A Fop and an Androgyne
November 6, 2009 § Leave a comment
Now reading: The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins.
This is the first of Wilkie Collins that I’ve read, and I must say I’m pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoy the writing itself; I expected something more sensationally and less imaginatively written, whereas it has been (at least so far) quite strong. In the early going, I’m most intrigued by a couple of characters whose parts I’m unsure of in the overall narrative:
-Frederick Fairlie, who seems a great type of villain: the foppish, indifferent hypochondriac. Constantly using his supposedly fragile nerves and health as an excuse to get rid of people, and to have nothing to do with things he cares nothing about, he is revealed as a monster of solipsism. He refuses to leave his room for any reason, and takes no considerations into account other than what will mostly quickly get him rid of whoever is bothering him. He sets guidelines for when and how his niece Laura will be allowed to visit him before and after her wedding, imploring that she visit him “without tears!” to avoid upsetting his disposition. Fairlie reminds me very much of Des Esseintes from Against Nature, here presented from the normal societal perspective on the worthlessness of such a self-centered aesthete. I’ll be interested to see what’s done with him. He’s a caricature as so many characters in Victorian novels are, but he’s one that’s particularly well done and interesting, I think, and one that can also strike close to home: that consideration for one’s own comfort whatever the consequence for others is a source of constant struggle, isn’t it?
-Marian Holcombe, who seems as though she may actually be our protagonist, or at least should be. While Fairlie is presented as effeminate and delicate, Holcombe is given a statuesque body, a homely face, and any number of masculine sympathies and markers as something of an intermediary between the sexes. Collins seems to set her up as a kind of sexless combination of what he sees as the best of each sex: the compassion, familial concern, and lively wit of the female, and the level-headedness and responsibility of the male. And yet she is a strong defender of her sister Laura’s right to choose her husband, and to back out of a marriage that certainly promises to be loveless; she certainly sees the woman’s point of view. Marian seems kind of fascinating, and I’m interested to see what Collins does with her, as well: does she become the authorial surrogate, interjecting Collins’s own views into the plot? Or is she allowed to take a more active role, perhaps in solving the mystery of Anne Catherick?
I note that we get to know Marian much better than we get to know Laura, the object of so much attention but so little substantive description. In combination with the ominous marriage agreement allowing (the wonderfully named) Percival Glyde to take her money in the event of her death before her 21st birthday, the lack of depth to Laura’s character makes me wonder if she’s not long for the narrative. Not that it’s all that uncommon for a Victorian novelist to keep a young woman pure by sketching her as good and pure and beautiful without an ounce of actual character. Marian’s too interesting to be loved, it would seem.