Photo: BBC/Origin Pictures

How does ‘The Woman in White’ convey important messages to modern feminists?

First aired on the 22nd April 2018, BBC1’s new five-part period drama The Woman in White caused viewers to ask: how far has society come in achieving equal rights for women? Set in Victorian England, during the 1860s, the novel by Wilkie Owens discusses the key themes of marriage and gender inequality within Victorian society.

Owens, a close friend of Charles Dickens, also raised important questions about society’s hierarchical prejudices and its treatment of mental illness: a controversial topic during this period. The author’s social commentary still conjures up an intriguing debate in the 21st century and the writers of the modern television adaptation have clearly paid attention to these discussions when showcasing their take on the literary classic.

Olivia Vinall plays the difficult dual role of the heiress and orphan, Laura Fairlie, and the mental patient Anne Catherick. The characters are visually similar and are both victims of Sir Percival Gylde’s (Dougray Scott) misogynistic cruelty. Jessie Buckley is superb in her portrayal of Marian Halcombe, Laura’s elder half-sister and close friend. Marian’s fearless character openly disputes gender inequality: “How is it that men crush women time and time again and go unpunished. If they were to be held accountable men would hang every hour of every day of the year”. The justice-seeking art teacher Walter Hartright is played by Ben Hardy. Walter’s respect and affection for Laura and Marian make him a paragon for the ‘HeforShe’ modern feminist movement. These main characters, although constructed over a hundred years ago, have been revived by the BBC to represent present debates about gender equality.

The author’s social commentary still conjures up an intriguing debate in the 21st century

Set during a time when women were treated like second-class citizens with limited rights, to men “reputation and money mattered more than wives and daughters”. Women of status were expected to marry and conform to their fathers and husbands wishes, often used as financial bargaining tools. The gendered expectations enforced upon the two female protagonists are hinted at through their costume. The corseted Laura exemplifies the physical and intellectual repression of women to the domestic sphere through the manipulation of their bodies. Clad in white, her dress symbolises the era’s obsession with innocence and virginity. Anne Catherick also mirrors Laura by wearing white, however, in this instance, her uniform reflects her involuntary internment at a mental asylum. In contrast, Marian’s outfits break away from the contemporary norms, as she confidently displays military-style jackets and loosely-fitted trousers. Her lack of conformation with strict Victorian fashions and her refreshing practicality imbue a sense of modernity which is recognisable to female viewers today.

Institutionalised gender inequality plagued the economic and legal systems. As a woman’s property and dowry became accessible to her husband upon marriage, men had a vested interest in out-living their wives. Only the male sex was given the privilege of being financial brokers and when widowed they would most likely get every penny of their wife’s fortune. Inequality in marital vows still exists today, with a stress on a woman’s duty to ‘obey’ her husband. Glyde takes advantage of his arranged marriage to Laura and plots with his accomplice, the exiled-Sicilian Count Fosco (Riccardo Scamarico), to utilise the physical similarities between Laura and Anne. They plan to switch the two women’s identities, claiming that Laura has died without having to murder anyone due to Anne dying of natural causes. In reality, Laura is trapped in the asylum. Fosco’s vested interest in faking Laura’s death relies on his wife’s willingness to help with the scheme by the drugging of the sister’s tea to stop them from resisting. Due to familial ties, Countess Fosco (Sonya Cassidy) would gain £10,000 from Laura’s demise which would ultimately become her husband’s possession. Madam Fosco’s part in weakening the sisters demonstrates gynocentric misogyny as she places financial gain above the safety of other women.

The corseted Laura exemplifies the physical and intellectual repression of women to the domestic sphere

Cut to a funeral scene as Glyde, Fosco and Countess Fosco overlook a tombstone with Laura’s marital name engraved upon it. The audience, having already suspected foul-play, are sceptical that Laura is really dead and are aware that the perpetrators are feigning mourning. Marian’s intense grief shows her deep care for her sister, although she also keeps a clear mind and suspects criminal behaviour from Glyde and Fosco. She and Walter, who has returned from travelling in Honduras, courageously investigate and hire Mr Erasmus Nash (Art Malik) to help reveal the plot. They gather testimonies and eventually gain sufficient information to visit Anne at the mental asylum. In reality, it is Laura who has been forced to take Anne’s place and is struggling in solitary confinement. In these scenes, the appalling treatment of patients is evident as Laura is unwillingly bound into a straight-jacket. Once again, having a similar effect as the corset, Laura is physically restricted by society due to its prejudice.

The production team play close attention to the literary devices which Owen created to help instil the uneasy atmosphere of the day. For example, the Gothic architecture of Glyde’s Blackwater house creates a sense of foreboding. The game of chess played between Marian and Fosco can be interpreted as a metaphor for the power struggle between the sexes. Dramatic irony is created as previous clips of witness testimonies are played throughout the episodes. This causes the viewer to shout out in dismay as Fosco covertly poisons a drink and hands it to Laura, which she unsuspiciously drinks due to her trusting nature.

Female viewers can still take inspiration from the unlikely source of a 19th century protagonist

In the final episode, Marian and Walter visit Limmeridge with Laura to prove to Frederick Fairlie (Charles Dance) that she is alive and has been victim to insufferable wrong. The importance of proving one’s identity to legitimise a position would have been all too familiar to contemporary readers, however, the modern-day audience is perhaps shocked by the disbelief shown by her uncle. A woman’s word was not enough to ensure men’s respect. However, Laura finds her resilience after enduring harrowing emotional suffering and sexual violence by Glyde. With the support of her sister and Walter, she is able to find refuge and pushes on, declaring, “I will not be hidden and protected, I’ve been a prisoner long enough, I want my name and my life back”.

At the programme’s denouement, following the untimely deaths of both Glyde and Fosco, we see Laura happily residing at Limerick with Walter and his mother. Most crucially though, our hero Marian is shown travelling around the globe, having found her freedom on her own terms. Marian, with her realistic flaws, represents a brilliant literary role-model for women. She goes to great lengths to reveal the truth and save her sister from evil men, even bravely climbing onto the roof of Blackwater house to listen to an incriminating discussion between Glyde and Fosco through an open window. Her compassion for her sister’s wellbeing and insightful bravery while defying patriarchal norms and the unequal judicial system are true attributes the modern audience can admire. Whilst the adaptation arguably overemphasises the importance of her individuality to a greater extent than the novel did, female viewers can still take inspiration from the unlikely source of a 19th-century protagonist who encourages them to fight the injustices against them with intelligence, courageousness and pragmatism.

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