The Italian Ambivalence of Wilkie Collins in The Woman in White
© 2009 Sean M. Donnell
Numerous historians and critics
Wilkie Collins, like his Victorian contemporaries, was undoubtedly
Both McAllister and Costantini devise interesting and persuasive
arguments regarding Victorian formulations of Italianness; moreover, both women
expand the current critical discussion of Wilkie Collins, especially concerning
his most famous sensation novel, The Woman
in White. However, neither
explains sufficiently the contradictions and tensions inherent in Wilkie
Collins’s depictions of Italians in The
Woman in White. I propose that
Collins’s representations of Italians in The
Woman in White, namely Count Fosco and Professor Pesca, exhibit an
ambivalence toward the Victorian construction of an Italian identity.
This paper shall examine how Collins mediates the tensions between the
cultural imperatives regarding the Italian identity generated by his Victorian
society and his personal impressions of
Like many other European countries,
what [Italian revolutionaries associated with the Risorgimento] wanted was liberty and a constitution, demands derived
from the [French] Revolution, and reinforced by the revolt against the tyranny
of Napoleon and of his continuers. The
Carbonari became the interpreters of this liberal mood. . . .
The importance of the Carbonarist movement consists precisely in its
having propagated liberal-constitutional demands, with unity of aspirations, in
Traditionally, mainstream British culture has been none too fond of revolutionaries or terrorism; the Gunpowder Plot, if nothing else, proves this.
In spite of British reluctance to endorse revolution, many in
The British attitude during the 1830s and 1840s was characterized . . . by a willingness to commiserate with, but a reluctance to become involve in, the Italian political situation. Between 1859 and 1860 . . . the struggle for [Italian] independence assumed a different character and was pursued through diplomatic effort rather than through terrorist tactics. This change was mirrored by a corresponding change in British attitude and thereafter the Italian cause gained vast and open support among the British public. (152)
The developing prosperity of the
Victorian middle-class also helped in this regard.
More and more, the British middle-class began traveling as a way to
express its increasing affluence, and
A major factor
in the romantic appeal of
Consequently, the plight of their Italian contemporaries elicited sympathetic reactions from nineteenth-century British travelers and travel-book writers alike.
This is not to suggest that
inhabited a particularly contested cultural area.
They were dashing revolutionaries, winning their liberty, they were the
Situated in this milieu, it is
small wonder that an “Italophile” (Caracciolo 384) like Wilkie Collins
should be susceptible to the tension generated by the juxtaposition of his
personal sentiments regarding
From this perspective, it becomes readily apparent that Collins’s
depictions of Count Fosco and Professor Pesca must necessarily be multifarious
and nuanced in The Woman in White.
In their creation Collins acknowledges the complexities associated with
mediating the inherent tensions arising between his culture and his personal
comprehension of Italian identity. As
Costantini suggests, “If it is true that [Collins] lived in a nation that
still preserved its cultural homogeneity, it is also true that he understood
that the uncanny forces of otherness could not be kept at a distance forever.
Once transplanted into
In addition to
representing the people he actually met during his travels [in Italy], Collins
drew inspiration from the popular heroes of the Risorgimento who lived in London
as refugees in the 1840s and 1850s, as well as from a number of mythicized
figures of artists and politicians. Like
other Victorians, he saw himself in a literary tradition that gave birth to
multifarious images of
In order for Fosco and Pesca to be emblematic of the tensions Collins felt between his personal predilections and his Victorian culture’s depictions of Italians, then the two characters must, of necessity, demonstrate numerous contrapuntal characteristics, which is precisely what they do.
Of the two Italians in The Woman in White, most critics tend to elaborate on Fosco, often eschewing Pesca entirely or mentioning him as an addendum, merely a point of comparison to what they consider is the much more important Fosco. Certainly, the Count does play more of a leading role in the novel; however, Pesca’s function as the final arbiter of Fosco’s fate certainly makes him worthy of more consideration than he gets. In fact, on closer examination, several points of similarity arise between the two Italians, which, after all, should not be too terribly surprising, for both Pesca and Fosco are products of a similar intricacy and subtlety. Costantini notes how Collins drew inspiration from key figures in the Risorgimento, and several critics have noted this in regards to Fosco. For instance, the Count bears many similarities to key leaders in the Italian Risorgimento, particularly Mazzini. His name recalls Foscolo, Mazzini’s hero, but this is not the only connection with Mazzini that Fosco shares. Like Fosco, “Mazzini has pet birds and animals over whom he exercises magnetic fascination as he does over human beings” (Milbank 75). Fosco definitely demonstrates a mesmeric quality over people. The housekeeper at Blackwater, Mrs. Michelson, certainly falls under the Count’s spell. Even Marian Halcombe, indubitably the most perceptive and intelligent woman in the novel, concurs, “He looks like a man who could tame anything. If he had married a tigress, instead of a woman, he would have tamed the tigress. If he had married me, I should have made his cigarettes as his wife does—I should have held my tongue when he looked at me, as she holds hers” (Collins 219). Anyone familiar with the bold, decisive, and independent Miss Halcombe understands what an impactful revelation this is; it certainly speaks volumes for Count Fosco’s charisma.
Interestingly, Allison Milbank contends that this link between Fosco and
Mazzini indicates that Collins viewed Mazzini’s politics with ambivalence
because “Fosco is revealed as a would-be murderer and double agent for the
Austrians” and because Pesca, “who
teaches Dante to young ladies for his living and is entirely benign” is also
linked to Mazzini, for he possesses the man’s penchant for calling everyone
“my dears” (75). This claim must
be viewed with a bit of skepticism, however, because neither the Count nor the
Professor is solely linked to Mazzini. Moreover,
Milbank’s contention that Pesca is “entirely benign” seems a bit
overstated, given that he is Secretary of the Brotherhood in
In fact, both Pesca and Fosco are linked to other figures associated with the Risorgimento. Fosco bears some striking similarities to Camillo Benso, conte di Cavour, the Prime Minister of Piedmont, who is usually referred to simply as Cavour. Costantini finds this insightful connection: “Under attentive reading, Fosco displays a number of traits in common with the Piedmontese Minister. Phonically suggested by their names [Fosco and Benso], the parallels between their figures are reinforced by their Machiavellianism, their aristocratic titles (both are counts), their corpulent frames and their Anglophile leanings” (25). The Count’s practically flawless English could possibly allude to his being an Anglophile. The study required to learn the language so well may betoken this. Certainly, Fosco is a Machiavel. His confession that he would have murdered Anne Catherick, had she not died before he had the chance, identifies him as such—even if he couches the admission in flowery prose: “I should . . . have assisted worn-out Nature in finding permanent repose [for Anne Catherick]. I should have opened the doors of the Prison of Life, and have extended to the captive (incurably afflicted in mind and body both) a happy release” (Collins 628). Never was a lovelier admission of guilt written. Fosco’s powers of rationalization here identify the Machiavellian tendencies in his character. Like the Count, Pesca is also associated with another figure, albeit a minor one, from the Risorgimento, Agostino Ruffini. Like Pesca, Ruffini taught Italian, was a political exile, and was slight of stature. Moreover he was characterized as trying to be very English in speech, even adopting English colloquialisms, and, like Pesca, he was known to be extraordinarily likeable (Rudman 220-22).
Perhaps the most interesting similarity between Fosco and Pesca, one that
has gone virtually unexamined by critics, is their similarities with Wilkie
Collins himself. Fosco and Pesca are
both characterized by their disproportionate sizes in the novel.
The Count is grossly fat. Hartright’s
concluding narrative contains an interview with John Owen, driver of the
brougham hired by Fosco to conduct him to the
Like both Pesca and Fosco, Collins was a man possessing several irregularities in his features and comportment, with several physical quirks and tics, including a cast in one eye, an appearance that was “weird and odd” generally, a protruding forehead, a weak chin, a slight stature (Collins was barely five foot six inches tall), disproportionately small hands and feet, and a nervous penchant for gesticulating and rocking in place, sometimes referred to by his intimates as being in a “Collinsian state” (Peters 100). Like Fosco, Collins also possessed “an idiosyncratic taste in dress. He shared his mother’s passion for clothes and her indifference to convention. . . . Wilkie favoured bright colours, shirts with checks or wide stripes. He had a fixed aversion to evening dress: his invitations to dinner always insisted on no dressing or formality of any kind” (Peters 100). Furthermore, he was noted for donning (by Victorian standards) rather eccentric dinner clothing: “light camel hair or tweed suit, with a broad pink or blue striped shirt, and perhaps a red tie” (qtd. in Peters 101). Under close scrutiny, it becomes apparent that both Pesca and Fosco possess too many similarities with Collins for the references to be merely happenstance.
By imbuing Count Fosco and Professor Pesca with some of his own characteristics, Collins incorporates yet another wrinkle within his Italian characters from The Woman in White. If Pesca and Fosco represent Collins’s ambivalence toward the English construction of an Italian identity, how does his inscription of himself onto these characters complicate the matter even further? The issue becomes more than just the English construction of an Italian identity, for Collins now presents, via personal testimony, the Italian construction of an English identity—his own. In his dress and demeanor, Collins often appeared more Italian than English. Consider McAllister’s description of the differences in dress between Italians and English:
Italians were usually depicted as wearing clothing which was bright, light, and loose, rather than dark and buttoned up, as was the English fashion, and this in itself implied more than sexual accessibility. In an increasingly mobile society such as that of the mid-nineteenth century, appearance became an important signifier of social position and even moral worth. . . . (McAllister 37).
In dress, at least, Collins appeared more like an Italian than an Englishman. And while only an external signifier, his choice of apparel was a conscious departure from the British image of propriety. Perhaps the exteriority of his clothing depicted the tensions inherent in the interior cross-culturalization that Collins must have felt. In his choice of clothing as well as his fiction, Collins pushes the issue of hybrid identities and interliminality between cultures even further.
Despite their similarities, Fosco and Pesca do possess some striking differences. To put it more precisely, they possess the inverse characteristics of one another. Perhaps their most obvious points of departure are their stature and demeanor. Fosco is larger-than-life. Tall, immensely corpulent, and charismatic, the Count is described by Marian Halcombe as bearing a striking resemblance to Napoleon (221). Pesca seems to embody everything that the Count is not. The Professor is tiny, and if he possesses any kind of charisma, it is by virtue of his comically whimsical demeanor. Fosco bears an almost unconscious élan, whereas Pesca’s self-conscious attempts to emulate the British are endearingly clumsy—his dress, his ham-handed attempts at athleticism, and especially his malapropisms. Fosco and Pesca, in short, possess a chiastic relationship, where the one appears to be the inverse of the other.
While not as readily apparent, the intrinsic differences in their respective characters—their mettle and their motives, so to speak—constitute the most noteworthy distinction between these two Italians from The Woman in White. From his first appearance in the novel, Count Fosco casts a strikingly dramatic impression. Even his name, Count Fosco, carries a portentous significance. The title “Count” emphasizes the nobility of his birth, and “Fosco” in Italian means “Dark, Gloom.” Hence, “Count Fosco” in this context suggests a “dark” character of “noble” birth; in other words, his name alludes to the “Prince of Darkness” (Caracciolo 398). Mysterious, grandiloquent, and suave, Fosco appears to be cut from a nobler cloth. Several of his gestures are anachronistic, even antiquated, but none more so than his assertion to have the “satisfaction of a gentleman” with Hartright, implying that the Count, having his reputation besmirched by the young painter, seeks to settle the matter by dueling with swords (Collins 605-06). While not unheard of in the nineteenth century, Fosco’s demand recalls an old-world sense of honor that is surprisingly out of place in Victorian London. Moreover, his demand that the duel should take place on the Continent, time and place to be named later by virtue of a letter that was also to contain a strip of paper indicating the exact length of Fosco’s sword, epitomizes precisely the Count’s self-aggrandizing eccentricities of personality. Nevertheless, overweening sense of self-importance and bombast aside, an examination of Count Fosco’s primary motivation for all of his intrigues, conspiracies, and plots of murder is shockingly puerile and mercenary. At the root of everything is Fosco’s basest desire: he wants money. Beneath the seemingly noble and sensitive exterior of old-world charm lies the crass, wanton desire for profit. Such a motivation ultimately undercuts everything for which Fosco purports to stand, revealing nothing more than the lip-service of a sideshow huckster, a con-man.
Conversely, for all of his comic antics, Pesca possesses by the end of the novel a depth of character, a gravitas, completely unanticipated by his earlier actions. Hartright’s depiction of Pesca lying pathetically in the fetal position, in “a hollow of shingle” on the ocean floor, practically eradicates any possibility of seeing the diminutive Professor in a serious manner (Collins 8). However, even more than Fosco’s name does, Pesca’s name speaks volumes about his character:
in Italian denotes the sweet fruit with the bitter kernel, namely the
“peach” (i.e. the engaging Pesca’s concealment of his links with “The
Brotherhood”); the suggestion that there is also in his name a reference to
the Italian for “fisher-man” (“pesca” also means “fishing”) is
reinforced by two of Collins’s allusions to Italian operas which voice the
political aspirations of the Risorgimento. (Caracciolo
Like the peach, Pesca is sweet. He is by far one of the most likeable and endearing characters in The Woman in White. However, as soon as his dark secret is revealed—his association with the Brotherhood—Pesca becomes a different man. Quietly speaking in his native tongue, the Professor explains to Hartright the defining principles behind the Brotherhood:
The object of the Brotherhood . . . is, briefly, the object of other political societies of the same sort—the destruction of tyranny, and the assertion of the rights of the people. The principles of the Brotherhood are two. So long as a man’s life is useful, or even harmless only, he has the right to enjoy it. But, if his life inflicts injury on the well-being of his fellow-men, from that moment he forfeits the right, and it is not only no crime but a positive merit to deprive him of it. (Collins 589)
Pesca’s words here are strikingly reminiscent of Salvatorelli’s in his description of the Carbonari. Clearly, Pesca’s association with the Brotherhood, with its compartmentalized structure, its safeguards against discovery and, above all, its demand that members adhere to the precepts of the organization upon pain of death, is uncomfortably analogous to modern-day representations of terrorist cells. Combined with Pesca’s sobering narrative of the Brotherhood, these facts force readers to reevaluate completely their conception of the miniscule Italian. Collins deftly replaces the clownish Professor Pesca with the Secretary of the Brotherhood, a position of authority second only to the President of the organization. At the opera, Fosco blanched merely at the sight of Pesca. Count Fosco, the man of action, who warned Walter Hartright, “you are now face to face with Fosco! If twenty Mr. Hartrghts were the stepping-stones to my safety, over all those stones I would go, sustained by my sublime indifference, self-balanced by my impenetrable calm. Respect me, if you love your own life!” (Collins 603). Yet this selfsame Fosco pales in fright in the presence of Pesca. Either Fosco is not nearly as brave as he purports, or Pesca is a much more dangerous, perhaps even deadly, character than he appears to be. Whereas Fosco appears grand but is comprised of shallow values, Pesca seems frivolous but is far deeper, and more dangerous, than anyone can see. Like different sides of the same coin, Fosco and Pesca, as they are mediated through their chiastic relationship, represent multivalent aspects constructing the Italian identity in Victorian Britain.
One final point to consider between Fosco and Pesca is their relationship to Italian society. Fosco, with his old-world charm and noble looks hearkens back to bygone eras. He symbolizes the grandeur of the Italian past, of Roman emperors and Renaissance artists. For all this, he is still at his core, mercenary and shallow. In this respect, Fosco represents the Italian identity mandated by the Victorian society, embodying the bourgeoisie’s depiction of the Italian. Surrounded by grand architecture and breathtaking artwork, the Italian people had fallen (in the eyes of the Victorians) to become a degenerate, animal-like race. Pesca, on the other hand, is initially characterized as a clown in the novel. However, with his association (through the Brotherhood) to the Risorgimento, he becomes a noteworthy individual in the text, one who demands, by virtue of his connections, respect. In this light, Pesca represents Collins’s personal understanding of the Italian. Between the two, then, is the tension that Collins felt between himself and his Victorian culture. In the examination of them both, a more complete picture of Collins’s Italian ambivalence arises.
Ultimately, one may argue that Collins did end this tension between self
and society with his conclusion to The
Woman in White. It must be noted
that Fosco was found murdered, with a “T” carved through his Brotherhood
brand, signifying “tradiore”—traitor
(640). In this light, Pesca triumphs
over Fosco, for the Count’s death must be linked back to the Brotherhood, and
Pesca is the Brotherhood’s emblem of authority in the novel.
Hence, one can perhaps see in Pesca’s triumph Collins’s hopes for a
Caponi-Doherty, M. Gabriella. “Charles Dickens and the Italian Risorgimento.” Dickens Quarterly. 13.3 (1996): 151-63.
Caracciolo, Peter. “Wilkie Collins’s ‘Divine Comedy’: The Use of Dante in The Woman in White.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction. 25.4 (1971): 383-404.
Woman in White.
Annemarie. John Bull’s Italian Snakes and Ladders: English Attitudes to
and the Victorians.
Catherine. The King of Inventors: A Life of Wilkie Collins.
Harry William. Italian Nationalism and English Letters: Figures of the Risorgimento and
Victorian Men of Letters.
Luigi. The Risorgimento: Thought and Action.
Trans. Mario Domandi.
Caracciolo; Caponi-Doherty; Rudman;
Milbank; McIntyre; Salvatorelli.
Peters; Caracciolo; McAllister;