The Woman in White | Study Guide

Wilkie Collins

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The Woman in White | Part 1, Chapter 2 : The First Epoch (The Story Continued by Vincent Gilmore) | Summary

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Summary

This section is introduced in the first person by Mr. Gilmore, the Fairlie family lawyer. He says he has been asked by Hartright to write about events from his own point of view. Mr. Gilmore has known the family for many years, and he is fond of both the sisters—although he despises Mr. Fairlie, the weak, selfish hypochondriac.

Sir Percival arrives at Limmeridge, and impresses Gilmore favorably: he "was so easy and pleasant that we got on together like old friends." Gilmore is particularly impressed by Sir Percival's behavior toward Laura: "a mixture of tenderness and respect, with an unassuming delicacy of tone, voice, and manner."

Gilmore asks Sir Percival to account for the contents of the letter from Anne Catherick. Sir Percival says he did, in fact, pay for Anne's stay at a private asylum at the request of Anne's mother. He says he wants only what is best for Anne and believes that would be a return to the asylum. Gilmore sends a letter to Anne's mother, requesting confirmation of this story, and receives it.

Despite reassurances of Sir Percival's innocence and good intentions, Halcombe and Laura both have forebodings about the engagement. In addition, it is clear that Laura still has romantic feelings for Hartright. Sir Percival tells Laura that he will not insist on his rights if she chooses to break the engagement. Nevertheless, about a week after leaving Limmeridge, Gilmore receives a letter saying Laura has decided to marry Sir Percival. Gilmore therefore returns to Limmeridge to write up a "marriage settlement." This document will describe how Laura's significant income and inheritance (about 30,000 pounds) will be distributed during her life and after her death.

Gilmore explains that 10 thousand pounds of Laura's money will go to her aunt (Countess Fosco) if Laura dies before her. In addition, Gilmore intends to settle the money "so as to give the income to the lady for her life—afterward to Sir Percival for his life." The principal of her inheritance is to go to "the children of the marriage." Should there be no children, Laura would leave the principal to Halcombe, her half sister. Sir Percival's lawyer refuses, insisting "The principal ... go to Sir Percival ... in the event of his surviving Lady Glyde, and there being no issue." Gilmore is horrified at the greed inherent in this proposal, but as Laura's guardian will not intervene, he is forced to draw up the papers.

Analysis

Gilmore provides a very different perspective from Hartright's, and allows the reader to see Sir Percival through the eyes of an outsider. From this viewpoint, Sir Percival is handsome, charming, and able to fool an uncritical observer with his apparently chivalrous and tender behavior toward Laura.

Through Gilmore, Collins also provides the reader with critically important information about the status of Laura's wealth. The settlement essentially makes Laura worth a great deal more dead than alive—both to her husband and also to her aunt (Count Fosco's wife).

Finally, this segment provides clear evidence of Sir Percival's intent, Gilmore's reliability as a family friend, and Mr. Fairlie's worthlessness as a guardian. Gilmore tries to protect Laura's interests, pleading "I entreat you to reconsider ... and not to force me to abandon the just rights of your niece." However, because Laura is under age and Mr. Fairlie is interested only in avoiding conflict, Laura is stripped of her inheritance.

The character of Mr. Gilmore is somewhat unusual in Victorian literature. Typically, lawyers are presented in a less-than-pleasant light. For example, Collins's friend Charles Dickens—in his novel Bleak House—calls lawyers "narrow, mean, ignorant pettifoggers." Dickens's lawyers are greasy, dirty, and usually poorly dressed. Mr. Gilmore, however, in Hartright's words, is "in external appearance ... the exact opposite of the conventional idea of an old lawyer." Gilmore is clad immaculately in lavender gloves and a white cravat and "his black coat, waistcoat, and trousers [fit] him with perfect neatness."

Mr. Gilmore is the perfect gentleman and has great regard for both Halcombe and Laura, although he has little respect for Mr. Fairlie. To Gilmore's credit, he treats Hartright respectfully, shares his plans, and engages him in conversation. However, he is blinded to Sir Percival's many failings as a result of his social snobbery. For example, he finds Sir Percival's dishonest explanation of Anne Catherick's anonymous letter "as simple and satisfactory as I had ... anticipated it would be."

Despite initially being obtuse about Sir Percival's villainy, Gilmore does pick up on one important detail. He notices that the Fairlies' pet dog dislikes Sir Percival and whines in his presence. When this happens, Sir Percival walks quickly away and Gilmore notes "perhaps his temper is irritable at times." As it happens, the dog's judgment regarding Sir Percival is more accurate than Gilmore's own.

Gilmore is also aware of Halcombe's discomfort with Sir Percival, and that concerns him. He describes Halcombe's practical and intelligent nature and says, "she had made me a little uneasy, and a little doubtful." He then brushes off his discomfort, saying, "In my age, I knew better, and went out philosophically to walk it off."

Gilmore is an unreliable narrator in that he misunderstands much of what is going on around him. By the same token, however, he is intuitive enough to sense that there is a problem in the Fairlie home. The reader becomes increasingly anxious as a result of seeing that even a family friend can't see the villainy behind Sir Percival's mask. The reader's foreboding is increased as Mr. Gilmore mentions his intuitive sense that something is wrong.

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