Monday, October 10, 2011

Her head set on her shoulders with an easy, pliant firmness - the visibly deformed The Woman in White

Descriptions of people, of characters in novels, particularly thorough introductory top-to-bottom inventory descriptions, are typically useless, by which I mean artistically useless, because the details are so often unconnected and almost random, and useless to the reader who has no hope of remembering anything but a general impression.  All of that detail just disintegrates.

Here is an amusing exception, from early in The Woman in White (1860).  It is the narrator’s first view of a major character, Marian Halcombe, from a distance, with her back turned:

Her figure was tall, yet not too tall; comely and well-developed, yet not fat; her head set on her shoulders with an easy, pliant firmness; her waist, perfection in the eyes of a man, for it occupied its natural place, it filled out its natural circle, it was visibly and delightfully undeformed by stays. (The First Epoch, VI)

Readers of Wilkie Collins know that the nature of the description changes when the woman turns around, but I am not so interested in that right now.  What caught my attention was, of course, the peculiarity of the description.  The “easy, pliant firmness” of the head,  for example, or that “natural circle.”  Who talks or writes like this?

In fact, the description is natural for the character, because he is a drawing master.  He is breaking his subject down into her component parts, as he might do if he were to draw her, or as he might instruct a student.  I would guess that a search through contemporary guides to drawing would unearth that “natural circle.”

It’s a nice touch.  Too bad Collins does not follow through with more passages like this, but I suspect he feared making his hero – the narrator is the novel’s action hero, so to speak – too eccentric.  His (the hero’s) later descriptions are more conventional.  The genuinely eccentric Mr. Fairlie has a face that is “thin, worn, and transparently pale, but not wrinkled,” eyes that are “rather red round the rims of the eyelids,” hair that is “soft to look at,” "little, womanish, bronze-leather slippers" and so on, lots of nice writing but much too much to remember, well-suited  to create a strong impression of Fairlie’s personality, if not his actual appearance.

Well, hair that is “soft to look at” is kind of strange.  My point is that the first look at Mr. Fairlie does a good job of creating the Mr. Fairlie who I carried through the rest of the novel, but does not tell us much of interest about the character who describes him, while the catalogue of Marian’s form a few pages earlier reveals the mentality of the narrator too.  That’s it; that’s my point.  Collins works on the idea throughout the book, unfortunately indulging himself more when the minor characters are narrating, "unfortunately" because the minor characters are weirder and funnier. The major characters are visibly deformed by stays, the conventional constraints of being the hero or heroine (of the strong or weak variety) of a Victorian novel.

Perhaps I will think of something else to say about The Woman in White later.


  1. Count Fosco was in my dream last night, so his description might be a little weird (I just remember fat, waistcoat, mice, pudding, really) but my mind made something out of it. Maybe I'll dream about Marian's pliant head tonight? I'll keep you posted.

  2. Count Fosco's description is plenty weird, but used in a different way again. Most of the details are used again and again - the "authors" of the documents are constantly reminding us of his eyes and hair and girth.

    Yes, dream of Marian. Or something non-Collins related.

  3. "[V]isibly and delightfully undeformed by stays" just makes me think there's some (possibly semi-unpleasant, probably weird) Victorian political thing I'm supposed to be getting out of that, so I was glad to hear the narrator was an artist. So much better, that considered!

    It seems sad that Collins would shy from this though, as you suggest. I love my eccentric narrators. They make descriptions like that one good!

  4. It's been a long time sense I read The Moonstone, so who knows what I remember well, but I think the balance among the narrators is better in the later book. Meaning, the more individualized (odder) narrators get more space.

    Well, I'll re-read it sometime and see how wrong I am.

  5. Unlike you, I am more interested in what followed - a wonderful piece of unexpected levity ;)

  6. The ironic twist is good, too. But I don't think the way it is written is that interesting. Any number of narrators would have written it the same way, except where the artist returns: "such a face as this set on shoulders that a sculptor would have longed to model." I also do not really understand what Collins does with the twist - I guess it underscores the Fosco / Marian connection? I'm looking for something a little more complex.

  7. Did Collins draw? I know his father painted landscapes and lambkins. The most naturally painterly-drawerly writing I've seen is still Mervyn Peake's, I think, with the attention he pays to areas of light and dark and the placement of things in their settings, but if Collins wasn't a drawer himself then it's an interesting attempt to get inside the eyes of someone who was.

  8. Peake, yes, I love his everything-in-its place precision. He really saw the things he imagined.

    I don't know about Collins, how far his father pushed him to draw. Most of the plotty use of art is about landscape drawing (just like dad!) but the stylistic use of the subject did not seem so interesting.

  9. It seems his father really wanted him to be a priest, or at least to have a steady job... I like this little "memorandum" of his life, which studiously avoids any mention of his home arrangements and focuses a good deal on his father and painting:

    Memorandum, relating to the Life and Writings of Wilkie Collins. (1862)

    I was born in London, in the year 1824. I am the eldest son of the late William Collins, Member of the English Royal Academy of Arts, and famous as a painter of English life and English scenery. My godfather, after whom I was named, was Sir David Wilkie, the illustrious Scottish Painter. My mother is still alive.

    I was educated at a private school. At the age of thirteen, I went with my father and mother to reside for two years in Italy—where I learnt more which has been of use to me, among the pictures, the scenery, and the people, than I ever learnt at school. After my return to England, my father proposed sending me to the University of Oxford, with a view to my entering the Church. But I had no vocation for that way of life, and I preferred trying business mercantile pursuits. I had already begun to write in secret, and mercantile pursuits lost all attraction for me. My father— uniformly kind and considerate to his children—tried making me a Barrister next. I went through the customary forms (with little or no serious study), and was "called to the Bar" at Lincoln’s Inn. But I have never practised my profession. An author I was to be, and an author I became in the year 1848.

    I had, in the year 1847, completed the first volume of a classical romance, called "Antonina; or, The Fall of Rome" - when my father died. I put aside the romance, to write a do honour to my father’s genius, to the best of my ability, by writing the history of his Life and his pictures. This was my first published book. I then returned to my classical romance, completed it in three volumes, and found a publisher for it. The success (in England) of "Antonina" decided my own career. I became, what I am now, a writer by profession.

    These are the only events worth noticing in my life. My father’s position as a painter made my early home-circumstances easy ones. He left his family (his widow, myself, and my brother) with an income to live on—which, though not the income of rich people, was sufficient for all their wants. Apart from my books—my life presents no events which have any claim to on the public interest, or on your attention.

    He was already with Carolina Graves at that point (not yet living a second life as Dawson)... something that would definitely have been of "public interest."

  10. Marly, thanks for the bio. That answers the question.