Fosco’s Theory of Relativity

November 8, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Woman in White.

My wife, Jaime, has been telling me to read this book for years and years.  Every time it comes up, she exclaims, “Count Fosco!” with this very particular mix of awe, terror, and delight.  She always says Fosco’s one of her all-time favorite villains.  So I knew something of what I was getting myself into.

But really, how do you prepare yourself for a morbidly obese Italian who looks like Napoleon and lets his pet white mice crawl all over his body, and seems to have his wife hypnotized and/or terrorized into being his mind-slave?  Not knowing yet where Collins is taking all of this (well, maybe having some inkling, but not knowing), I can say that already Fosco seems like a brilliant creation, the sort of extravagantly anti-realistic grotesque that is strange enough (and, in this case, fat enough) to somehow become real, to the reader: to impose his big, fat, weird reality on the world.  Like Napoleon, I suppose, or Hitler.

I’m sure there will be more opportunities to explore Fosco’s abundant oddity, but for now, let me just mention three things I’ve found most interesting, in the hundred or so pages since first meeting him.

1) Fosco seems to me to be a perfectly Victorian villain, in that his main tactics are an unfailing courtesy and an obsession with keeping up appearances of friendly society and warm familial bonds.  At every turn, when Percival Glyde threatens to ruin their plot by flying off the handle (again), Fosco smooths things over by apologizing for his hotheaded friend, by sympathizing with Laura’s and Marian’s sense of decency and decorum, and by insinuating that he values discretion and leisure above all else; that he’s a gentleman, in other words, and how could anyone dispute a Count’s claim to that?  You get the feeling that Fosco and Glyde will succeed (or come damned close) simply by Fosco’s smooth insistence on the impropriety of discussing the technicalities of life with ladies, and his being interesting enough to distract them from the matters at hand.  He’s a jujitsu master, in other words: absorbing and redistributing moral violence.  (Best Shakespearean comparison I can think of so far: part Lady Macbeth, part Iago.)  I wonder whether Collins intended him as a gross exaggeration of the sorts of wretchedly artificial relationships the Victorian English seemed to maintain with each other.  Part of me wonders whether he’s not Frederick Fairlie’s id unleashed and given agency.

2)  Speaking of morality, one of the more fascinating set pieces so far takes place in the “boat-house” on Glyde’s estate, when the entire party takes a break from a long morning stroll and finds itself embroiled in a discussion of whether “crimes cause their own detection.”  In this context, it is perhaps not surprising that Fosco takes the “interesting” side of the argument against Marian and Laura, arguing for a kind of moral relativism: “Here, in England, there is one virtue.  And there, in China, there is another virtue.”  Of course this would not fly, with either the ladies or with Collins’s readers: England’s virtue was the virtue, surely, in the Victorian Empire, on which the sun never set!

You get the sense that Fosco knows the stakes are very low, and therefore reveals some of his true feelings about the pointlessness of virtue — managing to make himself more fascinating to the ladies in the process, with this fine little piece of braggadocio (familiar now as the mating call of the Transgressive Academic): “I am a bad man, Lady Glyde, am I not?  I say what other people only think, and when all the rest of the world is in a conspiracy to accept the mask for the true face, mine is the rash hand that tears off the plump pasteboard, and shows the bare bones beneath.”

3)  Finally: am I crazy, or is there a fairly blatant homosexual subtext between Glyde and Fosco?  Laura’s confession to Marian seems to make clear that Glyde has never given her the slightest indication of his love or even lust for her; and in his “Man of Sentiment” episode, as Marian puts it, Fosco wears his dandiest clothes and indulges his aesthetic sense to the hilt, rhapsodizing on music, on the sunset, etc.  His status as a decadent Italian, his weird relationships with exotic pets, his unusual relationship with his wife, and his avowed sympathy for the feminine; Glyde’s seemingly complete lack of interest in sex with his (much younger, beautiful, apparently willing, at least at first) wife, his invitation to Count and Madame Fosco to join him on his honeymoon, and his constant submission to Fosco’s wishes; are these markers intended by Collins to send a message of homosexuality, or am I projecting 21st-century reading on a 19th-century work?  I always wonder, with Victorian novelists, how much of this sexual marking is conscious and how much is just submerged, or unconscious.  Either way: there seem to be some rather intricate things going on in this book with sex and gender, and I’ll probably need to address them in the next post.

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