19th century Britain was a very heavily divided nation, in terms of social status and class. The small, upper class minority were well educated and were the only people able to write novels, therefore only depicting England from their point of view. Wilkie Collins ‘The Woman in White’ gives an insight into the upper class lifestyle of Laura Fairlie, a seemingly stereotypical young Victorian woman. Collins uses this novel as a vessel to display some important points and views about the social class divide. Collins attitude to social classes is displayed fairly early on in the book, during the first meeting between Walter Hartwright and Mr. Fairlie.
Neither of these characters is lower class, but they do have very different views on how the lower classes should be treated. Walter is sympathetic towards them, but Mr. Fairlie is most opposed to them and actually despises the lower classes, portrayed through his descriptions of his servants as “asses” and the children being “plebeian brats”. Fairlie is also shown to be a very weak, frail and feminine character, and the vision Collins wishes readers have of the upper classes is immediately put across through him.
Mr. Fairlie is also shown to be very ungrateful for his belongings, which include priceless paintings he stores in folders and portfolios rather than hanging them on the walls and displaying how fortunate he is. Collins links this arrogance to Fairlie’s ever worsening nerves. Fairlie uses his nerves throughout the story as a reason to be a social recluse and accentuates Collins’ view of the aristocracy as a frail society. Another upper-class issue Collins raises in the book is that of the upper class women.
Compared to his description of the male aristocracy (Mr. Fairlie) he is far more forgiving to the women. This could be to appeal to his likely target audience of well-read upper class Victorian women or to accentuate the evolving feminine role in society at the time. However, he does subtly criticize aristocratic women during the lunch scene at Limmeridge house. During this passage Collins’ main representative of the female social hierarchy is Mrs Vesey. She cuts a bizarre figure, which is once described as “almost vegetable”.
Mrs Vesey proceeds to refuse to decide what she eats for herself, which suggests that the aristocratic society was obsessed with etiquette and manners and weren’t able to make even the smallest, most insignificant of decisions for themselves. The weak fabric of the upper classes Collins portrays through Mr Fairlie is again shown through Laura, who is prone to well timed headaches, which delays her entrance into the story. This is both an excuse for Collins to accentuate the frailty of the aristocracy he wishes to display and to introduce a character to the story that he feels the bulk of his readers will be able to sympathise with.
Collins brings the Woman in White further into the novel’s equation by presenting a scene where Walter goes to the graveyard where Mrs Fairlie is buried. Here The Woman in White appears to Walter, the chilling, gothic atmosphere he has created for them to meet in adding to Anne Catherick’s mystery. Their meeting would make the reader want to believe the Woman in White so that they aren’t in favour of Walter and his highly frowned-upon relationship with Laura Fairlie. This situation creates a strong moral decision for the reader because they will have to choose whom to believe.
Collins then shocks the reader by taking the side of Anne Catherick, the relative commoner, and fuels the moral dilemma. Collins uses Walter to purvey his view as Walter decides to believe Anne immediately as he reports to Marian. However, this decision to trust Anne does seam a little too premature, as Walter does not have enough information to take a balanced view on Percivil Glyde’s motives for Anne’s imprisonment. Collins uses Walter because at this point the book is being read from his perspective, meaning the reader begins to take a dimmer and dimmer view of the upper classes.
One of the main villains in the book is Percivil Glyde. He is a very respected member of the upper classes in the book as he is a baronet, which again creates a dim view of the aristocracy in the eyes of the reader. He is engaged to Laura Fairlie, but she does not wish to marry him, as she loves Walter Hartwright (making their relationship very unrespectable to Victorian society). There seems to be two sides to Percivil, which are apparent to the reader, but not to the characters as he is well liked within the aristocratic circle.
However, Percivil is the man who imprisoned Anne Catherick, with whom the reader has already sided from Walter’s account. One of the first meetings the reader has with Glyde is a passage during which he is riding in the shadows of a dark street, immediately giving him a sinister characteristic and the carriage used to present him as a definite member of the social and financial hierarchy. The foreboding and villainous fai??ade of Glyde is completed upon the revelation to the reader that it was he who captured Anne Catherick and placed her in asylum: “… She has escaped from my asylum.
Don’t forget; a woman in white…. ” Walter then repeats, “She has escaped from my asylum! ” at the start of the next chapter to accentuate the reader’s ever devaluing view of Percivil Glyde and to make a larger emphasis and shock on the fact that he imprisoned the heroine of the story. Percivil is later portrayed to be an incredibly devious and sly character when his and count Fosco’s plan to kill the woman in white and exploit the likeness between her and Laura to put Laura in the asylum, claim she is Anne Catherick and keep the Fairlie estate for themselves.
Largely, The Woman in White is used by Wilkie Collins as a method of giving across his view of the upper classes and in particular the aristocracy. Very rarely is an upper class character not portrayed as sinister or frail (the only people that do not fit these descriptions being Marian and Pesca). Throughout the book Collins displays a strong dislike for the upper classes and a sympathetic view of the downtrodden lower classes.