The Woman in White: Ode to Marian Halcombe and Count Fosco
Welcome to the Ode to Marian Halcombe and Count Fosco podcast episode from Tea, Tonic & Toxin! In The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins tells the story of a woman locked away in an insane asylum. Well, sort of.
This 1860 thriller is considered to be among the first mystery novels (along with Bleak House, among others) and among the first and finest sensation novels. The story includes a ghostly woman, a secret society, switched identities, foreign agents, paranoia, bribery, blackmail, and conspiracies. Seriously, what’s not to love?
When the novel was published, Marian Halcombe became a sensation. Critics and the reading public liked her. Men even wrote Wilkie Collins asking for her hand in marriage. She’s fabulous because she’s angry, brave, rock solid, and bold. She speaks her mind. She narrates nearly all of Part 2 of the novel (score!). And she combines the ideal attributes of a Victorian woman (comforting, family-oriented) with a Victorian man (strong, willing to fight). Win-win-win.
Yeah, we get it. Twelve hours is a lot of time. But guess what? It’s SO worth it. I mean, you’re reading a Victorian detective story for goodness’ sake. And two of the characters, Marian Halcombe and Count Fosco, are off the charts amazing.
Weigh In: We want to hear from you!
Thank You for Supporting Our Labor of Love
At zero cost to you, Tea, Tonic & Toxin will earn an affiliate commission if you make a purchase using any of these affiliate links.
Thank You for Supporting Our Labor of Love
What We're Talking About in the Woman in White "Ode to Marian Halcombe" Episode
Sarah Harrison 0:25
Welcome to Tea, Tonic & Toxin, a book club and podcast for anyone who wants to explore the best mysteries and thrillers everyday. I’m your host, Sarah Harrison,
Carolyn Daughters 0:35
and I’m your host Carolyn Daughters. Pour yourself a cup of tea, a gin and tonic
Sarah Harrison 0:40
… but not a toxin …
Carolyn Daughters 0:42
And join us on a journey for 19th and 20th century mysteries and thrillers, every one of them a game changer.
Sarah Harrison 0:49
What are we talking about today?
Carolyn Daughters 0:52
We’re talking about The Woman in White. This book is so chock full of information, we’re doing two different podcasts on this book.
Sarah Harrison 1:01
This is part two of two. However, it’s not chronological. So if you want to listen to this one first, that’s just fine.
Carolyn Daughters 1:08
Tthey’re focused in different areas, basically. We’re going to share a plot summary, because we want to make sure everybody’s on the same page. But before that, we have a sponsor this month.
Sarah Harrison 1:23
We do have a sponsor. Our sponsor this month is Grace Sigma. Grace Sigma is a process engineering company. So for any needs you have around small business or large business processes, technology interfaces with processes, work instructions. Visit gracesigma.com.
Carolyn Daughters 2:03
Basically, if it has to do with processes, you should talk to Grace Sigma. Absolutely. Sarah, tell us what happens in this book.
Sarah Harrison 2:14
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins is one of the first sensation novels and one of the first detective stories. The characters use many sleuthing techniques that have since become common in mysteries and thrillers. The book also uses multiple narrators in narratives. In the preamble Wilkie Collins writes, “the story will be told by more than one pen, as the story of an offense against the laws is told in court by more than one witness. The story begins like this: while walking home from Hampstead, just outside London, a young drawing master named Walter Hartright meets a mysterious woman in distress. She’s dressed entirely in white. He helps her find her way but soon learns she has escaped from a mental asylum. The next day he travels north. He has secured a position at the home of Frederick Fairlie, a wealthy hypochondriac. Mr. Fairlie has hired Hartright to tutor his lovely niece Laura and her devoted half-sister, Marian Halcombe. Hartright quickly sees that Laura resembles the woman in white. Marian and Walter launch an informal investigation and discover that the name of the woman in white is Anne Catherick. Anne had lived in the area as a child and was devoted to Laura’s mother, who first dressed her in white. Anne sends a letter to Laura warning her about Laura’s fiance, Sir Percival Glyde and also convinced Hartright that Sir Percival shut her in the asylum. Meanwhile, Hartright and Laura fall in love. However, Laura promised her late father she would marry Sir Percival, and she follows through. Brokenhearted Hartright joins an expedition to Honduras. After their honeymoon, Laura and Sir Percival return to his family estate, Blackwater Park. They’re joined by Marian Halcombe and Sir Percival’s friend Count Fosco, a cultured, heavyset Italian who’s married to Laura’s aunt. Marian learns that Sir Percival is in serious debt. Sir Percival tries to force Laura to sign a document that would allow him to use her large marriage settlement of 20,000 pounds. Marian is outraged and won’t allow Laura to sign At the same time, the woman in white, Anne Catherick, reappears, promising to reveal a secret that will ruin Sir Percival. Marian Halcombe takes a big risk. eavesdropping on Sir Percival and Count Fosco in the rain. Soon after, Marian collapses with a fever. While Marian is ill. Laura is tricked into traveling to Count Fosco house in London, where she dies. Except that Laura isn’t really dead. Instead, the woman in white died and Sir Percival and Count Fosco switch to Laura’s and Anne’s identities to steal Laura’s money. Anne has been buried as Laura, while Laura has been drugged and placed in the asylum as Anne Catherick. When Marian finally recovers, she’s shocked to find Laura alive and locked away in the asylum. Marian helps Laura escape from the asylum just as Hartright returned from Honduras. Marian and Laura and Hartright hide out in London. Hartright and Marian are determined to restore Laura’s identity, and Hartright finally discovers Sir Percival’s secret. Years earlier, Sir Percival forged the marriage register at a local church to conceal his illegitimate birth. He’s not the rightful heir to his estate or title. Sir Percival set fire to the church to try to destroy the evidence but dies in the fire. Hartright learns that the woman in white was Laura’s half-sister, which accounts for the resemblance. Hartright enlists the help of his Italian friend, Professor Pesca. Count Fosco sees Pesca and recognizes him as a fellow member of an Italian secret society. Hartright uses this knowledge to his advantage, forcing Count Fosco to write a detailed confession of the conspiracy. Afterward, Fosco flees, but the secret society catches up with him and kills him in Paris. Laura’s identity and fortune are restored soon thereafter. She and Hartright get married before that, and they, their baby, and Marian live happily together.
Carolyn Daughters 6:32
Such a good story. I really enjoyed this book. And I think I would have enjoyed it on some level no matter what. But I think the two main reasons I enjoyed it are Marian Halcombe and Count Fosco.
Sarah Harrison 6:53
I’m glad we have a whole episode to dedicate to them. I think they’re the most intense and well developed characters in the book for sure.
Carolyn Daughters 7:05
I think the best-developed characters and also surprising in a lot of ways. Count Fosco is this guy Marian describes as a man who could tame anything. And he’s the model of a lot of modern crime villains. I found him super terrifying when I was reading. How did you feel about him? Did you feel like he was a force to be reckoned with?
Sarah Harrison 7:44
I definitely did. Although his ways seemed less terrifying to me. Although I know he was like capable of hardened evil. He also was an interesting, dramatic character. His vanity, I suppose, made him a little bit absurd. It’s hard for me to reconcile feeling like, that is absurd, with that is terrifying. They don’t exist in real life.
Carolyn Daughters 8:21
He’s almost comic in some ways.
Sarah Harrison 8:22
He is in many ways comic.
Carolyn Daughters 8:26
And yet, he’s this really interesting model of masculinity, which is different than I would argue any other male character in the book. He’s a smooth talker. But sometimes he actually might mean what he’s saying. It’s hard to tell. And he can control what people do and how they do it.
Sarah Harrison 8:50
I feel like his narrative at the end really showed that he believed himself. Everyone else is like, Oh, my goodness, you did what? And he’s like, look, just think what I could have done. Compared to that, I really showed a lot of restraint and integrity here. And I’m like, but that’s how you define those things. Like, how terrible you could have been. It’s how far did you deviate from the ethic?
Carolyn Daughters 9:20
Right. What you saw, which was, let’s face it, pretty amazing. It’s like he wanted people to know he could have been so much worse. I held myself back. I restrained myself.
Sarah Harrison 9:32
He only used chemistry twice. He could have done so much more.
Carolyn Daughters 9:40
He could have poisoned everybody 14 times over. First of all, he’s his heavyset Italian man.
Sarah Harrison 9:50
You’re saying “heavyset,” but but that was one of the issues in the book. Collins kept describing him as fat and corpulent and immense. wow. I was really struck by that.
Carolyn Daughters 10:05
He’s cultured, and he has an answer for everything. And some of the characters, including Marian Halcombe, are attracted to him in spite of themselves.
Sarah Harrison 10:18
So that was really interesting. Because Laura seemed to have great instincts on on more than one occasion, and her instinct was no, Count Fosco is not my friend. Marian says, “oh, he’s really great. I really do like him.”
Carolyn Daughters 10:37
Laura didn’t like this guy. Marian was kind of like, keep your friends close and your enemies closer.
Sarah Harrison 10:41
That’s what she’s sort of turned into. But at the beginning, she really liked him. She thought Laura was being unfair and like a child. She says, “Oh, she has the instincts of a child. When she dislikes somebody, she just dislikes them.” Well, she’s right on target here.
Carolyn Daughters 11:01
He seems like one of those kinds of people who are attractive in spite of several other physical characteristics. So if you just looked at him across the room, you might not be drawn to him. But once he starts talking, you’re drawn in.You just can’t help yourself.
Sarah Harrison 11:21
One thing I did really like about him is how he would talk to people and make them feel special. And right. And important, invaluable. And then he would use that to his advantage. He really tapped into who they were with quickly. And what they needed.
Carolyn Daughters 11:45
He’s smart and savvy. He mapped out this whole crazy strategy upon which this whole story is based. But there are certain things he does that I still don’t understand. So at one point, Marian Halcombe has been eavesdropping, and she documents everything in her journal. She’s super assiduous about it. Then she falls ill. She has a fever, and then it turns into typhus. And she’s out of it for days, weeks, maybe.
Sarah Harrison 12:14
Carolyn Daughters 12:17
And for some reason, two things happen that just blew my mind. One, it never occurred to her anybody was going to be reading her journal.
But she did know. She was like, I gotta look it up. And I gotta look at my paper in case they see the marks I make on the paper.
That’s Sarah doing her version of the Marian Halcombe voice, people.
Sarah Harrison 12:42
Yeah, I noticed my son has now started to make voices for characters. And they’re amazing.
if you listen to our other Woman in White podcast, Marian Halcombe had a higher pitched voice.
It depends on what she’s saying.
Carolyn Daughters 13:02
There are times when the Countess Fosco disappears for an hour and then comes back and barely speaks to Marian. And the reader is like, it’s because she had been in your room reading your journal. And Marian is completely oblivious, which is so weird.
Sarah Harrison 13:21
The Marian Halcombe character to me had some great points and some and some annoying points.
Carolyn Daughters 13:31
That was an annoying point like me.
Sarah Harrison 13:35
At one point, she says, “I don’t know why I distrust Sir Percival. There’s only all these reasons. But then she was sending a letter to the lawyer and went out to wait for the answer, and the answer came and she read it. And then she was down for the count. She read the letter, and she’s like, I just couldn’t get up. I forget exactly what’s happening. Laura was in kind of a bad place. And all this turmoil was going on. And she’s like, I read the letter and my womanliness. I’m just out for the day.
Carolyn Daughters 14:13
I have to take a nap on the settee in the living room.
Sarah Harrison 14:15
She has this weird Hartright vision.
Really? You read a letter? The same, honestly, when she went to eavesdrop. I was so glad she went to eavesdrop. I was like, yes, finally.
Carolyn Daughters 14:32
That was for me the best scene in the entire novel.
Sarah Harrison 14:36
Like do something sensible. Tell me about it.
Carolyn Daughters 14:39
It was so risky. Marian Halcombe climbs out on the roof of this veranda and tiptoes past windows where the Countess Fosco is getting ready for bed. And basically Marian hangs on for dear life. I’m exaggerating a little bit, but it is an exciting scene. She eavesdrops, hears every word that Sir Percival and Count Fosco are saying to each other. It starts to rain in there she is, holding on, listening in the rain. It felt like when I was a kid would read Nancy Drew. It felt like Nancy Drew and The Old Clock and she’s hiding under the stairs and listening in. I don’t know, or like a Sue Grafton mystery novel, A is for Alibi, B is for Burglar. It felt like a scene where Kinsey Millhone is hiding. To me it felt really contemporary and interesting.
Sarah Harrison 15:39
I was cheering her on that going out hiding. I would actually say, like, yes, do this stuff. And then she comes back and catches a cold. I’m like, you were in the rain. You were out in the rain. And now you have a delirious fever. I don’t think that’s how fevers work.
Carolyn Daughters 15:57
It’s not. But it’s how they used to think fevers worked. Even when I was a child, if we came in from the rain, everybody’s like, Oh my God, they’re gonna catch a cold.
Sarah Harrison 16:07
Even catching a cold, okay. Going into a delirious fever for weeks, and then that fever turns into typhus. I was like, come on. Come on. I guess I got a little bit annoyed. And it’s like the most crucial dire moment.
Carolyn Daughters 16:24
I think Count Fosco poisoned.
Sarah Harrison 16:26
He said he didn’t.
Carolyn Daughters 16:28
He’s not the most reliable guy in the world. Iis he gonna admit it? He is the biggest fan of Marian Halcombe. We think at times that hartright is Marian’s biggest fan. But, oh, no, it’s Count Fosco. So is Fosco gonna admit, he drugged Marian Oh, no.
Sarah Harrison 16:45
I don’t know. I believe him. I wondered at the time, but she was she was delirious when they found her. So that was already kind of an overstatement. They came in and rather than getting in bed, she’s stomping around, hiding her diary, locking it up. She stomps around the room rambling incoherently because she was in the rain for like an hour.
Carolyn Daughters 17:13
If I can introduce the second thing that really annoys me, because I said they were two. One is she doesn’t seem to suspect anybody is going to be reading her diary or doesn’t seem to take any action. Like I’ll just put it in my desk drawer. For some reason Count Fosco gets his wife to take the diary and he reads the whole thing. And what does he do? He then writes an unsigned note, quite lengthy, I’ll call it an Ode to Marian Halcombe. And he returns it to her. Why even return it? Why not burn it?
Sarah Harrison 17:57
That was his little love letter to her. That actually bothered me less. His vanity in his love for Marian to me seemed more believable than her getting typhus fever for being in the rain for an hour.
Carolyn Daughters 18:17
I just felt like she had documented a lot of stuff about Count Fosco and Sir Percival in this diary. Why return it to her? Why not throw it in a in a fireplace?
Sarah Harrison 18:30
It was a weird move, I’ll grant that.
Carolyn Daughters 18:33
It’s an example of smart people doing dumb things, which keeps the plot moving forward, because we still have her diary.
Sarah Harrison 18:43
It’s usually the villain’s downfall, right? They have to make one mistake or else they’re just diabolical perfection.
Carolyn Daughters 18:50
They get too cocky. Like, I can return the diary to her with a note in it.
Sarah Harrison 18:57
The gist of the note was like, it wouldn’t really matter what you did, because I’d win. I’m gonna win. And I’m gonna be held harmless in this whole thing. And he does a really good job.
Carolyn Daughters 19:10
And let’s talk Marian Halcombe here for a minute now. When the novel was published, she was a total sensation. Critics loved her, the reading public loved her. Men wrote Wilkie Collins, the author, asking for her hand in marriage as if she were a real person.
Sarah Harrison 19:26
Were those joke letters. Did they think she was based on an actual person they wanted to meet?
Carolyn Daughters 19:35
I don’t know. She had a big fan base.
Sarah Harrison 19:38
I’ve definitely felt that way about novels. For sure. When I was a kid, I wanted to name my child after Sydney Carton.
Carolyn Daughters 19:47
Yeah, from Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities.
Sarah Harrison 19:50
I actually wanted to just marry Sidney Gordon, since he was dead. I hope that’s not a spoiler.
Carolyn Daughters 19:56
And even if he wasn’t dead in the book, he lived in another century.
Sarah Harrison 20:06
Yes.I get the feeling, but I certainly never would write a letter to be like, can I marry this person?
Carolyn Daughters 20:12
Right. The assumption being these are grown men, not weird 12-year-old boys.
Sarah Harrison 20:18
Yeah, I mean I’m glad they did. I feel like Marian Halcombe is a little vindicated even though it’s a strange situation because Wilkie Collins writers her as just basically unmarriageable.
Carolyn Daughters 20:32
So let’s talk about that. Laura, who has very little personality, marries two men in the book, although she doesn’t sign that document that would turn over her 20,000 pounds. I was like, Go, Laura.
Sarah Harrison 20:51
I don’t hate Laura, but she’s just kind of vapid.
Carolyn Daughters 20:54
She’s vapid. And she gets she grows more vapid as the novel progresses.
Sarah Harrison 20:58
Yeah, what I did hate was that as she became less mentally sound she grew in attraction to Walter Hartright. I was like, okay, come on.
Carolyn Daughters 21:09
Because he had to take care of her more and more.
Sarah Harrison 21:13
She’s being more helpless and therefore more of an object of love.
Carolyn Daughters 21:17
She’s considered variable. She’s sort of the model of a Victorian woman. She’s beautiful. She’s kind. She’s selfless. She doesn’t think too hard.
Sarah Harrison 21:31
No, yeah. They kind of make fun of her basic ideas and yeah her education and lack of knowing things.
Carolyn Daughters 21:41
So before we get to Marian Halcombe, let’s talk Anne Catherick, the woman in white. She’s also arguably Laura right? She’s the flip side of Laura, or the doppelganger or the dark side of Laura.
Sarah Harrison 21:58
She’s ill Laura.
Carolyn Daughters 22:03
Yeah. And so what happens when you have this dutiful, beautiful Victorian woman locked away in an asylum? Well, you raise your hand and yell and stomp and try to get out and say I was thrown in here by this dastardly man, Sir Percival. And nobody listens to you. So maybe that’s the moral of this story is no one listens to women, except for Marian. Marian says, at one point, Laura is not going to sign this document. She is not signing over these 20,000 pounds. Enough. She does everything she can to almost physically bar these men from accessing Laura. She’s super interesting in this way. Whereas the woman in white and Laura are pretty ineffectual.
Sarah Harrison 23:00
If they didn’t have Marian Halcombe, there wouldn’t be a story? They’d just be done in, basically. They could do nothing for themselves.
Carolyn Daughters 23:11
Then, let’s talk about how Marian Halcombe is not a typical female character. This is why critics and readers liked her and men are asking for hand and marriage. They arguably had not seen this woman before in literature. I had not seen this woman before, which is why I was so fascinated by her. She’s this dutiful woman who puts family first. She’s protecting Laura, no matter what. But she’s also very masculine.
Sarah Harrison 23:47
Oh, my goodness. Carolyn’s trying to set me off.
Carolyn Daughters 23:52
Sarah has a few thoughts here.
Sarah Harrison 23:55
I do have a few thoughts about Marian Halcombe. I’ll be honest, for our listeners, I have a lot of baggage around this character. I am a lady who has been called a man-like for my whole life. And it is frustrating and baffling to me. And annoying. But Marian seems to take it as a compliment. In fact, she’s one of these women who’s kind of a woman hater. I mean, not exactly, but kind of. I think that the current-day equivalent is how we’ve all met women who are like, Oh, I don’t have any women friends.
Carolyn Daughters 24:43
And they wear it as a badge of honor.
Sarah Harrison 24:45
To them. Although it’s usually a red flag to most other people. “Women don’t like me, because women are stupid,” or something like that.
Carolyn Daughters 24:56
Or it feels like in this day and age women don’t like me because they’re just jealous of me.
Sarah Harrison 25:00
She rags on women probably more than any other character. Like, woman this and woman that. She blames stuff on being a woman and she says Count Fosco flatters her by treating her like a man. Even Hartright in his first description says she’s ugly. But actually he says, nice stuff about her. He’s like, I looked in her, frank, open face. And it was just so masculine. I was like, wait, what? I thought you were about to compliment her?
Carolyn Daughters 25:55
Yeah. H say the lady is dark.
Sarah Harrison 26:02
So when he first meets or yeah, that annoyed me. Yes. Her expression, bright, frank and intelligent, appeared while she was silent to be altogether wanting in those feminine attractions of gentleness and playability. And I was like, wait, what? Bright, frank, and intelligent are all really good things. He’s using it as like a dig, because she doesn’t seem pliable enough.
Carolyn Daughters 26:37
He sees her from behind it first.
Sarah Harrison 26:40
Marian Halcombe has a great body, basically.
Carolyn Daughters 26:42
Really sexual, right. She’s uncorseted, I think, and he’s like, Whoa.
Sarah Harrison 26:46
Yeah, he goes into the uncorseting. Wow. Come on.
Carolyn Daughters 26:50
And he’s like, Oh, she’s dark. She moved forward a few steps. And I said to myself, “the lady is young. She approached nearer, and I said to myself with a sense of surprise, which words fail me to express, “the lady is ugly.”
Sarah Harrison 27:03
The lady is ugly. Someone who has a terrific body and doesn’t need a corset. But she’s dark and has a mustache and a strong jawline. So she’s ugly. And Collins goes on to talk about how she’s personally like a man because she’s intelligent. She has a strong character. I was like, no, she got a fever from the rain. She was done in by reading a letter. This is not forcible character.
Carolyn Daughters 27:41
And yet, in the third part of the novel, she and Hartright and Laura are living together in London in hiding. And she and Hartright are keeping the family up and running. He’s like the father. She’s like the mother and Laura’s like they’re daft child.
Sarah Harrison 28:03
Totally. They’re all in a conspiracy. Her and Hartright are best friends and partners. But they just made her totally unmanageable at the beginning, because she’s just so ugly. Except Count Fosco loved her. He adored her.
Carolyn Daughters 28:18
Despite her looks, he adores her. He’s several decades her senior. He says, “At 60, I worshipped her with the volcanic order of 18. All the gold of my rich nature was poured hopelessly at her feet.”
Sarah Harrison 28:34
And she was so insulted by that, which I thought was interesting.
Carolyn Daughters 28:38
Where do you think she was insulted?
Sarah Harrison 28:40
She kept getting mad several times, especially in the third part, when she really came to believe that the count adores her. Hartright was like, she was too much a woman to listen to Count Fosco’s compliments. And she just wanted revenue. I was like, wait? What? We have a lot of a lot of thoughts about this relationship
Carolyn Daughters 29:12
Marian Halcombe increasingly focuses on revenge against Fosco in the third part in particular. I was thinking a little bit about this. For some period of time in the second book, or second epoch of the book, she is ill, she is not in her own head. She’s basically out of her mind with illness, typhus, and Count Fosco is in and out of her room. He is attending to her, he’s providing medical advice. I think she feels violated. I think she feels a personal affront and violation. And then when he carts Laura off, and Laura ostensibly dies — we know that she’s put in the asylum as Anne Catherick — but I think it’s almost of a sexual nature that Marian is just shocked at what he has done and the lengths to which he has gone. And it becomes personal on a different level, which I thought was interesting because she’s so family oriented and so Laura oriented. But at some point, she’s like, Oh, hell no, for herself, I really felt like she was speaking up for herself in a really interesting way. Not just for Laura, not just as Laura’s protector, but as her own protector.
Sarah Harrison 30:37
That’s really interesting. I hadn’t thought about it in that light. Because it was Count Fosco’s obsession with her that ended up kind of protecting them both. But she seemed to be upset that he thought about her in a sexual, obsessive way. Which I thought was weird, too. What I didn’t think was realistic was how resigned she was to being unmarriageable. She’s just like, oh, yeah, I’m ugly and manly, so nobody’s gonna marry me, I’m gonna be th cool aunt.
Carolyn Daughters 31:20
She doesn’t seem sad about it either.
Sarah Harrison 31:22
No, she doesn’t.
Carolyn Daughters 31:22
Marian Halcombe seems affronted by the male gaze. We can call Count Fosco’s gaze the male gaze. There’s a certain amount of freedom when you’re you just wash your hands of marriage and say, I can live my life on my own with my family in their family home. And I don’t have to be a spectacle. I don’t have to have a spotlight on me. Whereas, with women like Laura, anytime they enter a room, it’s all about how beautiful she is and how slim she is. It’s about all of the things that go along with her place in society and her inheritance and all the property upon which she lives. It’s more than that. You’re scrutinized at every level. If you decide I’m not getting married, you don’t have to wear a corset. You can do anything you want.
Sarah Harrison 32:16
I figured she didn’t wear a corset because she just had such a naturally tiny waist
Carolyn Daughters 32:20
I believe so, but in Victorian England, in her class, she probably would have worn one.
Do you think so?
I do. I might be wrong. But I think she there’s a certain amount of freedom that comes with not wanting to be viewed by the male gaze. I mean, look what happened to Laura with Sir Percival. He seemed like a halfway decent guy. But once they get married, he’s a completely different person.
Sarah Harrison 33:00
That’s true. I certainly wouldn’t argue with someone out there who says “I don’t want to be married.” But I thought it was kind of strange that everyone just has that expectation of her. Like, well, what if she wants a family? Maybe she would, and she just gets put in this category. And then Laura’s like, “You’re so lucky that you’re poor and not married.” Wow. That reminds me of something a few years back. Gwyneth Paltrow said something idiotic about how it’s probably easier for women that have a regular job to arrange for childcare.
Carolyn Daughters 33:41
I remember something like that.
Sarah Harrison 33:44
Yeah, all that money is really a hindrance.
Carolyn Daughters 33:46
Yeah, the fourteen nannies you have running around your house. Very difficult.
Sarah Harrison 33:56
She was just like, Oh, if God had blessed me to be poor, then I wouldn’t be dealing with this. It’s like, No, you’re dealing with this because you made a bad decision. Don’t put that on God. They were gonna let you out of the marriage. But you had some really weird ideas about getting married.
Carolyn Daughters 34:17
In Pride and Prejudice, at one point, Elizabeth is going to never get married. And she resolves with with perfect aplomb that she’s just going to live in her sister Jane’s house and care for her children and teach them piano and read stories to them. So she has resigned herself to this at some point in the book. She’s, as Jane Austen would say, one and 20 years old, so she’s quite young to have resigned herself to this future or fate.
Sarah Harrison 34:50
Yeah, Marian Halcombe was probably pretty young, too.
Carolyn Daughters 34:55
There’s arguably some weird freedom there. Maybe it’s not so different than today where a married woman might look at an unmarried woman and say, Oh, it must be nice to have so much flexibility and freedom. And the unmarried woman says, Oh, I wish I had the marriage and the house and the family like you have. Everybody’s looking over the fence, you know?
Sarah Harrison 34:55
That’s definitely true. As someone that married like, really early, and then really late. A lot of people would be like, you have the life. You can just do whatever you want. Back in the day, for someone in Marian’s position, I wonder if it was easier to be single because you have a family home. And you would live in a family home. Whereas today, that’s not often a thing. If you’re going to remain unmarried, you’ll probably be by yourself in a home, and you’ll have to figure out how to make that work.
Carolyn Daughters 35:55
It helps if you’re living at Limmeridge House, which I’m estimating has 18 bedrooms.
Sarah Harrison 36:02
She can be like, “poor,” and live in this giant fancy mansion and have all of her needs met.
Carolyn Daughters 36:10
She can play chess and whist all day and takes nice walks around the neighborhood and maybe tutor her hurt sister’s children.
Sarah Harrison 36:25
It’s pretty nice.
Carolyn Daughters 36:26
I wonder — so you’re living in the sister’s house forever. And you never get married. You never have any money of your own.Marian Halcombe has no money.
Sarah Harrison 36:37
She cashed out her little savings to break her out of the asylum.
Carolyn Daughters 36:42
So one day, she’s like, I would like to buy a new book and a new dress. What did she do?
Sarah Harrison 36:48
Didn’t they give family members an allowance.
Carolyn Daughters 36:51
Maybe she gets a pittance or an allowance or something?
Sarah Harrison 36:53
I think so. I think they give them an allowance. Jarndice gave his wards an allowance.
Carolyn Daughters 37:01
In Bleak House. Otherwise, you’re just wearing the same weird dress for ten years.
Sarah Harrison 37:06
Or you have to ask every time you want to get a new book. I don’t know.
Carolyn Daughters 37:11
I want to get an ice cream in town, and they’re like, you got any money?
Sarah Harrison 37:15
We’ve got plenty of servants here to make you an ice cream.
Carolyn Daughters 37:19
Maybe your needs are so low that really just some new material for another dress is all you need. Maybe periodically you need the piano tuned or something? I don’t know.
Sarah Harrison 37:32
Well, they do that anyway. The servants take care of everything.
Carolyn Daughters 37:35
Maybe I’m stressing out about nothing. I can see it now. I was like, What are these poor people do? They’re attached to the house, but they have no financial recourse, so everything is like, Hey, sister, can I have some petty cash?
Sarah Harrison 37:58
It does seem like the ideal situation to decide to be single. I guess I felt like she was kind of being pegged into that.
Carolyn Daughters 38:10
Where it’s almost a necessity born of her looks.
Sarah Harrison 38:17
Carolyn Daughters 38:20
There’s nothing she can do.
Sarah Harrison 38:22
She’s just so manly with that intelligent face.
Carolyn Daughters 38:28
Marian Halcombe is a product of the 19th century. And of course of this male author, Wilkie Collins. How empowered did you find her? How much agency did you see that she had? Or was it just frustrating watching how little agency she had?
Sarah Harrison 38:46
For me, it seemed to go back and forth. I was like, All right, go out onto the verandah and listen to this conversation. But then she’d collapse of a fever. To me, she really seemed to vacillate between activity and helplessness. And then at the end, when Hartright is gonna face Count Fosco and Marian wants to go and wait for him in the carriage. And he’s like, No, I have the courage to go. You must have the courage to stay here and keep an eye on Laura. And I was like, what?
Carolyn Daughters 39:24
The child Laura.
Sarah Harrison 39:25
The courage woman at home and watch Laura, my wife.
Carolyn Daughters 39:31
I think that’s why the third part of the three parts of the book sort of bugs me is we lost Marian and to some degree.
Sarah Harrison 39:40
I’ll have to think about that.
Carolyn Daughters 39:42
We got a whole lot of Hartright saves the day. Although he doesn’t save the day. There’s Sir Percival and Count Fosco, and Hartright doesn’t take either guy down. One guy burns in a fire that he himself set. Like, hello? And another guy is killed in Paris. So Hartright isn’t the means of the end of either man.
Sarah Harrison 40:07
No, that was a weird thing too. In order for Hartright to get what he wanted, he had to not reveal the crimes of these two guys. So how do you make that morally justifiable? Well, they’ll get theirs in the end. He was focused on what he knew was right. Not bringing people to justice. Except Laura. She needs justice.
Carolyn Daughters 40:36
Or, I’ll just be the devil’s advocate, but maybe he wanted some cash just like Sir Percival did. Marry this woman, and the sky’s the limit. And then, this is just a little aside, but I have to mention it. In Paris after Count Fosco dies, Hartright finds out about Count Fosco’s death because there’s a line outside of a morgue where people are marching.
Sarah Harrison 41:03
He’s so giant, which is weird.
Carolyn Daughters 41:06
Is that a thing? Like Saturday. I can’t go to the mall, so maybe I’ll go to the morgue?
Sarah Harrison 41:13
I guess they were open. You could look through the glass at the dead bodies.
Carolyn Daughters 41:19
It freaked me out a little bit.
Sarah Harrison 41:23
Enough that they could see he was stabbed under the arm and through the heart.
Carolyn Daughters 41:30
I was putting exclamation points in the margins. What is this entertainment?
Sarah Harrison 41:41
That’s one reason I do like old books. I feel like, while they’re fictional, there’s also a real sense of context of the times because they had to be realistic enough. I don’t know how real everything is. Like in a lot of other Victorian novels, I feel like the characters aren’t written quite as stereotypically as Laura and Anne. They’re more interesting. Think about Bleak House even. Even Lady Deadlock the most rich and petted woman in the book. She has a lot of drive and intelligence and agency.
Carolyn Daughters 42:15
She does. I think she’s a great character.
Sarah Harrison 42:19
Even Esther Summerson is not a Laura.
Carolyn Daughters 42:21
Right. Laura is very two-dimensional, except when she won’t sign that document turning over her 20,000 pounds, which is a substantial amount of money in 1860.
Sarah Harrison 42:33
You just lived off the interest.
Carolyn Daughters 42:38
I think that’s a good point. Laura seems for most of the book not fully formed and just this ideal of Victorian womanhood and not a real person.
Sarah Harrison 42:51
So that’s where I waffled on Marian Halcombe. She seemed to be strong and have this agency, but then when it really counted, she’d fall back on this idea, “I’m a woman I suddenly am helpless and incapable.”
Carolyn Daughters 43:05
Marian Halcome says at one point, “If I only had the privileges of a man I would order out Sir Percival’s best horse instantly and tear away on a night gallop eastward to meet the rising sun. Along hard, heavy, ceaseless gallop of hours and hours like the famous highwayman’s ride to York. Being, however, nothing but a woman, condemned patience, propriety, and petticoats for life, I must respect the housekeeper’s opinions and try to compose myself in some feeble and feminine way.” If only I were a man.
Sarah Harrison 43:42
If only I werea man, I’d ride a horse. You know, but when I think about Mrs. Bagby [in Bleak House].
She just went across the whole country by herself. She goes across the whole world by herself. She’s just a lady doing her duty. Okay, I’ll move my family around the world. Got it.
Carolyn Daughters 44:16
Wilkie Collins, to some degree gives Marian more agency and license than many female characters. And simultaneously less simultaneous.
Sarah Harrison 44:26
Yes. It felt I felt a little inconsistent for me.
Carolyn Daughters 44:33
She’s a product of her times. But for me, she felt fresh and new. Seeing how far she would go to participate in this investigation and how she had sometimes much brighter thoughts than Hartright, in my opinion. And how she was a worthy foe for Count Fosco, who I think is a fascinating character. I found that tug back and forth, that give and take between Fosco and Marian to be really interesting.
Sarah Harrison 45:04
I liked Fosco’s weakness. It was was in line with his character. It’s based on his love for Marian. Whereas Marian’s weakness was just this gender type. It was generic. She’s a woman so that went awry. It wasn’t an actual personal weakness of any kind.
Carolyn Daughters 45:30
She felt limited. I wonder if she was as limited as she thought she was.
Sarah Harrison 45:37
She went and busted Laura out of the asylum, cashed out all her money bribed the guards, busted her out of the asylum. And then she’s like, Oh, the letter has done me in. I can’t get off the sofa.
Carolyn Daughters 45:56
When Marian Halcombe wants to do something, she does it. She climbs out on this veranda roof, and she’s hanging on tenuously and eavesdropping, and trying to make sure she’s not seen and not heard. She’s pretty brave and pretty cool here. And then other times, she just throws her hand in the air and says, well, there’s nothing I can do. I’m a woman.
Sarah Harrison 46:22
We talked a little bit about this. This kind of gets me is that this is still a really modern conversation. I just was complaining just a moment ago about always getting compared to a man for weird stuff. And why is that manly? I’m just myself, and this is who I am, and I’m a lady. Why is that manly? This was a conversation then, and it’s a conversation now. It doesn’t feel like a settled conversation. There seems like there must be things for a conversation to go on hundreds of years about what’s womanly and what’s manly.
Carolyn Daughters 47:06
In order to make Marian an agent in the book, somebody who does something. I think Wilkie Collins has to make her masculine. Because Laura would never do what Marian does. So it’s kind of like, well, this is how you were physically born. It’s an accident of birth. And so you will be masculine and do masculine things and behave in ways that a more feminine woman would not.
Sarah Harrison 47:40
It’s confusing in terms of attraction as well. I’m glad you put that historical stuff on there. Because Wilkie Collins makes Laura the marriageable one and Marian the unmarriageable one. Is that true of society. It seems it’s not if people are writing letters asking for a fictional character’s hand in marriage. In modern relationships, we look more maybe towards, who’s my partner in these things. Marian and Hartright. were perfect partners. Luckily, she was ugly. But even Laura was like, you’re gonna like Marian more than me.
Carolyn Daughters 48:24
They would have made a good detective team. They could have opened an office in town together and solved crimes. For me, a lot of the scenes had that sort of fun spirit of unearthing hidden things. And Hartright and Marian do a lot of that together, which I think is is really exciting. And then, in the third part, he says, “Marian, you stay home and watch over Laura, who’s a grown woman, but we’re going to pretend is a child, and I’ll go off and sleuth on my own.” He lost his partner. I was gonna say sidekick, but she’s not a sidekick.
Sarah Harrison 49:02
She was doing all of it while he was out feeling sorry for himself in Central America.
Carolyn Daughters 49:10
I think she held her own when she was doing the investigation on her own. In the first part, she and Hartright are investigating together, they’re going to the local school and they’re going to various homes. And that was interesting to me, too. And I feel like Hartright needed a sidekick or a partner in the third part.
Sarah Harrison 49:29
Yeah, he didn’t really think things through very well. I think I detailed some of that in the last podcast episode, but he really needed someone to bounce his thoughts off of, not just report back to.
Carolyn Daughters 49:42
He goes on at length on a variety of things. And at times, it felt like an information dump versus a story evolving. I really liked the action underlying Marian Halcombe’s section, where people were doing things and those things then prompted various conversations and words to be exchanged. And as a result, somebody did something else. In the third part, there seems less doing and a whole lot of “I interviewed another person.”
Sarah Harrison 50:15
Marian’s was the only conversation that’s based from her diaries. So that’s day by day what happened, whereas everyone else is kind of writing a deposition, including Hartright.
Carolyn Daughters 50:28
I think he is considered by many the protagonist of this book. And I so wish, Marian and Fosco were the protagonists. The reason I think they’re not is because the story begins with Hartright. And because Hartright at the end gets everything his heart could desire.
Sarah Harrison 50:51
His heart is right.
Carolyn Daughters 50:58
He gets the woman, he gets the estate, he gets the money, he solves the mystery.
Sarah Harrison 51:04
He gets the heir. The heir of landed gentry. Well, his son does.
Carolyn Daughters 51:08
Whereas Fosco dies in Paris. The Italian secret society. I know nothing about these secret societies.
He dies. So he gets his comeuppance. And then, Marian falls back into obscurity. She will be the other.
Sarah Harrison 51:36
She’ll be the cool aunt.
Carolyn Daughters 51:40
In this in this trio, somebody’s got to fall by the wayside. And it’s gonna be Marian. She is going to be a sort of a helpmate.
Sarah Harrison 51:50
Collins knew what he was doing. Because he has Laura and Walter Hartright bring up, “Are we being unfair to Marian? To expect her to live with us?” Yes. So Collins positions Marian as saying like, Oh, I definitely want to.
Carolyn Daughters 52:06
This is all I’ve ever wanted. She seems to abhor the male gaze so much. She just wants to hide out in this house and hang out with them for the rest of her life.
Sarah Harrison 52:18
Maybe she does. Stuff that I didn’t feel like got wrapped up. Did you anticipate the ending? I think we both kind of anticipated that Sir Percival was an imposter.
Carolyn Daughters 52:35
Although I did think maybe he had murdered someone or something.
Sarah Harrison 52:39
Yeah, I thought he might have murdered the real Percival or something. But definitely an imposter. Although, we didn’t even get to that. I thought it was really unfair that he would have been hanged. Because his father wanted to marry his mother, but his mother was already married but left the man because he abused her. That seems really unfair. HThat’s not a good villain origin story. It’s kind of sad. But the character of Phillip. When his sister marries Count Fosco, he disowns her, but he promises his daughter to Count Fosco’s best friend, who’s twice her age. And that’s never explained. It’s so weird and it’s never explained.
Carolyn Daughters 53:36
We don’t ever meet the father. He’s dead when the story starts.
Sarah Harrison 53:39
He’s adored and definitely on a pedestal with Laura.
Carolyn Daughters 53:44
Yet he has an illegitimate child, which was the woman in white, Anne Catherick.
Sarah Harrison 53:48
No big deal.
Carolyn Daughters 53:50
Thumbs up, good guy.
At least Mrs. Catherick lost her reputation for her whole life. And then this guy just forgets about it, goes on, and is an adored father. He makes terrible decisions. Laura puts her faith in her father. Like, oh my father planned this for me so it must be the right decision. Does he have a history of making good decisions that you would base this on? It doesn’t seem like it
It is Laura. She is not the sharpest knife in the drawer.
Sarah Harrison 54:19
Oh my goodness. That sums up what got me with the book is that so much of the plotline depends on female ineptitude. I’m not gonna say it’s not a masterpiece. It seems to rightly deserve its place in the mystery canon. Its my non-literary take. I had a hard time with some of the decisions being made.
Carolyn Daughters 54:51
I guess if everybody made genius decisions, it would have been a 14-page book, a really fast read.
So she decided not to marry him. Okay.
That could have been a whole big drama in its own right. The fact that she marries him is weird because she’s got all the cash. Her father is dead.
Sarah Harrison 55:22
She’s underage. They insisted on an underage marriage to this man twice her age. Also weird.
Carolyn Daughters 55:30
Yeah, because she didn’t turn. She didn’t turn 21 until a couple months later.
Sarah Harrison 55:38
But again, the plot hinged on having to get permission from her lazy, self-absorbed uncle, who was very funny. He’s really good. Read it for his narrative. If nothing else, he’s pretty funny in his narrative.
Carolyn Daughters 55:54
And for my beloved Marian Halcombe and Count Fosco. They’re both originals. Truly, I hadn’t seen them before. But also they’re going to inform characters down the line in mysteries, thrillers, detective stories.
Sarah Harrison 56:12
They are good. So in case you forget what we’re doing here, we are going in order, the development of the mystery novel. Our next one will be …
Carolyn Daughters 56:23
The Moonstone also by Wilkie Collins. With The Woman in White, The Moonstone is one of the best read and most beloved books of the 19th century. It’s considered by many to be the first full-blown detective novel.
Sarah Harrison 56:41
I’m pretty stoked about it if for no other reason that I found a copy in my favorite historical collection. A heritage edition. I collect as many heritage traditions as we can find. So if you if you have one listener, then you can give it to me.
Carolyn Daughters 56:59
Or just share a picture of it.
Sarah Harrison 57:01
It’s pretty sweet. It’s got great illustrations.
Carolyn Daughters 57:05
If you don’t want to give it to Sarah, which would be weird, because why wouldn’t you?
Sarah Harrison 57:09
Why wouldn’t you?
Sarah Harrison 57:23
I’ll show you some pictures from my addition. That’s awesome.
Carolyn Daughters 57:27
Well, thanks to our sponsor, Grace Sigma, gracesigma.com. And Sarah, thank you for a good conversation.
Sarah Harrison 57:33
Thank you, Carolyn. Thank you, listeners. The Moonstone looks wild. It’s going to be amazing.
November 19, 2023
Playwright, artistic director, and Renaissance woman Emily Schwartz joins Sarah and Carolyn to dish all things Agatha Christie. On a completely (un)related note, Emily, Sarah, and Carolyn have boarded the Simplon-Orient Express train in search of adventure. Listen in. And stay tuned …Listen →
November 6, 2023
Sarah Harrison and Carolyn Daughters interview Recipes for Murder author Karen Pierce about all things Agatha Christie -- her books, her life, the adaptations of her work. Let’s just say this amazing Christie superfan knows her stuff.Listen →
October 28, 2023
Sarah Harrison and Carolyn Daughters interview detective-fiction devotee, food lover, and Agatha Christie superfan Karen Pierce about her amazing new cookbook, Recipes for Murder. With 66 dishes from Christie's novels, what's not to love?Listen →