Throughout the novel thus far, our narrators occasionally pause their testimonies of the mysterious and sinister events at Limmeridge House and Blackwater Park to describe another character’s manner of dress. Clothes, in literature, are often metaphorically linked to themes of identity and selfhood. In a theatrical novel driven by instances of mistaken or concealed identity, I find such attention to clothing particularly resonant. The bulk of the references to clothing relate to Anne Catherick, Laura Fairlie, and Count Fosco—three characters who are central to the novel’s mystery plot. However, as the title of the novel indicates the importance of the women’s garb and my space here is limited, I will focus my current exploration of this topic on Laura and Anne.
Our first narrator, Walter Hartwright, introduces clothing as an important trope and plot device in the first epoch. For example, his description of Laura’s “white muslin” dress not only foreshadows her link to Anne, but also reveals aspects of Laura’s personality that become important for how we read her relationship with Sir Percival: “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” (56). Hartwright’s allusion to class anticipates the future importance of Laura’s economic status. In an emotional conversation with Marian following her marriage to Sir Percival, Laura explicitly rebukes her wealth as a form of constraint and credits Marian’s “poverty” with saving her sister from the bondage of an unwanted marriage (258).
Furthermore, the simplicity of the dress, which Hartwright stresses, here echoes his description of the dress Anne wore the night of their initial encounter—a dress, “certainly not composed of very delicate or very expensive materials” (24). Hartwright’s implicit linking of Anne and Laura in this passage foreshadows the explicit connection drawn between the two women at the end of the chapter. This explicit association between the two women comes as Marian reads Mrs. Fairlie’s letter detailing her encounters with Anne as a child, noting the troubles the young girl faced. While listening to Marian read about young Anne’s love for the white clothes she inherited from an unknowing young Laura, Hartwright keeps his gaze on Laura: “There stood Miss Fairlie, a white figure, alone in the moonlight… the shape of her face, the living image, at that distance and under those circumstances, of the woman in white!” (62). I find it interesting that Hartwright comes to this startling realization upon learning that Anne grew up wearing Laura’s clothes. Laura and Anne’s identities seem to intertwine at this moment, the similarity in physical features and the sharing of clothes foreshadowing more connections to come. Since the white dress is so connected in Harwright’s (and therefore the reader’s) mind with his vision of Anne on the night of her escape from the asylum, it acts as a marker of sorts—marking Laura for some kind of impending suffering.
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