Count Fosco in The Woman in White
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A Star is Born
From the descriptions we get of Count Fosco, he sounds something like an older Orson Welles or Marlon Brando—huge, powerful, and fascinating. Welles and Brando were riveting to watch on screen, and Count Fosco is hugely charismatic on the page (even though anytime we hear the word "Count" we think of Sesame Street).
We aren't alone in our fascination. When the book first came out, critics were enamored of Fosco. The public thrilled at Fosco too—he was the ultimate villain you love to hate.
Fosco is a consummate actor, always performing. He's eloquent and charming and aristocratic. He flirts and commands and manipulates. He's always twisting people around, treating them like marionettes and gleefully playing the role of the puppetmaster.
The fact that he's a foreigner, and an Italian to boot, just adds to his overall supervillain status. Foreigners (especially Italians) were often used as villains in Victorian novels. C'mon, Victorians. Why do you have to be so down on immigrants? Couldn't you just give all your villains twisty waxed mustaches instead?
Pride is considered the deadliest of the seven deadly sins for a reason… and Fosco is definitely full of it. He seems to think he can outwit everyone, but in the end Walter prevails, and Fosco's own past comes back to bite him.
But before his downfall, Fosco is totally on a roll. He's a masterful liar and spy, and for a long time he pulls off one of the most convoluted schemes imaginable. Even he recognizes the outrageous nature of it (and is happy to accept your applause):
I carried with me all the clothes Anne Catherick had worn on coming into my house—they were destined to assist the resurrection of the woman who was dead in the person of the woman who was living. What a situation! I suggest it to the rising romance writers of England. (188.8.131.52)
He's so proud of his dastardly deeds that he wants to become a Victorian romance hero. Yup: Fosco wants to be Fabio.
Fosco's like a one-man heist team, the entire Ocean's 11 cast rolled into one. What's interesting is that he seems to be doing all of this for fun. The man loves power and control and one-upping people, as his philosophizing reveals.
"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." (184.108.40.206)
Fosco revels in pulling off a massive scam, or saying shocking things and making other people run around in circles. We see this love of mind-games and control crop up again and again in his character: in his marriage to the formerly vibrant Eleanor Fairlie (which he took on as a challenge), in his battle of the wills with Marian, and even in his outlandish confrontation with Walter, when he makes a series of threats and outrageous demands just to see what Walter will do. With his scam involving Laura, the money takes a backseat to the thrills.
Marian, Fosco, and a Restraining Order
Fosco's fabulously creepy love for Marian is the other major aspect of his character worth mentioning. It's seriously disturbing but also seriously intriguing. Fosco seems drawn to Marian as both a worthy adversary and a challenge. He genuinely seems to admire her, and yet he also wants to beat her, to control her. Marian is the one person in the novel who makes Fosco sound a bit conflicted.
I lament afresh the cruel necessity which sets our interests at variance, and opposes us to each other. Under happier circumstances how worthy I should have been of Miss Halcombe—how worthy Miss Halcombe would have been of me. (220.127.116.11)
In the end Fosco remains largely an enigma. We never learn about his past or know for sure whether he was really a spy. And we never know what he did to end up on the wrong end of a vengeful political society. But his over-the-top speeches and his amazing confessional letter give us some insight into the man.
Count Fosco in The Woman in White Study Group
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