Fun Times with Impenetrable Gloom

“Through what mortal crime and horror, through what darkest windings of the way down to Death, the lost creature had wandered in God’s leading to the last home that, living, she never hoped to reach! In that sacred rest, I leave her–in that dread companionship, let her remain undisturbed.


So the ghostly figure which has haunted these pages as it haunted my life, goes down into the impenetrable Gloom. Like a Shadow she first came to me, in the loneliness of the night. Like a Shadow she passes away, in the loneliness of the dead.”

That cheery excerpt concludes the second chapter-like section of the Third Epoch. (Worth noting because it amuses me: It’s located on page 555, which is hilariously similar to 666.) While I’m not sure how this quote will show up in WordPress, which has a well-observed habit of screwing with everything I do, the second paragraph is set apart from the rest of the story by a solid line. Talk about blank spaces telling the whole story–this blank space leaves the end of chapter-section two looking like an epitaph! And of course, whenever anything is overly-asserted (especially an ending, since good old Wilkie has already faked us out more than once), one must be suspicious.

So then, what’s really going on here?

Well, Anne Catherick is dead, at least physicaly, but it’s worth remembering that she isn’t legally dead, which makes the grave paragraph above somewhat ironic. I have to wonder if Wilkie Collins isn’t setting us up for one of three things to happen. Firstly, our dearest Laura could really be Anne Catherick after all. To be honest, I don’t believe this, but it’s worth considering just because of how much that passage has hammered home the memory of her death. Secondly, it’s possible that Laura will never be able to get her own name back, but that she will be able to reclaim her fortune somehow just by proving Anne’s parentage. Which would be ironic again, because then poor Anne would remain both dead and alive. I’m not too fond of this theory either, because it seems wildly implausible, but it would be an interesting twist.

What’s most likely going on here, though, is that Collins is hinting that Anne will finally be put to rest. Because, as I have mentioned, while she is technically dead, she’s legally living, and that leaves her in an odd state of limbo. That second paragraph, on the other hand, really asserts her deadness, which could mean that her state of alive-and-deadness is coming to an end. I mean, if that little epitaph is to be trusted, then Anne isn’t just dead, she has disappeared “down into the impenetrable Gloom.” Which has got to be code for super-dead or something because it is so gosh-darn deathy. (It’s possible that this is a reference to Greek mythology, where Hades rules the underworld. If Anne was a ghost all along, then her leaving for his domain, as the phrase “down into the impenetrable Gloom” certainly suggests, indicates that her spirit has finally departed this world. Which in turn indicates that she is basically double-dead.)

So if Anne is so dead she’s double-dead, what does this have to say about the rest of the story? To summarize my argument: it might be the author’s way of telling the reader that Laura’s return to her old identity is coming, it might be an ironic indication that poor Anne was never dead at all, or it might suggest that Anne will live on legally for a while yet. We shall see.

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!

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.

Walter’s First Encounter With Laura and Marian- Gender, Whiteness, and Class

As with most readings of gender, it is important to look at it with an intersectional lens- one that acknowledges how different identities interact to form statures of privilege. I believe that developing a deeper understanding of the way in which Walter describes women in this novel can shed light upon Collins’ social commentary on gender, class, and race. When Walter first meets Marian, he says, “She left the window- and I said to myself, The lady is dark. She moved forward a few steps- and I said to myself, The lady is young. She approached nearer-and I said to myself, The lady is ugly!” (p.34). Looking at the syntax of these few sentences shows several interruptions from commas and hyphens, making every phrase short and abrupt. These short, abrupt sentences give the reader an unflattering feeling as they meet Marian with Walter, one that is unsettling. Just as he is initially confused and skeptical, as is the reader who feels Walter’s hesitation through the syntax. Walter continues to describe Marian as having a complexion that was, “almost swarthy,” and ,”the dark brown on her upper lip was almost a mustache, She had a large, firm, masculine mouth and jaw; prominent, piercing, resolute brown eyes; and thick, coal-black hair, growing unusually low down on her forehead. Her expression….appeared, while she was silent, to be altogether wanting in those feminine attractions of gentleness and pliability, without which the beauty of the handsomest woman alive is incomplete,” (p.35).  The last sentence of this quote is worth noting as it explicitly states what a woman needs to be considered beautiful; gentleness and pliability. There is an emphasis in this description on both gender and race as Marian is described as having very masculine, strong, dark features. This contrasts the very feminine women Walter meets throughout the novel, especially Walter’s love interest, Laura, who is described as, “fair and pretty,” (p.37). Later, Walter describes her with similar language, saying that she is a, “light, youthful figure…with a little straw hat of the natural colour, plainly and sparingly tripped with ribbon to match the gown, covers her head, and throws its soft pearly shadow over the upper part of her face. Her hair is so faint and a pale brown,” (p.51). It was fascinating for me to read this description of Laura, as Walter is so clearly infatuated with her, but the feature that makes him so attracted to her is her inherent whiteness. This, along with her stereotypical femininity that portrays her as weak, are almost exclusively what Walter is attracted to. The description of Laura and Marian contrast drastically because of two dichotomies: masculine vs. feminine and dark vs. light. The diction Collins uses here seems very deliberate to me, in that the author seems to be explicitly showing Walter’s inherent biases. The words “light,” “fair,” “pale,” “faint,” as I see it, are Collins’ way of portraying the standard of beauty for women in the Victorian Period. I believe that I need to read more of the book to better understand Collins’ social commentary, but for now, it is clear to me that Collins is setting up a reality of modern society in which beauty is equated with whiteness and weakness. This standard excludes women like Marian, who are intelligent, kind, and interesting. Making Marian such a likable character yet “unattractive” pushes me to believe that Collins is in fact critiquing a world in which a woman’s value is based upon her beauty. However, it troubles me that there are no women in the novel that are both attractive and intelligent.

Some similarities between Goblin Market and The Woman in White

The sisterly bond in Christina G. Rossetti’s Goblin Market evokes, in many ways, Laura and Marian’s tie in Collin’s The Woman in White.

Many similarities seem to suggest such an association. First of all, in Goblin Market Laura and Lizzie are described as opposite but at the same time as complementary characters. If Laura is not afraid of the goblin men and “bowed her head to hear”(34), Lizzie, on the other hand, “veiled her blushes”(35) and hurries her sister to go back home. Furthermore, if Lizzie urges Laura to “get home before the night grows dark”(248), her sister “most like a leaping flame”(218) waits for the night to come in order to go to listen to the fruit-merchant men. In reading these lines, how not to recall Collins’ wise and judicious Marian and the weak and sensitive Laura? Such an association becomes even clearer when C. Rossetti writes: “Golden head by golden head,/ like two pigeons in one nest,/ folded in each other’s wings,/ They lay down in their curtained bed:/ Like two blossoms on one stem,/ Like two flakes of new-fall’n snow,/ like two wands of ivory/ Tipped with gold for awful kings”(185-192). Almost the same image is presented in “The Woman in White” when one night Marian, with a tender and innocent  glimpse, observes her sister lying on the bed. The difference between the novel and the poem is in how the sibling bond is described. While Collins does not explicitly unveil the sisterly love between Marian and Laura  but he only gives some hints, in C. Rossetti such a bond is depicted instead with a powerful sexual connotation. Lizzie and Laura’s bond is much more physical, till the point that they’re “folded in each other’s wings”(186).

As for Collins, for C.Rossetti too, the main assumption underlying this new type of  sisterly love is that it is the only true bond which can stand and win over the conventions of the Victorian society, with same-sex marriage being one of those. In a society where same-sex marriage was inspired by economic interests rather than by true love, sibling love seems the preferable alternative to escape such a conventionality, “For there is no friend like a sister/In calm or stormy weather”(563-564). The poem appears to follow this leitmotif, by insisting on Laura and Lizzie’s necessity to be together to overcome the difficulties of life, first of all the physical  dejection caused by love, which almost reduces Laura to a dead state. The conclusion, however, is pretty ambiguous. Despite praising the authenticity of sisterly love, it seems that C. Rossetti finally surrenders and conforms to the norms of her time. At the end of the poem, in fact, she says that :”Both were wives/With children of their own”(545-546). A similar conclusion happens in Collins’ novel, which ends with Laura marrying Walter and having a child. Why praising the unconventionality of sisterly love against the conventionality of the same-sex marriage all throughout their work, and then, ultimately, choosing a clashing conclusion?


The Male Gaze and the Female Art Object in The Woman in White (1859) and Laura (1944)

Laura is a 1944 film noir directed by Otto Preminger and based the 1941 novel Ring Twice for Laura by Vera Caspary (IMDb). There are several eerie coincidences between this text and The Woman in White. (As it turns out, a number of online sources suggest that Caspary was inspired by Wilkie Collins’s 1868 Moonstone—though none of my sources cites a primary source for this information)In terms of characterization, a wealthy young woman named “Laura” Hunt is courted by multiple men—one named “Waldo,” who is a combination of Walter’s possessive condescension; Count Fosco’s aged, effeminate, well-dressed, world-wise manipulation; and Sir Percival’s constant concern with appearances. Plot-wise, Laura is known to be murdered before the film begins, and Detective Mark McPherson spends much of the film trying to pin down the details of her murder—at which point he discovers that Laura is alive, and spends much of his time trying to find evidence of what really happened. Narratologically, the story is established through first-person narratives by multiple characters—though unlike Laura Fairlie/Glyde/Hartright, Laura Hunt does tell a portion of her own narrative. One of the most interesting parallels between the texts occurs when Detective McPherson falls in love with Laura’s portrait, before he has met her and while he still thinks she is dead:

The Male Gaze: McPherson falls in love with Laura- or at least her portrait  (

Though the portrait is not McPherson’s own handiwork, this scene is parallel to Walter’s enamourment with his own watercolour portrait of Laura, almost in substitute of Laura herself: “A fair, delicate girl in a pretty white dress, trifling with the leaves of a sketch-book, while she looks up from it with truthful, innocent blue eyes… Think of her as you thought of the first woman who quickened the pulses within you that the rest of her sex had no art to stir” (Collins 52). In both situations, a woman is defined by her physical features through a work of art that she herself did not create, and her worth is determined by the interest she can arouse in a man—in the effect the gendered “art” of her appearance has on his “pulse,” his body. Though both McPherson and Hartright claim to love their “Lauras” in the end, there is something discomfiting about the way they reflect on the beginnings of their love by referring back to their attraction to a portrait, rather than to the woman who inspired it—their male gaze is directed at a female art object, and their male hearts have undisclosed motives. The eerie discomfort created when McPherson falls in love with (the theoretically dead) Laura’s image exemplifies the creepiness of Walter’s consistent memory of his watercolour portrait of Laura, even after the woman he fell in love with is lost to child-like behaviors resulting from trauma. An attentive reader must question the validity of a “love” that roots itself first and foremost in a stylized image.