Decorated initial 'W'ilkie Collins represents foreignness in an ambivalent way through the characters of Professor Pesca and Count Fosco in Woman in White. Foreignness enters the narrative immediately and abruptly when Professor Pesca literally darts out to meet Walter Hartright at the beginning of his testimony, “I had hardly rung the bell, before the house-door was opened violently; my worthy Italian friend, Professor Pesca, appeared in the servant’s place; and darted out joyously to receive me, with a shrill foreign parody on an English cheer”(51). Hartright describes this entrance in ambivalent terms of endearance and annoyance. His “worthy”friend opens the door “violently”as he jumps out “joyously”to welcome him “with a shrill parody on an English cheer.” A similar sentiment of ambivalence runs through the interactions in this first scene embodied by the reactions of Hartright’s mother who “opened her heart to him unreservedly”(54) and his sister whose “insular notions of propriety rose in perpetual revolt against Pesca’s constitutional contempt for appearances”(54). Hartright sees this divide in terms of a generational disagreement regarding pleasure and ultimately seems more critical of his sister’s perspective:

I have observed, not only in my sister’s case, but in the instances of others, that we of the young generation are nothing like so hearty and so impulsive as some of our elders. I constantly see old people flushed and excited by the prospect of some anticipated pleasure which altogether fails to ruffle the tranquility of their serene grandchildren. Are we, I wonder, quite such genuine boys and girls now as our seniors were, in their time? Has the great advance in education taken rather too long a stride; and are we, in these modern days, just the least trifle in the world too well brought up? [54]

Following this observation, Hatright expresses a skepticism similar to that of his sister’s in accepting Pesca’s favor regarding his employment with Mr. Fairlie. Ultimately, we see that acting in accordance with Pesca’s wishes results in falling deeply in love with Miss Fairlie. However, the slightest expression of this passion results in his prolonged separation from her.

A similar ambivalence arises with the entrance Count Fosco in Marian Halcombe’s testimony. Marian imagines that her family’s prejudices regarding her aunt’s marriage to Fosco must be unjust. This suspicion is confirmed for her when he manages to “establish himself in [her] good opinion”(242) during their first meeting. This signals a kind of generational reversal of the acceptance of foreignness that Hartright first observes. Here, the younger generation seems eager to make amends for past injustices. However, Marian becomes more and more frightened by his power to manipulate people and situations as the narrative progresses. This fear culminates in a speech Fosco makes about crime and cultural relativism:

John Bull does abhor the crimes of John Chinaman. He is the quickest old gentleman at finding out faults that are his neighbors, and the slowest old gentleman at finding out the faults that are his own, who exists on the face of creation. Is he so very much better in his way, than the people whom he condemns in their way? English society, Miss Halcombe, is as often the accomplice, as it is the enemy of the crime. Yes. Yes! Crime is in this country what crime is in other countries — a good friend to a man and to those about him, as often as it is his enemy. [259]

Despite the apparent levity of Fosco making this speech while playing with his mice, Laura and Marian are horrified by it. As he begins to exit the room, he cries out when he notices the loss of one of his mice. This elicits another ambivalent reaction from the women, “The Count’s glib cynicism had revealed a new aspect of his nature from which we both recoiled. But it was impossible to resist the comical distress of so very large a man at the loss of so very small a mouse. We laughed, in spite of ourselves.”[260]

As with the case of Professor Pesca, we see the influence of Count Fosco driving the events of the narrative. His powerful persuasion over the characters coerces them into acting differently. In both cases, we see ridiculous caricatures of Italian men: a tiny, boisterous, good-hearted man and a gigantic, perceptive, manipulative man. Another characteristic they share is their mastery of the English language. They both speak fluently and employ idiomatic expressions easily. However, their foreignness always seems to predicate their actions and arouse suspicion as Fosco points out over dinner, “You know the character which is given to my countrymen by the English? We Italians are all wily and suspicious by nature, in the estimation of the good John Bull. Set me down, if you please, as being no better than the rest of the race. I am a wily Italian and a suspicious Italian”(265).

Questions

1. Does Fosco’s speech about his foreignness bear any relation to his faults in this narrative or is he simply using his foreignness as a scapegoat for his underhanded actions? For the reader, does this speech and Fosco’s actions ultimately confirm suspicions about foreignness or begin to dispel them?

2. Does mastery of the language and attempt to conform to British norms make the Italians in this narrative seem more worthy of suspicion? What might this say about the way that Collins views cosmopolitanism or cultural assimilation?

3. To what degree do the foreigners in this novel guide the actions of the other characters or do they only appear to control them? Interesting characters to look at include Hartright, Madame Fosco, and Sir Percival. To what degree are Laura and Marian able to avoid this manipulation?

4. In general, does Collins dispel or confirm the “John Bull” suspicions of the “wily Italian” and the “suspicious Italian” in the characters of Fosco and Pesca? To what degree do their similarities as foreigners outweigh their differences?

5. Does Collins take the same attitude to foreignness as other Victorian narratives we have encountered such as Jane Eyre or Great Expectations? In what ways might a neo-Victorian concerned with questions of foreignness engage with the text?

Works Cited

Collins, Wilkie. The Woman in White. d. Maria K. Bachmann and Don Richard Cox. Broadview Editions: Toronto, 2006.


Victorian  Web Wilkie Collins

Last modified 11 April 2010