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Marian Halcombe Between Genders And Gender Roles

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 3874 words Published: 18th Apr 2017

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According to Lyn Pykett " most of Collins's novels explored the way in which gender roles were constructed, and, at the same time, explored various pressures for and anxieties about changes in gender roles in the mid-nineteenth century" (2005: 128) and "offered a critique of the class and gender hierarchies of Victorian society" (2005: 223). The Woman in White is one of those novels to which Pykett referred to and Collins uses his unconventional heroine Marian Halcombe to serve his purposes. In this chapter I want to show that Marian's unconventionality resides in the way she looks and behaves and that this allows Collins to challenge gender roles and that she is used to blur gender boundaries.

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The novel begins with Walter Hartright's words "This is the story of what a Woman's patience can endure, and what a Man's resolution can achieve." (Collins 1) After a first reading of the novel these words will prove he is an unreliable narrator at least, if not a man who consciously wants to mislead the readers into thinking that a woman is only passive and must endure and that only a man is strong and capable of great deeds, when this is not always the case, especially in this novel. I say this because throughout the novel there are male characters that must have patience and endure and female characters that are resolute and active. For instance, Sir Percival must have patience if he wants to get in possession of his wife's money and Count Fosco constantly reminds him of that "patience, Percival -patience. ' You're always talking of patience'" (Collins 285). Marian Halcombe, although a woman, has resolution "Miss Halcombe cut the knot of the little embarrassment forthwith, in her resolute, downright way" (Collins 42) and throughout the novel her resolution will recommend her as a powerful woman as I will show later on in this chapter. His words can be interpreted as reflecting the Victorian ideology of the separate gender roles for women and men. However, I argue that these words are not fully illustrative for the content of the novel and for its characters because of Marian Halcombe and what she represents in the economy of the novel. What she does shows that a woman is not always patient and enduring but can be also resolute.

Marian Halcome "whose far more "interesting" character represents the only significant variation on business-as-usual in the novel's gynaeceum" (Miller 176) is portrayed from the beginning of the novel as being between the genders in the sense that her physical description shows she "is both masculine and feminine" (Pykett 2005:126). From her description it can be seen that at this point in the narrative that her femininity resides in the beauty of her body and her masculinity in the traits of her face. Walter Hartright describes her and his contradictory reactions thus

Her figure was tall, yet not too tall; comely and well-developed, yet not fat; her head set on her shoulders with an easy, pliant firmness; her waist, perfection in the eyes of a man (…) The lady's

complexion was almost swarthy, and the dark down on her upper lip was almost a moustache 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 (…)To see such a face as this set on shoulders that a sculptor would have longed to model--to be charmed by the modest graces of action through which the symmetrical limbs betrayed their beauty when they moved, and then to be almost repelled by the masculine form and masculine look of the features in which the perfectly shaped figure ended--was to feel a sensation oddly akin to the helpless discomfort familiar to us all in sleep, when we recognise yet cannot reconcile the anomalies and contradictions of a dream.

(Collins 24-25)

As Sophia Andres well remarks Walter's "conventional expectation of femininity is unsettled by the disjunction of femininity with masculinity" (371) when he first sees Marian and his reaction could have been the reaction of any other Victorian that had fixed conceptions about the way a woman had to look like but I argue that Collins mocked in a way the gendered expectations of Victorians when he created Marian and showed that women are not all the same and that masculinity can characterize a woman too and not only a man. Her sister Laura makes an indirect remark about her masculine face when she returns from her honeymoon and exclaims that she missed her "own dear, dark, clever, gipsy-face" (Collins 188). Talking about Marian's description Valerie Pedlar notes that "Walter finds himself face to face with a lady who is not at all easy to categorize and who falls outside conventional literary or social models" (76) My opinion is that it is precisely because she cannot be categorized by the conventional society of the age that she can be seen as expressing Collins's contempt for the Victorian gender norms and gender definitions.

Apart from her masculine face she has other masculine physical traits of which she is aware "My hands always were, and always will be, as awkward as a man's" (Collins 204) because they are big. Another remark that she makes about herself and that implies she is aware of her masculinity is that made when she tries to stop herself from crying because she says "My tears do not flow so easily as they ought-- they come almost like men's tears, with sobs that seem to tear me in pieces, and that frighten every one about me" (Collins 144). When she makes choices about her personal items she intentionally highlights her masculine side because from Laura we learn that she has a "horrid heavy man's umbrella" with which she "always would walk out with when it rained" (Collins 188).Her personal choices like that of having a man's umbrella instead of a smaller woman's umbrella show that she disregard the etiquette of the time and this furthermore implies that her wishes are more important for her than what others think is right for a woman to do. One would think that a discussion about the fact that she has a "heavy man's umbrella" is not very illustrative for the subject of this chapter but the fact that it is heavy shows that Marian has physical strength and since women in that period were considered fragile mentally, morally and physically and she is a woman, again points to one conclusion: Victorian gender expectations are flouted.

According to Carolyn Oulton "her masculinity is initially signaled in the references to physical traits such as facial hair" (84) but throughout the novel instances when she is seen as masculine and treated like if she were a man and when she behaves in a masculine way occur. Masculinity is associated with physical and mental strength and Marian possesses these qualities that lastly make those who know her realize she is unique. One of these persons is Eliza Michelson who said to Laura when she realized that Marian had disappeared from Blackwater Park despite the fact she was ill "Remember, my lady, what surprising energy there is in Miss Halcombe"… "She might well make an effort which other ladies in her situation would be unfit for" (Collins 344). She is an extraordinary woman and without doubt people notice that.

Count Fosco is surely the one person who most sees how different she is from other women and admires her despite all her masculine traits. He says to Percival when they talk about how to get in possession of Laura's money

She is sharp enough to suspect something, and bold enough to come downstairs and listen, if she can get the chance. (Collins 285)

Can you look at Miss Halcombe and not see that she has the foresight and the resolution of a man? With that woman for my friend I would snap these fingers of mine at the world. With that woman for my enemy, I, with all my brains and experience--I, Fosco, cunning as the devil himself, as you have told me a hundred times--I walk, in your English phrase, upon egg-shells! And this grand creature--I drink her health in my sugar-and-water--this grand creature, who stands in the strength of her love and her courage, firm as a rock, between us two and that poor, flimsy, pretty blonde wife of yours--this magnificent woman, whom I admire with all my soul, though I oppose her in your interests and in mine, you drive to extremities as if she was no sharper and no bolder than the rest of her sex. (Collins 291)

He acknowledges her as a powerful enemy because she is resolute, courageous and intelligent as a man but he is also capable of seeing her as a feminine woman and this furthermore makes him admire her. After reading her diary he states

Admirable woman! I allude to Miss Halcombe. Stupendous effort! I refer to the Diary. Yes! These pages are amazing. The tact which I find here, the discretion, the rare courage, the wonderful power of memory, the accurate observation of character, the easy grace of style, the charming outbursts of womanly feeling, have all inexpressibly increased my admiration of this sublime creature, of this magnificent Marian (…) Under happier circumstances how worthy I should have been of Miss Halcombe--how worthy Miss Halcombe would have been of ME. The sentiments which animate my heart assure me that the lines I have just written express a Profound Truth.

(Collins 302-303)

He not only praises her for all that she is and does but he also seems to declare his love for her. He considers himself powerful, "courageous as I am by nature" (Collins 545) and intelligent and she being an "unparalleled woman" as he himself observed, could have been the perfect match for him precisely because of her strong nature. They are very much alike. She is "the first and last weakness of Fosco's life" (Collins 556). What Collins seems to suggest through Count Fosco's voice who does not blame Marian for not being as feminine as women have to be but on the contrary is that such atypical Victorian women as her should be acknowledged in their society although they undermine men's domination. Not only Count Fosco realizes that she has things in common with men and admires her. Walter Hartright says about her "She caught me by both hands--she pressed them with the strong, steady grasp of a man … She stopped, drew me nearer to her--the fearless, noble creature" (Collins 107).

The same Count Fosco who talked about Marian in such admiring terms had talked previously in terms that express the mentality of the time about ways in which men can rule women and about resolution that is characteristic of men and that women cannot possess. After reading what he later on says about Marian and after all the instances when she uses her resolution it is clear that Marian does not fail in resolution and that again conventional ideas of the time do not fully apply in her case.

Human ingenuity, my friend, has hitherto only discovered two ways in which a man can manage a woman. One way is to knock her down--a method largely adopted by the brutal lower orders of the people, but utterly abhorrent to the refined and educated classes above them. The other way (much longer, much more difficult, but in the end not less certain) is never to accept a provocation at a woman's hands. It holds with animals, it holds with children, and it holds with women, who are nothing but children grown up. Quiet resolution is the one quality the animals, the children, and the women all fail in. If they can once shake this superior quality in their master, they get the better of HIM. If they can never succeed in disturbing it, he gets the better of THEM

(Collins 291)

Although Marian has manly impulses like that of hitting Sir Percival "I started to my feet as suddenly as if he had struck me. If I had been a man, I would have knocked him down on the threshold of his own door, and have left his house, never on any earthly consideration to enter it again. But I was only a woman--and I loved his wife so dearly!" (Collins 218) and Count Fosco, "My hands tingled to strike him, as if I had been a man!" (Collins 495) she refrains herself because she knows that a violent act would do her no good as she is in neither cases in the position of gaining anything from hitting them. Often, her transgressions of gender roles are made with the purpose of protecting her sister and in the first case if she strikes Sir Percival she risks being thrown out from his house leaving her sister unprotected from his villainies and in the second case the situation is the same, she risks leaving her sister unprotected and alone as Walter is not in the city to stay with her. With all her transgressions her options as a woman are limited and being a man would have certainly opened up more possibilities for her. When she arrives at Blackwater Park she waits impatiently for her sister's arrival from her honeymoon and she affirms

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If I only had the privileges of a man, I would order out Sir Percival's best horse instantly, and tear away on a night-gallop, eastward, to meet the rising sun (...) Being, however, nothing but a woman, condemned to patience, propriety, and petticoats for life, I must respect the house- keeper's opinions, and try to compose myself in some feeble and feminine way. (Collins 174)

The last sentence describes the condition of middle-class women in Victorian England, condemned to a domestic existence but these are not necessarily her own words expressing her beliefs and opinions because she says that she "must respect the housekeeper's opinions" and the fact that she mentions this thing makes me interpret what she says as being the ironical rendering of the housekeeper's words.

Marian is glad when some people around her, for example Count Fosco, see her masculine side and treat her differently than they would treat a conventional Victorian woman "He flatters my vanity by talking to me as seriously and sensibly as if I was a man" (Collins 197). Not all who meet her treat her like Count Fosco and there is an amusing moment with a school teacher that thinks she is as traditional Victorian woman, therefore weak and who tries to protect her from a shock. Instead of being grateful she is ironical and the answer to his attitude shows that she is not satisfied when people treat her as a weak woman

"I beg your pardon, Miss Halcombe," interposed the school-master a little uneasily--"but I think you had better not question the boy. The obstinate folly of his story is beyond all belief; and you might lead him into ignorantly----" "Ignorantly what?" inquired Miss Halcombe sharply. "Ignorantly shocking your feelings," said Mr. Dempster, looking very much discomposed. "Upon my word, Mr. Dempster, you pay my feelings a great compliment in thinking them weak enough to be shocked by such an urchin as that!" She turned with an air of satirical defiance to little Jacob, and began to question him directly. (Collins 72- 73)

On the other hand, although she is not satisfied when people think she is a weak person she herself has moments of weakness. Those moments attest she is feminine too. After the discussion with Laura, during which Laura said she was going to marry Sir Percival after all, she starts to cry "The tears--miserable, weak, women's tears of vexation and rage-- started to my eyes. She smiled sadly, and put her handkerchief over my face to hide for me the betrayal of my own weakness--the weakness of all others which she knew that I most despised" (Collins 159). She despises weak people and tries to hide her own weakness. She tends to believe that it is the fact that she is "only a woman" (Collins 529) and has a woman's body that makes her weak and that this weakness is not representative for who she really is inside. Her femininity is not as accentuated as her masculinity but without a doubt it is a part of who she is too and she learns to accept it. After she moves with Laura and Walter she has to take care of the household and she says to Walter

"What a woman's hands ARE fit for," she said, "early and late, these hands of mine shall do." They trembled as she held them out (…) the unquenchable spirit of the woman burnt bright in her even yet. I saw the big tears rise thick in her eyes, and fall slowly over her cheeks as she looked at

me. She dashed them away with a touch of her old energy, and smiled with a faint reflection of her old good spirits. "Don't doubt my courage, Walter," she pleaded, "it's my weakness that cries, not ME. The house-work shall conquer it if I can't." (Collins 390)

Although moments like the one mentioned in the last paragraph that show her femininity are not as many as those that show her masculinity they exist in the novel. For example, in the beginning of the novel Walter is shocked to see she has masculine qualities and he expects her to have an inexpressive facial expression like that of a man and to have the voice of a man too but he is pleased to see that "her dark face lighting up with a smile, and softening and growing womanly the moment she began to speak (…) These odd words of welcome were spoken in a clear, ringing, pleasant voice (Collins 25). Also, she dresses in a feminine way. Walter notices when he looks at her, Mrs. Vesey and Laura that she is "richly clad" with "delicate primrose-yellow colour which matches so well with a dark complexion and black hair" (Collins 44). When she prepares to spy on Count Fosco and Sir Percival she says that "A complete change in my dress was imperatively necessary for many reasons (...) In my ordinary evening costume I took up the room of three men at least" (Collins 287). When Walter asks her if she would write to him after he leaves Limmeridge House "her dark eyes glittered--her brown complexion flushed deep--the force and energy of her face glowed and grew beautiful with the pure inner light of her generosity and her pity" (Collins 107) showing that despite her masculine face she is capable of having womanly feelings.

Another moment when her femininity is revealed is when she talks with Walter about telling Laura that her husband died and Walter notices that "An unaccustomed tenderness trembled in her dark eyes and softened her firm lips, as she glanced aside at the empty chair in which the dear companion of all our joys and sorrows had been sitting" (Collins 499). She has a "robust physicality" (Oulton 85) but her body has its limits and because of that she has to give up doing things despite herself like the moment when she wants to go and look for Laura after talking with Count Fosco who told her she does not have to sign Sir Percival's act "my head was giddy and my knees trembled under me. There was no choice but to give it up again and return to the sofa, sorely against my will" (Collins 244). The limitations of her body show again her femininity.

From the beginning of the novel she makes mean and sarcastic remarks about women herself included. For example, she says to the puzzled Walter Hartright that "How can you expect four women to dine together alone every day, and not quarrel? We are such fools, we can't entertain each other at table. 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" (Collins 25-26). Her words can be interpreted as showing her disappointment for the way women behave. I opinion that at the same they show she tends to have misogynistic views on women. Normally misogyny is associated with men and in this case her words furthermore show that she is masculine too. She observes his bewilderment and continues "I will give you some tea to compose your spirits, and do all a woman can (which is very little, by-the-bye) to hold my tongue"" (Collins26) The irony is that she does not hold her tongue but on the contrary so her remark is somehow sarcastic attacking the ideology of separate gender roles. After she says this Walter remark that she was "laughing gaily" (Collins 26) so this sustains what I have just said. Other examples of remarks about women coming from her are "Women can't draw-their minds are too flighty, and their eyes are too inattentive" (Collins 27), "Women, as everybody knows, constantly act on impulses which they cannot explain even to themselves" (Collins 227) and "Women can resist a man's love, a man's fame, a man's personal appearance, and a man's money, but they cannot resist a man's tongue when he knows how to talk to them" ( Collins 228).

According to Lyn Pykett she "does not think much of either sex" (Collins 126) and her affirmation is confirmed by Marian's words about men "No man under heaven deserves these sacrifices from us women" (Collins 159). The same Lyn Pykett sustains that "Collins uses Marian's proto-feminist pronouncements and her active involvement in rescuing Laura and helping Walter to restore her half-sister's identity as a way of questioning and challenging current gender roles" (Collins 126). In the light of the matters discussed in this chapter it is clear that these instances named by Pykett are not the only ones when Collins challenges gender roles. Another instance when gender roles are clearly challenged is when Marian disregards all the rules of proper womanly behaviour and spies on Count Fosco and Sir Percival staying on the roof of a verandah. Throughout the novel she is active and helps Walter not only by doing different activities that are not typical for a woman in the Victorian period but also by giving him advices that are helpful and that determine him to trust her.

In an age when few middle-class women had the power to act against the gender norms and defy the hierarchy of gender roles of their society she is one such example of woman who behaves differently than expected and when for example she fails to express her opinion as she usually does people around her are astonished. Such a situation is when asked by Mr. Gilmore to say whether they should trust Sir Percival when he said that Anne Catherick was taken by him to the asylum with the permission of her mother she says nothing and his reaction is "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" (Collins 117).

According to Lilian Craton " the "dark and ugly" qualities of Marian's physical appearance defy the feminine ideal but enable her strong sense of individuality as do the masculine personality traits" (133). I agree with her but I would also add that her feminine qualities should not be disregarded. Marian is not defined exclusively by the masculine but by the masculine and the feminine at the same time and the fact that she is a combination of these two is what make her unique. By presenting her as being between genders Collins subverts traditional Victorian gender definitions. She fails to comply with contemporary gender roles and as a consequence she affirms her individuality.


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