Marian Halcombe: Sweet or Sassy?

Wilkie Collins introduces Marian Halcombe as a bold and defiant young woman. She challenges conventional gender norms in both her outward appearance (her mustache) and in her demeanor. Upon meeting Walter, she says:

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. Dear me, you look puzzled. Why? Are you wondering what you will have for breakfast? or are you surprised at my careless way of talking?…In the second case, I will give you some tea to compose your spirits, and do all a woman can (which is very little, by-the-by) to hold my tongue. (Collins 37)

She openly refers to herself as unusual when she tells Walter that few women speak as frankly as she does about her own sex. Furthermore, she attributes Walter’s surprise to either his choice of breakfast or to her unusual manner of speaking, recognizing that her behavior may perhaps be off-putting to a stranger.

However, Walter quickly becomes accustomed to Marian’s openness, and respects her immensely. He acknowledges her intelligence and audacity, and although he doesn’t love her in the same way that he loves Laura, I believe it’s arguable to say that he and Marian become partners in crime while attempting to solve the mystery that unfolds.

After Walter’s departure, however, Marian shows a change in character. Suddenly, she seems unfocused and somewhat incapable. For instance, when speaking to Mr. Gilmore after hearing Sir Percival Glyde’s explanation for Anne Catherick’s resentment, she says, “…I almost wish Walter Hartright had stayed here long enough to be present at the explanation, and to hear the proposal to me to write this note” (135). Surprised, Mr. Gilmore asks Marian how Walter’s presence could have any influence on the current situation. Distracted, she tells Mr. Gilmore that it was only a thought; Gilmore’s experience and guidance was the only thing she needed and desired.

Mr. Gilmore then remarks in his narrative:

I did not altogether like her thrusting the whole responsibility, in this marked manner, on my shoulders. If Mr. Fairlie had done it, I should not have been surprised. But resolute, clear-minded Miss Halcombe, was the very last person in the world whom I should have expected to find shrinking from the expression of an opinion of her own. (135)

Mr. Gilmore is right to be surprised by this discrepancy in Marian’s personality. Once bubbling with opinions, Marian now lacks, or at least keeps to herself, any opinions on the matter. Instead, she wonders how Walter would respond to Sir Percival Glyde, and blindly follows Mr. Gilmore’s guidance. Is she turning into the quiet and stereotypical woman of the Victorian Era that she seems to despise when she first meets Walter?

I hope Marian returns to her old self again soon!