The Woman in White | Study Guide

Wilkie Collins

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The Woman in White | Part 2, Chapter 1 : The Second Epoch (The Story Continued by Marian Halcombe) | Summary

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Summary

Six months later, Halcombe is ensconced at Blackwater Park, Sir Percival's home. She is awaiting Laura's return from her honeymoon in Europe. Halcombe is taken around the residence by Mrs. Michelson, the housekeeper, who describes the house in detail. The living areas are in good repair and furnished in the modern style. Certain very old sections of the building are in decent repair but are nevertheless unused. The residence is partially surrounded by a moat, and there is a lake on the grounds. Halcombe walks out to the lake and finds it inhabited by rats and frogs, offering "dreary impressions of solitude and decay." In a summer house (a gazebo), she discovers a dog that has been beaten nearly to death by the gamekeeper. She is told by the kind Mrs. Michelson that the dog belongs to Anne Catherick's mother, who is staying nearby in the town of Welmingham. She tries to rescue the dog, but it dies within the hour.

Laura and Sir Percival return, and Halcombe finds her sister changed. Laura no longer seems to have her previous "freshness, a softness, an ever-varying and yet ever-remaining tenderness of beauty."

With Laura and Sir Percival are the Count and Countess Fosco. The Countess, Laura's estranged aunt, was once a wild young woman but is now nearly silent. Halcombe notices the woman "sits for hours together without saying a word, frozen up in the strangest manner in herself." The Count, however, is almost the opposite. A hugely tall and fat man, he is attractive both in face and manner. He wears foppish clothing and carries with him a cockatoo, as well as canaries and a cage of white mice. These are all pets that he treats with great tenderness. Despite his idiosyncrasies, says Halcombe, "He looks like a man who could tame anything."

A few days later Mr. Merriman, Sir Percival's lawyer, arrives. After a long meeting, Merriman comments to Sir Percival, "it all rests with Lady Glyde." He later makes it clear that Laura is expected to sign several documents which must be witnessed. Later that day, on a walk around the grounds, Count Fosco discovers the blood of Mrs. Catherick's dog on the floor of the summer house. Fosco and Sir Percival learn that Mrs. Catherick—and presumably Anne as well—are nearby.

Percival and Fosco attempt to get Laura to sign some legal papers sight unseen, and to get Halcombe to witness the signature. The women refuse unless Laura can read the documents. Sir Percival is furious, but Fosco pacifies him. After threatening Laura that she'd better sign the papers soon, Sir Percival leaves the house in a rush.

Halcombe decides to write to her lawyer. As Mr. Gilmore is ill, she writes to his associate, Mr. Kyrle. Mr. Kyrle responds almost immediately, warning that Laura should by no means sign any papers without reading them. He says, "a loan of some portion of ... Lady Glyde's fortune is in contemplation, and that she is made a party to the deed." Halcombe is convinced the Foscos have been reading her mail, and intercepts this letter before it can get to the house.

Meanwhile, Laura confesses her marriage is a sham. She says Sir Percival is cruel to her and that she intensely dislikes Fosco. Sir Percival has discovered Walter Hartright is the person Laura has fallen in love with—and has threatened his life. While walking in the park, Laura and Halcombe believe they are being followed, but aren't sure whether their stalker is a man or a woman. Laura loses her brooch somewhere near the lake.

That evening, to Halcombe's surprise, Count Fosco announces that Sir Percival no longer wants Laura to sign the papers. Later Halcombe dreams about Hartright. She sees him going through a series of terrible dangers but always saying "I shall come back." She is awakened by Laura, who has seen Anne Catherick at the lake. Anne found her brooch and returned it. After telling Laura she has suffered because of Sir Percival, Anne says, "If you know his secret ... he won't dare use you as he used me." Anne and Laura are interrupted before the secret can be revealed, but they plan to meet again tomorrow at the same time and place.

The following day, the Count and Sir Percival fire Laura's loyal maid, Fanny, and lock Laura in her room. Halcombe learns that Laura went to meet Anne and found a note from her, which Sir Percival read. In part, the note said, "When we speak next of your wicked husband's secret we must speak safely, or not at all." Sir Percival is now convinced that both Anne and Laura know his secret, although Laura actually knows nothing about it.

Seeing that Laura is now a virtual prisoner in her own home, Halcombe writes to Mr. Fairlie and to Mr. Kyrle. She entrusts the letters to Fanny, Laura's maid, who is about to head back to Limmeridge. Fanny is staying at an inn in a nearby town for the night.

Returning to her room, Halcombe can hear Sir Percival and Count Fosco talking below. As often happens, Fosco is urging Sir Percival to be patient and subtle in his plans, while Percival is hot headed and impetuous. Halcombe realizes that she can overhear their entire conversation if she climbs out her window and eavesdrops.

She does so, despite the fact that it is pouring rain. She hears that Fosco has followed her and knows of her correspondence and her meeting with Fanny. She also learns that Fosco admires her intensely: "Can you look at Miss Halcombe and not see that she has the foresight and the resolution of a man?" The two men discuss their mutual debts and Laura's fortune. Fosco concludes by saying, "If your wife lives, you pay those bills with her signature ... If your wife dies, you pay them with her death." Sir Percival also reveals his anxiety about the possibility that his secret has been revealed. He tells Fosco about Anne Catherick, and mentions that Anne looks remarkably like Laura.

Returning to her room, Halcombe develops a high fever. In a postscript to her journal entries—which Fosco reads during her illness—he writes about his dastardly intentions. He then rashly declares, "Under happier circumstances how worthy I should have been of Miss Halcombe—how worthy Miss Halcombe would have been of ME."

Analysis

Collins uses Halcombe to incorporate a variety of literary techniques that are common to both gothic novels and the Victorian "sensation" novel. Specifically, he

  • uses descriptive language to set a mood of foreboding and to evoke anxiety in the reader;
  • describes clandestine meetings and mentions a secret that, if known, will release the heroines from their peril;
  • separates the helpless heroines from their masculine saviors. Hartright is in Central America, while their lawyer is ill and unavailable and Laura's guardian is effectively useless;
  • includes a character of a madwoman roaming the grounds who is under threat and cannot or will not reveal what she knows;
  • places both heroines in immediate danger of their lives.

This technique makes it easy to set up "cliffhangers"—scenes that end before the reader knows the outcome. For example, Laura describes her encounter with Anne, during which Anne discloses that she knows Sir Percival's terrible secret. The reader knows that whoever has the secret will have power over the villainous Sir Percival. Before Anne can disclose the secret, though, she disappears. She says she will return to divulge her knowledge tomorrow, leaving the reader in anxious limbo about what the secret could be. Just as in modern soap operas, Collins sets the stage for suspense and then leaves the audience hanging.

The reason for Collins's use of suspense and cliffhangers is simple. The Woman in White was written for a journal, and was issued in serial form. To bring the reader back for the next installment of the story, Collins needed to set up a question to be answered the following week. With Laura and Halcombe being kept in virtual captivity at Blackwater Park, Collins has set up a "damsels in distress" situation. At the end of each section of the narrative, he leaves the reader wondering how Halcombe and Laura can possibly escape their impending doom.

In addition, however, Collins explores some unusual themes and characterizations. Count Fosco is a unique creation. Although a brilliant, evil mastermind, he is also admiring of—and perhaps even in love with—Halcombe because of her intelligence and strength of character. Fosco, a subtle, educated, patient villain is juxtaposed with the hot-headed Sir Percival—and is presented as having great virtues as well as terrible flaws. Halcombe herself is an unusually strong female character. She uses every opportunity—ethical or unethical—to help herself and her sister and to solve the mystery presented by Anne Catherick.

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