Study Guide

The Woman in White Marriage

By Wilkie Collins

Marriage

"It is an engagement of honour, not of love—her father sanctioned it on his death-bed, two years since—he herself neither welcomed it, nor shrank from it—she was content to make it." (1.1.10.46)

Marian's description of Laura's engagement makes it sound practically medieval. Laura's stubborn decision to cling to that engagement was out of step with the times even in the 19th century… especially given the fact that she didn't have anyone pressuring her to follow through with it.

Forty-five; and she not even twenty-one! Men of his age married wives of her age every day; and experience had shown those marriages to be often the happiest ones. I knew that—and yet even the mention of his age [...] added to my blind hatred and distrust of him. (1.1.11.36)

Ditto, Walter. Knowing Sir Percival is that much older than Laura makes the entire situation even more creepy-sauce.

"If you are married," I added, helping her out. "Don't let him part me from Marian," she cried, with a sudden outbreak of energy. "Oh, Mr. Gilmore, pray make it law that Marian is to live with me!" (1.2.2.45-6)

Laura's naiveté and childlike nature are really apparent here when she begs Mr. Gilmore to make it a "law" for Marian to live with her. But Laura's fear gives us some insight into just how helpless women were as wives in this era. They were pretty much subject to all their husband's whims.

"No man under heaven deserves these sacrifices from us women. Men! They are the enemies of our innocence and our peace—they drag us away from our parents' love and sisters' friendship—they take us body and soul to themselves, and fasten our helpless lives to theirs as they chain up a dog to his kennel." (1.3.2.15)

Marian's proto-feminist rant makes us want to applaud. The diction, the rapid speed of the clauses—which sort of build in rhythm—and the powerful imagery really help hammer her social commentary home.

His Laura! I am as little able to realise the idea which those two words convey—my mind feels almost as dulled and stunned by it—as if writing of her marriage were like writing of her death. (1.3.2.39)

Marian's possessive feelings toward Laura and the melodramatic bent her writing takes (with the idea of Laura's marriage equaling her death) have raised some eyebrows over the years. Some critics have even found Laura and Marian's relationship borderline incestuous. Until Walter comes along, Marian and Laura basically only have each other for friendship and family, so the strong attachment isn't surprising.

As Eleanor Fairlie (aged seven-and-thirty), she was always talking pretentious nonsense […] As Madame Fosco (aged three-and-forty), she sits for hours together without saying a word, frozen up in the strangest manner in herself. (2.1.2.21)

Eleanor Fairlie's transformation into Countess Fosco after her marriage is scary. It's strongly implied that the change is a result of an abusive relationship at the hands of the cruel and manipulative Fosco.

The sudden encounter of the new thoughts and new habits eagerly gained in the one case, with the old thoughts and old habits passively preserved in the other, seems, at first, to part the sympathies of the most loving relatives and the fondest friends, and to set a sudden strangeness, unexpected by both and uncontrollable by both, between them on either side. (2.1.2.3)

Marian's reflections on marriage here are really profound. Her wistful tone gives us some insight into her character, as she recognizes how things have changed for her and Laura. The dual structures of her sentences, which contrast before and after the change, also help to emphasize her point.

It is very hard for a woman to confess that the man to whom she has given her whole life, is the man of all others who cares least for the gift. If you were married yourself, Marian—and especially if you were happily married—you would feel for me as no single woman can feel, however kind and true she may be. (2.1.5.15)

Laura doesn't speak all that much in the novel, but when she does she can really go to town. Laura's pain really shines through here, and this is one of the few instances in the novel where Laura adopts a sort of wiser, superior attitude toward Marian.

"Take care how you treat your wife, and how you threaten me," I broke out, in the heat of my anger. "There are laws in England to protect women from cruelty and outrage." (2.1.7.39)

Marian stands up to Percival here, which is very bold of her. But her words are ultimately hollow; Percival and Fosco have all the power, and Marian can do little to stop Percival from actually hurting her or Laura. It's a scary situation.

There have been wicked women, before her time, Lizzie, who have used honest men who loved them as means of saving their characters. (3.1.7.29)

Oh, that Jane Catherick. So awful. We love this little blast from the past as Mrs. Clements recounts a conversation with her husband. Hearing her referred to as "Lizzie" adds a new dimension to her character.

Where in the history of the world, has a man of my order ever been found without a woman in the background, self-immolated on the altar of his life? But, I remember that I am writing in England; I remember that I was married in England—and I ask, if a woman's marriage obligations, in this country, provide for her private opinion of her husband's principles? (3.2.1.53)

Fosco of all people probably delivers the most damning indictment of marriage as a social institution in England. He bluntly (and with fabulous diction) recognizes the terrible position women have as wives, while bragging about how awesome he is and how he totally controls his wife. It's a passage that's pure Fosco: complicated, over-the-top, and (yup) kind of thoughtful.