather himself enough to “justify” her confidence in his masculinity. This exchange between these two characters both emphasizes and challenged gender stereotypes, adding to the complex dynamics of gender roles throughout the novel.

Wilkie Collins = Mansplaining Misogynist?

“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


How to be a Man: Gender and Emotions in Victorian England

“Don’t shrink under it like a woman. Tear it out; trample it under foot like a man!”

The Victorian Era was one of strict gender roles (although, some may argue little has changed). There was a very particular way a man must act and a very particular way a woman must act. No one strayed from it, at risk of being ridiculed. Willkie Collins’ The Woman in White portrays male and female characters, both in physicality and in what they say, in such a way as to emphasize the importance of this. In particular, the interactions between Miss Halcombe and Mr. Hartright show what strict standards both men and women were held to.

Much of Miss Halcombe and Mr. Hartright’s interactions appear to be Miss Holcombe, who is described in a rather masculine manner, telling Hartright to, in no short terms to man up. After Miss Halcombe tells him to leave the house as it is clear Hartright is in love with Miss Fairlie, Hartright is visibly upset. Miss Holcombe immediately comes in with “Don’t shrink under it like a woman. Tear it out; trample it under foot like a man!” (Collins). It, in this case, is emotions of heartbreak and distraught brought on by Miss Holcombe insisting it is for the best that Hartright leaves Limberidge House. In Miss Holcombe’s, and the Victorian audience’s, mind to succumb or “shirk under” emotion is to make one more feminine. To be a man is to crush them, “tear it out; [and] trample it under foot”. This is just one of many times we the reader see Miss Halcombe remind Hartright to be a man. To be repeated so many times goes to show what a strong influence societal expectations and gender roles held on the Victorians. To have Miss Holcombe, a masculine woman, remind Hartright of his role as the actual man minimizes and furthers the reading that Miss Holcombe is not a “real” or “proper woman” and that Hartright is not quite to the standard of a Victorian man.

Sensation and Superstition

“Mr. Hartright, you surprise me. Whatever women may be, I thought that men, in the nineteenth century, were above superstition” (62.)

Miss Halcombe rebukes Hartright’s superstition when he states that Laura’s resemblance to Anne “seems like casting a shadow” (62) on her future. The language of superstition tracks throughout the early parts of the narrative, increasing the sensational aspects of the novel. However, each instance is rejected as nonsense or overactive imagination, as Jacob Postlethwaite’s ghost “Arl in white—as a ghaist should be” (87) is dismissed. As Miss Halcombe seems to believe, the nineteenth century is too enlightened for ghosts and superstition.

The Victorian Gothic situates elements of the supernatural into a realistic setting. This realism tinged with the uncanny perhaps provides a space for the discussion of taboo topics. The first ghostlike appearance of the woman in white on the road to London immediately associates her with a spirit, rather than a scandalous lady of the night. This may allow Collins to work with her character without excessive criticism. Even her stance when the woman asks Hartright a question is incredibly gothic: “her face bent in grave inquiry on min, her hand pointing to the dark cloud over London” (24). Obviously, this is a very unnatural way to ask a question, so by making the woman in white slightly off-putting or unhuman, Collins subverts some degree of sexual scandal in this section.

Doing this work is critical for the character of Anne Catherick, as she is the most easily provocative character at this point. She is consistently violating the rules of propriety and her past is rather uncertain. But by giving her ghostlike qualities, referencing European superstitions about a wraith-like woman or spirit all in white, Collins is ultimately able to write a character who breaks rules of propriety and conduct without his novel being entirely dismissed for sexual or provocative content. Her sudden and ghostly appearances and features, “deathlike stillness” (95) on her face or the petrifying nature of her touch (23, 97) all give her a spirit-like qualities, and these potentially free her from certain confines a character with purely human appearances might be under. Essentially, her otherness prevents an audience from judging her actions and appearance by normal standards as she seems to be supernatural.

While ultimately, Collins writes a sensation novel and gothic aspects are expected in that genre, he enjoys an element of freedom by working in allusions to the supernatural. Cohen’s writing on sex scandals and their effect on the Victorian novel hypothesized that the length of these novels was in part due to the urge to avoid explicitly speaking about sex while still producing works that comment on sexuality, gender roles, and sex through coded language (Cohen). The spooky setting of the Victorian Gothic provides a similar freedom as the uncanny and quasi-supernatural aspects cover a degree of the scandalous and provocative content.

Preying on Vulnerability: Mr. Hartright, Miss Fairlie, & Anne Catherick

What is your level of comfortability, of vulnerability, of safety, when approaching a man like Mr. Hartright? 

Within Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, most of the female characters are not given agency, as they are essentially described through Mr. Hartright’s first-person narrative. Miss Fairlie and Anne Catherick, in particular, are two women that catch the eye of Hartright, both based on their physical appearance and their mannerisms. Ultimately, however, I am arguing that Mr. Hartright is infatuated with the two, not solely because of their looks or the way in which they act, but also characteristically, the way in which they appear to him.

Prior to arriving at the Limberidge house, Mr. Hartright is abruptly approached, by what and who the reader knows to be the “women in white”, and later on within the novel, Anne Catherick. At first, weary of her appearance and the abrupt manner in which she speaks, he then begins to become interested in her, not sexually, but rather peculiarly. The reader essentially is able to enter his mind and thoughts, when he states, “The loneliness and helplessness of the woman touched me. The natural impulse to assist her and spare her, got the better of the judgement…” (25). In this specific excerpt, through word play, we are able to see how Mr. Hartright preyed on Anne Catherick because of her outward vulnerability. Adjectives such as “loneliness” and “helplessness”, often terms associated with having a negative connotation, were used by Collins to portray him as predatory. Furthermore, the use of it being a “natural impulse to spare her”, unveils the idea that Hartright always wants to be seen as heroic, and selfless…always at a women’s rescue.

Later on within the novel, shortly after arriving at the house as a drawing instructor, he meets Miss Fairlie, who immediately catches his attention. Through thorough physical characterization, he deems her as “wanting something” and him, the same. The reader is able to contextualize and believe what, according to Hartright, they both want, is sex. As the narration continues, the two embark on conversations that include drawing, nature, and finally trust. The two show their immediate connection, when Miss Fairlie simply states, “Because I shall believe all that you say to me” (54). Shortly afterwards, the reader gains insight into Mr. Hartrights’ view and characterization of Laura, when it states, “In these few words, she unconsciously gave me the key to her whole character; to that generous trust in others, which in her nature, grew innocently out of the sense of her own truth. I only knew it intuitively then. I know it by experience now” (54). In this specific excerpt, Hartright is unknowingly, taking advantage of Miss Fairlie’s outright trust and vulnerability towards him. The use of “unconsciously” further demonstrates the unfortunate sense of her being completely and utterly oblivious to her, as Collins states, ‘giving the key to her whole character’, thus making her to be a woman of vulnerability.

Both Anne Catherick and Miss Fairlie unfortunately fall victim to Mr. Hartright’s outward obsession towards them, and furthermore, display a sense of vulnerability, which he takes advantage of. While Anne Catherick does so implicitly, through her weary and unstable mannerisms, Miss Fairlie explicitly does so, speaking of the utmost trust she has developed for him. Unfortunately, the two women succomb to Mr. Hartrights’ heroism in ways that many women do today.

Queer Sexuality of “The Mermaid”

The voice of “The Mermaid” is a young female mermaid that appears to contemplate loneliness and long for love, mostly out of her own vanity. In the second stanza she is represented by a beautiful fountain and she describes a “great sea-snake” which seeks her “around the hall.” These lines create a metaphor for sex in which the sea-snake is a phallic object that represents the male positive and the hall represents the female negative. The sea snake being stopped at the gate is the mermaid’s rejection of the men that offer themselves to her for marriage, and they “feel their immortality die.” Tennyson may use mermaids and mermen to tell a story or love, sexuality, and lust because they are not human and therefore they may not have to fall within the acceptable expressions of human sexuality, although he is still discrete. The idea of immortality could suggest that the mer-people are more likely to experience multiple sexual relationships because they are not bounded by the concept of ‘till death do us part’ in the institution of marriage within human society.

The mermaid relies on her beauty to attract mermen and she is very flirtatious. She tells of her time playing with the mermen and running to and fro and playing hide and seek. She purposefully attracts these men and seems to use them for her entertainment even though she knows she does not love them and will not marry them. This seems to suggest that she is not engaging in simple innocent games with the mermen, but perhaps engaging in what could be regarded as early stages of courtship or even sexual activities. She knows they will flatter her, which satisfies her vanity and her need to be admired. Yet, she chooses to marry the king of the mermen. Even though she does possess a love that she wishes to reserve for one individual, the act of engaging other mermen for personal satisfaction with no intention of reciprocation indicates a version of the femme fatale. The mermaid does not literally kill or trap the mermen, but she does intentionally take advantage of them and allow them to suffer to love her. In the end, the mermaid even suggests that all of those above her look down for the love of her which may include human men sailing above her. This is consistent with the legends of sirens which attract human men and lead them to their deaths. This poem creates ideas of love and sexuality that on the surface may parallel Victorian traditions of marriage, but the mermaid holds far more power over her sexuality and her marital relations than most Victorian women could exercise.