Wilkie Collins’ Woman in White opens with the line, “this is the story of what a woman’s patience can endure, and what a man’s resolution can achieve” (Pg 3). Yet, this is only the beginning of a novel problematic though-and-through with its depiction of women. Throughout the novel, women’s thoughts and words are empty in light of their appearance, “she looked so irresistibly beautiful as she said those brave words that no man alive could steel his heart against her” (pg. 64); they are easily manipulatable, “they cannot resist a man’s tongue when he knows how to talk to them” (pg. 36); and they are woefully unreasonable, “no sensible man ever engages, unprepared, in a fencing match of words with a woman” (pg. 43). But perhaps most importantly, true women are silent. For although receiving a few lines scattered throughout the text, Laura Fairly and Anne Catherick aren’t given the chance to speak in a novel entirely designed around voices. Only Marian speaks, and she herself resembles a man in words, actions and appearance—she’s not a true woman at all, at least not to Collins.
But while we discussed the problem of femininity in this novel extensively in class, what we were not able to truly consider is the whiteness of the woman in white—a whiteness that is referred to 157 times throughout the text. With blonde hair, blue eyes, fair skin and white clothes, Laura is the perfect, silent woman. She exists not to achieve anything, but rather only to survive and be objectified—and even her survival is questionable in light of a consideration of social death. Yet, Laura’s whiteness is perhaps more important in her characterization than her womanhood, for it is her whiteness as a woman that is more telling of her role in society than any other quality. In fact, there is not a single man or woman of color in the text—with only a scant mentioning and plot point around Italian foreigners, and even this is still a European consideration. While white women spend the whole text passively accepting erasure in a man’s world, black women don’t exist in the first place.
Yet, this is not an issue that exists only in the Victorian time period. Far from it. Black women struggle daily to be seen and to be heard in a modern context. White feminism and black liberation movements alike silence the black and the woman, respectively—never allowing the intersectional to speak on behalf of the full self. Even in the black radical movements of today, the black women struggles to fight against the black, heterosexual male for a place at the podium to speak. On the Black Lives Matter website, one of the founders, Alicia Garza, speaks of the deep issues in black movements that “keep straight cis Black men in the front of the movement while our sisters, queer and trans fold take up roles in the background or not at all.” Black women fight every single day just to have a voice to use, let alone a voice that is heard.
Thus, Wilkie Collins’s insistence on the whiteness of his woman in white cannot be something that we simply gloss over as modern readers. It is the very foundation of a system of hegemony that has existed for far too long. A feminist reading of Collins is simply incomplete without a consideration of race as a dominant factor.
Collins, Wilkie, and Julian Symons. The Woman in White. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974. Print.
“HerstoryBlack Lives Matter.” Black Lives Matter RSS2. Web. 11 Dec. 2015.