The Woman in White | Study Guide

Wilkie Collins

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The Woman in White | Part 2, Chapter 3 : The Second Epoch (The Story Continued by Eliza Michelson) | Summary

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Summary

Mrs. Michelson is Sir Percival's housekeeper, and the widow of a clergyman "reduced by misfortune to the necessity of accepting a situation." She is therefore a high-level servant who sees herself as a gentlewoman. She mentions, however, that she no longer works for Sir Percival.

Mrs. Michelson picks up the thread of the story at Blackwater Park, at the point where Halcombe falls ill. The local doctor, Mr. Dawson, has come to see Halcombe, and Count Fosco has taken an active interest in Halcombe's treatment. Mrs. Michelson overhears—but doesn't fully understand—conversations between Fosco and Sir Percival that suggest Sir Percival has searched unsuccessfully for Anne Catherick.

Mrs. Michelson is tasked with nursing Halcombe and looking after Laura—who won't leave her sister's bedside. Fosco takes it upon himself to bring in Mrs. Rubelle—a nurse from London. Mrs. Michelson describes Rubelle as "a small, wiry, sly person ... with a dark brown or Creole complexion and watchful light gray eyes." Mrs. Rubelle is actually Fosco's spy—although also an excellent nurse.

Mrs. Michelson is charmed by Fosco, and takes his side as he disagrees with Mr. Dawson's management of Halcombe's care. Halcombe takes a turn for the worse but then seems to recover somewhat. Mr. Dawson and Fosco argue vehemently. Dawson, "in a state of extreme indignation at Count Fosco's usage of him," leaves the house in a huff and submits his bill.

Percival calls Mrs. Michelson and tells her "I shall sell the horses, and get rid of all the servants at once." He wants only Mrs. Michelson, the gardener, and one incompetent and dimwitted maid named Margaret Porcher to stay. Mrs. Michelson is aghast, but she follows her orders and fires the staff. She is then sent off to the seaside to find an appropriate place for Halcombe to recover. Sir Percival has stipulated such a low rental rate that this errand is clearly an excuse to get Michelson out of the house.

When Michelson returns unsuccessfully a few days later, she is present when Fosco tells Laura that Halcombe has left Blackwater. She is headed to Limmeridge House with a stopover at Fosco's London home. Laura does not fully believe this story and determines to follow Halcombe, staying overnight at Mrs. Vesey's home in London rather than at Fosco's. Mrs. Michelson helps Laura write to Mrs. Vesey, and Laura leaves the next morning.

That evening, Mrs. Michelson discovers Mrs. Rubelle in the garden and realizes that Halcombe has not left Blackwater at all. In fact, she is being kept in one of the unused wings of the manor. Learning this, Mrs. Michelson is ready to leave Blackwater forever—but she is told by Percival that everyone will be leaving the estate immediately. He states, "If you go at once, Miss Halcombe won't have a soul left here to look after her." Mrs. Michelson, backed into a corner, agrees to stay. She nurses Halcombe until she is well enough to leave, and the two women part in London. Halcombe returns to Limmeridge by train.

Mrs. Michelson ends her narrative by expressing "regret at my own inability to remember the precise day on which Lady Glyde left Blackwater Park."

Analysis

This section provides some glimpses into societal stratification during England's Victorian era. Mrs. Michelson is essentially a middle-class person in financial difficulties. As a result, she is flattered by Fosco's attentions and his willingness to address her as a lady rather than as a mere servant. At the same time, she is shocked by Sir Percival's language and behavior. She sees herself as bound to Halcombe and Laura not only as an employee but also as a woman.

Fosco understand Mrs. Michelson very well and uses his insights to manipulate her. He treats her with great respect, thus earning her loyalty. Says Mrs. Michelson, "The only person in the house ... who treated me ... on the footing of a lady in distressed circumstances, was the Count." This loyalty leads Mrs. Michelson to give Laura the disastrous suggestion, "in your ladyship's place I should remember the Count's advice."

The Count makes it clear to Mrs. Michelson that he relies on her above all others to do what is right for Halcombe. He later uses her sense of responsibility to force her to stay alone with Halcombe until the invalid recovers.

Fosco's charms and cleverness are so potent that Mrs. Michelson never loses faith in him. She finishes her narrative by saying, "I wish to record ... that no blame whatever, in connection with the events ... attaches to Count Fosco."

The events in this section of the narrative move the story along rapidly. Fosco uses Mr. Fairlie's invitation to suggest that Laura break her journey at his home. Although she does not trust Fosco, he is able to spirit her off. By separating the two sisters, he furthers the conspiracy.

It is important to note that Fosco's attachment to Halcombe means she is never badly treated. Although she is moved to the unused wing while she is too sick to be aware, she consistently receives appropriate nursing care. However, Halcombe is hidden away until she can no longer interfere with Fosco's plans.

Mrs. Michelson's final note is important to the story, as the date of Laura's departure from Blackwater will become critical to the story's happy ending.

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