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The Women in Literature and Life Assembly
of
The National Council of Teachers of English
Editor:  Patricia Kelly kellyp@vt.edu
Volume 5
Fall 1996


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The Mother/Daughter Dilemma: The Failure of Motherhood in Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White

Julianne White

The war over the rightful place women should occupy in society has raged for what seems like forever. Some women, dissatisfied with wife and mother roles, seek fulfillment outside these narrow boundaries only to endure all manner of criticism meted out by both men and women. This abuse manifests itself in political and public policy, in social ostracism, the social sciences, and in art which often directly reflects society's views that motherhood is the only acceptable role for women. Of all the aspects of a woman's life, none causes more controversy than the role of mother, a role still shrouded in mystery and myth. Psychologists have not made much headway in demystifying the institution of motherhood.

Sigmund Freud, in his famous 1914 essay "On Narcissism," indicated that because a daughter cannot clearly distinguish herself from her mother, no clear sense of self develops in women. Without a clear sense of self, women never fully develop into mature, moral beings. They remain baby bearers and carriers of society's dicta, never becoming individuals in their own right. This lack of self directly results from the female child's lack of separation from her mother. This myopic explanation for women's development does little to dispel some long-standing misconceptions about motherhood and women's capacity to love. In a different view, Nancy Chodorow indicates that "women as mothers are pivotal actors in the sphere of social reproduction" (11). In other words, mothers not only engender the human race, they also continually reproduce and reinforce the socially acceptable behaviors and expectations for their children, both male and female. Chodorow asserts that "[the child's] stance toward itself and the world all derive in the first instance from this earliest relationship" (78-9). The mother plays a critical role in the development of her daughter in particular. This relationship perpetuates the role daughters play in their interpersonal relationships, as well as in the role women play in the society overall. Chodorow notes the importance of "the girl's relationship with her mother, their interdependence and continuity, their lack of separation and differentiation, [and] their fluid and permeable ego boundaries" (qtd. in Hirsch, "Spiritual" 26). This concept clearly distinguishes mother-daughter relationships from women's relationships with their husbands and sons, as well as from relationships between men.

Mother-daughter relationships are also frequently the subject of literary discourse as well as psychoanalytical discussion. Nina Auerbach, in studying the work of novelist Jane Austen, points out that in Austen's world, "motherhood was not merely a biological fact, but a spiritual essence inseparable from pure womanhood. . . . Maternity alone was the seal of respectable female maturity" (173-4). In spite of this widely accepted attitude during the nineteenth century, Auerbach maintains that "throughout Jane AusteWs canon, mothers and daughters are at best indifferent and at worst antagonistic" (36). She makes much of Austen's decision to remain childless, as other nineteenth century women writers did, in order to escape the drudgery and servitude implicit in the role.

The psychoanalytic development of women as it is influenced by complex mother-daughter relationships appears in Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White. In fact, the failure of that psychoanalytic development and the difficult mother-daughter relationships in this novel nearly destroy any hope of the daughters' (Laura's, Anne's and Marian's) individual abilities to establish successful interpersonal relationships apart from their mothers.

Part of normal development is a child's separation from its parent. A separate identity is essential to psychological health. However, separation differs from disconnection. Separation is normal; disconnection stems from dysfunction. According to Carol Gilligan, "adolescence is considered a crucial time for separation.... female development has appeared most divergent and thus most problematic at this time" (11). Although psychologists recognize this process as problematic, it is also crucial; however, feeling disconnected evidences "the failure of family relationships" (56), which can and often does lead to despair. Gilligan continues:

To be a mother in the societal as well as the physical sense requires the assumption of parental responsibility for the care and protection of a child. However, in order to be able to care for another, one must first be able to care responsibly for oneself (76)

A young woman can and should separate herself from her mother, while remaining connected to her through respect, admiration, and love. This implies that separation from one's own mother precedes accepting responsibility for one's own child. The process of connecting and separating repeats itself with each successive generation.

In a literary sense, and especially nineteenth century literature, the process of separation seems more like disconnection. Marianne Hirsch says that 'in conventional nineteenth-century plots of the European and American tradition, the fantasy that controls the female family romance is the desire for the heroine's singularity based on disidentification from the fate of other women, especially mothers" (Mother 10). The heroine strongly desires disidentification: "The nineteenth-century heroine,

Anne, determined to shape a different plot for herself, tends not only to be separated from the figure and story of her mother, but herself tries to avoid maternity at all costs" (14). Sadly, the fate of the typical nineteenth-century female heroine seems to be to repeat her mother's mistakes in judgment.

In Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White, the three main female characters are all half-sisters, Laura and Marian sharing the same mother, and Laura and Anne sharing the same father. Laura Fairlie and her half-sister Marian did not suffer a violent disconnection from the late Mrs. Fairlie, a character who only exists in the novel's past. Marian plays the role of the mother from whom Laura cannot separate. Since Marian never fully establishes her own identity, she and Laura do not suffer disconnection or separation. Anne Catherick, who never really established a connected relationship with her mother at all, had to separate herself from three women: Mrs. Catherick, Mrs. Clements, and Mrs. Fairlie. A discussion of Anne's relationship with her biological mother and with her foster mother Mrs. Clements will follow. For now, Anne's inability to let Mrs. Fairlie go (as evidenced by her continual mourning and desire to join Mrs. Fairlie in the grave), to accept her death and to go on with her own life, represents her failure to separate from her. Separation not achieved becomes disconnection, dysfunctional.

Although separation from one's mother is natural, normal, and necessary, disconnection from her causes great despair and feelings of failure. Unfortunately for the young women in Collins' novel, disconnection from their mothers became a reality which they reluctantly had to confront. This disconnection, for the most part, was the direct result of the mothers' failure, in one way or another, either to nurture or to separate willingly from their daughters.

Ideally, mothers should guide their daughters and teach them how to live, how to love, how to make wise choices, how to accept responsibility, and how to have a successful and satisfying family life of their own. However, Mrs. Catherick. fails in these responsibilities almost totally because, like Edna in Kate Chopin's The Awakening, she is no mother-woman. The mother-daughter relationships in Collins' The Woman in White are extremely complex. The fact that the three main female characters are all half-sisters, shows that this complexity is by design. If Marian, Laura and Anne figuratively ,represent separate parts of one whole person, then Mrs. Fairlie, Mrs. Clements, and Mrs. Catherick also figuratively make up one mother, with both good and bad aspects. By far the most emotionally damaging of these relationships, however, is the dynamic triad between Anne, her biological mother Mrs. Catherick, and Mrs. Clements.

Anne spent too little time with Mrs. Fairlie too late in her life to offset the damage already done by Mrs. Catherick or to prevent her future emotional turmoil. Although Mrs. Fairlie made a huge impact on Anne, her kindness cannot and does not save her from her mother's machinations. After Mrs. Fairlie dies, Anne clings to her substitute, Mrs. Clements, who does the best she can in an untenable situation. She shows Anne compassion and sympathy, two emotions Anne's own mother seems incapable of feeling. Mrs. Clements takes the child Anne because, as she explains to Walter, "There was nobody else, sir, to take the little helpless creature in hand" (Collins 437). Even though, as Mrs. Clements explains, Anne "led but a gloomy life in my house, having no playmates, like other children, to brighten her up" (437), at least she lives there in a loving and supportive atmosphere. Mrs. Clements admits that Anne "was slow at her lessons, poor soul, and not so cheerful as other children-but as pretty a little girl to look at as you would wish to see" (437); however, she accepts Anne for herself, without using her for some ulterior motive, or to hurt others.

Unfortunately, neither the memory of Mrs. Fairlie nor the compassionate care of Mrs. Clements can undo the damage done to Anne's psyche by her birth mother, because "it is the failure of the real mother to nurture her child which sets in motion the negative forces in [this] book" (Leavy 131). In this conversation with Walter, Mrs. Clements gives the reader a clear picture of Anne's mother's failure to nurture:

"The wicked mother seemed to hate [the baby, Anne]-as if the poor baby was in fault!-from the day it was born. My heart was heavy for the child; and I made the offer to bring it up as tenderly as if it was my own."

"Did Anne remain entirely under your care, from that time? "

"Not quite entirely, sir. Mrs. Catherick had her whims and fancies about it, at times; and used now and then to lay claim to the child, as if she wanted to spite me for bringing it up. But these fits of hers never lasted for long.... She seemed to like distressing us both by parting us. " (Collins 437-8)

This passage perfectly illustrates Mrs. Catherick's wickedness of "caring for [Anne] one moment and pushing [her] away another.... [which proves Mrs. Catherick to be] one of the most chilling characters in the book-perhaps one of the most chilling in Victorian fiction" (Leavy 133). In her letter of confession to Walter, Mrs. Catherick. admits that she "was not over-fond of my late daughter" (Collins 494), considering her "a worry" and "weak in the head" (494-5). This mother simply does not want to bother with her slow and foolish daughter on a daily basis, for she reminds her of her own past weakness. Mrs. Clements' suggestion that Mrs. Catherick enjoys inflicting pain on her and on Anne (in addition to her antagonistic, exploitative relationship with Percival Glyde) indicates her desperate need to feel powerful. Barbara Fass Leavy says that Collins' description of Anne's emotional misery is a depiction of "a young woman . . . made ill by the absence of mothering during her formative years" (135). This succinctly places the responsibility for Anne's miserable life and her sad death on her mother. Frighteningly, Mrs. Catherick lacks remorse: she does not care that she systematically, ruthlessly, and easily destroyed her daughter's life. The disturbing, chilling conclusion of The Woman in White has as its stimulus this failed mother-daughter relationship. Anne Catherick. is the most tragic figure in this book, just as her mother is the "most chilling character in Victorian fiction" (Leavy 133).

These concerns about mother-daughter relationships are not limited to Victorian England. The mother-daughter dialogue crosses cultural boundaries as well. Marta Peixoto, in analyzing the work of Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector, notes that since the mother character in Lispector's fiction "cannot rule the life of her progeny, she despises them. By showing the lovelessness and will-topower of this mother's love, Lispector suggests that the role of the matriarch affords a false power that entraps women as well as their families" (298). Peixoto continues:

[Lispector's mother characters] start out and remain in spiritual isolation. Locked in desired yet limiting relationships to husbands and children, they find no allies in other women-mothers, friends, or daughters-who appear if at all as rivals and antagonists. Their only power lies in passing on an imprisoning motherly love to their children. (300)

This revolutionary idea flies in the face of the Victorian notions of motherhood as the "spiritual essence of pure womanhood" (Auerbach 173), and as the only power afforded to women. Ironically, these notions are directly responsible for the destruction of, rather than the continuance of, the familial structure. Instead of motherhood affording women purpose and empowerment, it makes them prison wardens, with their daughters as the prisoners sentenced to motherhood and to serve society. Without power in any other arena, women sometimes use the power of motherhood to abuse, to manipulate, and to control. Had Mrs. Catherick been given a choice, she would never have chosen motherhood or even marriage at all. Clearly, her lack of choice causes great suffering, misery, and grief Since the power to make decisions figures so prominently in healthy psychological development, perhaps only personal freedom is the answer.

Works Consulted

Abel, Elizabeth, Marianne Hirsch, and Elizabeth Langland, eds. The Voyage In: Fictions of Female Development. Hanover: UP of New England, 1983.

Auerbach, Nina. Romantic Imprisonment: Women and Other Glorified Outcasts. New York: Columbia UP, 1986.

Chodorow, Nancy. The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender. Berkeley: UC Press, 1978.

Collins, Wilkie. The Woman in White. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1991.

Gilligan, Carol. In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1982.

Hirsch, Marianne. The Mother / Daughter Plot: Narrative, Psychoanalysis, Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989.

------. "Spiritual Bildung: The Beautiful Soul as Paradigin." Abel,etal. 23.

Leavy, Barbara Fass. "Wilkie Collins's Cinderella: The History of Psychology and The Woman in White." Dickens Studies Annual 10 (1982): 91-141.

Peixoto, Marta. "FamilyTies: Female Development in Clarice Lispector."Abel, et al. 287.


Julianne White is a doctoral student at the University of New Mexico, specializing in Victorian literature. The author wishes to thank Dr. Mary Power for her invaluable assistance in the preparation of this manuscript.

© 1996, The Women in Literature and Life Assembly of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #1065-9080). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale.

Reference Citation: White, Julianne. (1996). "The Mother/Daughter Dilemma: The Failure of Motherhood in Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White." WILLA, Volume V, pp. 32-35.


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