Bastard Children of Noblemen: A Look at Percival Glyde and Anne Catherick

At first glance, Percival Glyde and Anne Catherick share almost nothing in common–he’s an esteemed Baronet with crippling debts, and she’s an escapee from an Asylum. However, as Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White progresses, these two characters exhibit surprisingly similar backgrounds: most plainly, the issues of both of their parentages.

The Secret™ that would ruin Glyde’s life, that Anne claimed to know, that Walter Hartright discovered in the discrepancies between the church records at Old Welmingham, is that his parents never married–in fact, his mother was technically still married to an Irishman, though they had since gone their own ways (531). This made Percival an illegitimate child, unable to truly claim his father’s property at Blackwater…unless he resorted to unsavory means.

After some sleuthing by Walter, it was revealed that Anne, too, was the product of an illegitimate union. “Philip Fairlie had been at Varneck Hall in the autumn of eighteen hundred and twenty-six, and that Mrs. Catherick had been living there in service at the same time (…) Anne had been born in June, eighteen hundred and twenty-seven” (553). However, in this circumstance, Anne’s parents did not remain together–their affair was brief , especially as Philip Fairlie “then left (…) and did not return to Varneck Hall till after a lapse of time, when he reappeared in the character of a newly-married man.” (553) Walter suspects that Anne did not even guess her true parentage–certainly she would have been unable to act upon it as Percival did, even if she was aware. She had no claim to the Fairlie fortune or estate, not to mention the fact that the legitimate Fairlie heir was very present, as opposed to the situation Percival found himself in.

With these similar origins of being born the illegitimate children of well-off men, it is interesting that Anne and Percival are so at odds in the narrative, and perhaps demonstrates the imbalance of power between Victorian women and men. Percival, a man, is made aware of his own “claim” to the Blackwater estate, and does everything he can to claim it, including forging a marriage record, blackmailing Mrs Catherick, and even shutting Anne away when it seems as if she might be too close to revealing The Secret™. Anne, a woman, is first of all described as “being always weak in the head” (534) by her own mother, and her true parentage is hidden from her. She is rejected by Mrs Catherick (perhaps her similarity to her father reminded Mrs Catherick of her own past mistakes?), and ironically receives some motherly affection from Mrs Fairlie, the wife of her true father.

However, the one direct confrontation between Percival and Anne, that leads to Anne’s imprisonment and drives almost the entire plot of the story, comes because Anne speaks up for herself against Percival’s dismissal of her as “the idiot” (536). In Mrs Catherick’s words, “she had always had crazy notions of her own about her dignity,” (536)–in order to gain the upper hand on Percival and establish her presence, Anne used the one thing she had heard that could potentially ruin him–a practice which backfires spectacularly on her, as this leads to Percival demanding she be shut up in an Asylum, a place where she would have even less dignity and autonomy than she had living with her mother. Anne is stripped of all power as Percival gains more.

The two illegitimate children of the narrative are treated incredibly differently, and what this unequal treatment seems to highlight is the unequal power afforded each gender in Victorian society.

Coincidentally Identical? Connections Between Anne and Laura

The striking similarities between the appearances of Anne Catherick and Laura Fairlie are often remarked upon in The Woman in White, most prominently in a letter from Laura’s mother. This uncanny resemblance seems at first merely an odd twist of fate, but certain remarks throughout the First Epoch of the novel begin to perhaps reveal a new picture. During Mr Gilmore’s description of Laura on page 128, he remarks that “[Miss Fairlie] takes after her father. Mrs Fairlie had dark eyes and hair…” In itself, this seems an offhand comment, but reveals that Laura’s appearance is more similar to the late Mr Fairlie’s, a character whose history has not yet been explored to any major degree. Later on, Mr Gilmore describes the circumstances of Laura’s inheritance and tracks the specific path that has led Laura to be the heir to the Limmeridge estate (148). Such time is spent on meticulously plotting the potential lines of inheritance and discussing the ways in which Laura could either lose or ultimately end up owning the property that the very presence of such a passage seems to foreshadow its coming importance. Is it possible that some later revelation could upset this system of birthright and legal claim to Limmeridge House?

When Percival Glyde is asked about the matter of Anne Catherick, he mentions his connections to her mother, who “had been doubly unfortunate in being married to a husband who had deserted her, and in having an only child whose mental faculties had been in a disturbed condition from a very early age” (131). What is significant here is the mention of Anne’s father, who has been conspicuously absent from any other description of her family until this point. Although not much information is given beyond the fact that he is a man who deserted his wife and young child, it is enough to perhaps piece together a theory about the connection between the two near-identical girls who are integral parts of the story.

Could it perhaps be proposed that the desertee father of Anne Catherick was none other than Philip Fairlie himself? It has already been stated by Mrs Fairlie that Anne was “about a year older than our darling Laura” (59), which would allow time for Philip to have broken off his relationship with Jane Anne Catherick, married Laura’s mother, and have Laura be born. If this is the case, the issue of the inheritance becomes even more complicated. Anne would take the role of heir to the estate, being the elder of the two daughters, and making Laura’s marriage settlement almost pointless. It follows that, if, perhaps, a certain Percival Glyde was aware of the parentage of Anne Catherick, but also aware of the fact that Laura was considered the heir to the estate, and was in need of money in order to pay off debts, Glyde would do anything in his power to guarantee his acquisition of the Limmeridge estate. If Anne Catherick was truly the heir to the estate, and Glyde knew about this, it would explain why he was so eager to shut her away in an Asylum, and to recapture her before anybody (specifically Mr Hartright) discovered her parentage. It would also explain why he then pursued Laura–in an engagement arranged specifically by Philip Fairlie (73)! Did Glyde threaten to expose Anne’s true parentage if Mr Fairlie did not give him Laura’s hand? As of yet, it is near impossible to say. However, the textual evidence seems perhaps to point to Anne and Laura’s resemblance being not mere coincidence, but a sign of a shared parent and much intrigue.

Madman with a Cleaver: Women and Mental Illness in Victorian (and Modern) Culture


Women with agency are hard to control, and women who can’t be controlled are dangerous to Victorian ideals. We’ve talked about this in class. Heck, we’ve talked about similar ideas outside of class, since this concept does, to a certain degree, apply to our own culture. Women with agency are hard to control, and that frightens people in power. Even more threatening are people, especially women, with mental illnesses. The mentally ill are seen as difficult, sometimes impossible to control. Even in modern times, we are often written off as erratic, a view that is used to diminish (or at least hide) our role in society and to excuse an unhealthy and unjustified fear of us.


Anne Catherick may or may not have been mentally ill when she was forced into an asylum, but her behavior upon escaping certainly defies any expectations one might have of a proper Victorian woman. As Sr. Percival’s lawyer, Mr. Merriman, puts it, “A dangerous woman to be at large, Mr. Gilmore; nobody knows what she may do next” (154). And he’s right—nobody does! Anne Catherick remains a mystery thus far in the novel, but the danger she poses to ideas of what a woman should be in her society is so strong that it cannot be shrouded, not even by the aura of uncertainty that surrounds her and her past.


The portrayal of Anne Catherick as (potentially) mentally ill reflects Victorian and modern views on mental illness, views that I have more or less covered. Anne’s behavior is unpredictable, which makes her impossible to control. Furthermore, she has been successful in evading Sir. Percival’s reach, signifying escape from a social hierarchy governed by class, gender, and money (three things that place Sir. Percival in power). Because Anne is a woman, and a lower class woman at that, her escape from a hierarchy that would deny her even the most basic power (power over the self) is a threatening one. If more women were like Anne, they could completely upend Victorian society, and where would Sir. Percival be then?


By interpreting Anne as mentally ill, her society minimizes her power as an autonomous woman while also stigmatizing her and excusing her mistreatment. And to be completely honest, this is not solely a Victorian issue. Stigma around mental illness remains a huge problem, and that stigma is sometimes co-opted in order to dismiss women. In modern America, mental illness is often talked about in the context of violence, suggesting that mentally ill people are more likely than people who are not mentally ill to be violent (they aren’t: Take today’s trending topics on Facebook, which actually included the phrase “Madman with a Cleaver.” How does that not strengthen the association between mental illness and danger? On a less sensational level, I suspect that most of us have heard an outspoken woman called “crazy” at one point or another (some of us have even been that woman). What does it say about our society that women who demonstrate power still risk being dismissed as members of an even more marginalized group?


The Woman in White is a product of Victorian society, but it’s hard not to notice its modern connections. Regardless of whether or not Anne Catherick is actually mentally ill, her confinement to an asylum and Mr. Merriman’s later comments both reflect fears of autonomous women and unpredictability. These fears continue to infect in our own society, and while blame can only be placed on us for continuing to promote them, it is interesting to look at their earlier manifestations in Victorian literature.