Decorated initial 'I' In “Sensational Sisters: Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White,” Lelia Silvana May examines the various sisterly relationships that appear in the novel. In her investigation of these and other familial relationships, May draws upon the obvious connections between the novel’s initial woman in white, Anne Catherick, and Laura Fairlie, noting their similar looks, the brief swapping of their names and identities, their shared biological mother, and the insanity they each suffer resulting from internment in a mental institution by Sir Percival Glyde. May also posits these women as linked by Walter and his underlying lust for and fascination with these ghostly women: “Anne Catherick, who, later disappearing into the night, casts an erotic spell upon him. He soon subconsciously identifies her with yet another woman in white, the young upper-class woman to whom he is teaching drawing” (84). Walter’s attraction to Laura is presented as a result of her ghostly appearance. In one description of Laura’s appearance, Collins describes her as transparent: “Her hair is of so faint and pale a brown – not flaxen, and yet almost as light…that it nearly melts, here and there, into the shadow of the hat.”; her eyes are “beautiful above all things in the clear truthfulness of a look that dwells in their innermost depths, and shines through all their changes of expression” (51). Laura’s hair is described as so “faint and pale” that it appears to “melt” into her surroundings as though it is spectral. Similarly, her eyes appear to Walter as “clear,” allowing observers to see to their core.

May also focuses on the relationship between Laura & her sister Marian, citing Collins’s application of “the typical Victorian formula of contrasting physical and personality types” (Sisters 89). May argues that later in the novel, Walter grows to appreciate the dark and ugly Marian in a way that temporarily appears to threaten Walter’s adoration of Laura. For May, this results in part from Marian’s masculine qualities in her appearance, her lack of desire for marriage, and her desire to protect and fight for her sister. And the strong brotherly bond that May believes develops between Marian and Walter appears threateningly incestual and homoerotic. Although I can see the line of reasoning that produces May’s reading, I wonder if Marian’s reasserted attractiveness is merely the result of her consistently concretized nature. Laura, though beautiful, constantly appears to be fading away: from Walter’s memory (such as in the passage on page 117 before his departure), from her healthy and vibrant self, and from life as she briefly appears to be dead and buried. In contrast to Laura’s wispiness, Marian is dark and solid, providing a sense of strength and stability that is absent with Laura. There is no concern that Marian will ever allow herself to fade into the background; instead she always appears to bear a certain permanence. Must Marian’s strength of character be read in terms of masculinity, or is there another way to interpret her strength and darkness?

As May asserts, The Woman in White is full of broken, incomplete, and metaphorical families: Laura & Marian live with their uncle, Walter’s family died when he was young with the exception of his mother and his sister Sarah, Anne did not live with her true biological mother, and so on. Why are non-traditional familial structures at the center of Collins’s novel? How does this focus operate within the scope of Victorian literature?

A large portion of the narrative is delivered through Marian’s journal entries. Given that journals were primarily considered to be a feminine means of writing, how does this relate to Marian’s positioning as a very masculine character throughout the novel?

How do aqueous metaphors and landscapes function in the text? Is it possible to draw a connection between these spaces and the ghostliness that haunts the novel?

Works Cited

May, Leila Silvana. "Sensational Sisters: Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White." Pacific Coast Philology 30.1 (1995): 88-102. Jstor. Web. 11 Apr 2010.


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Last modified 12 April 2010