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.
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:
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.