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Ugo Foscolo’s ‘Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis’ and Wilkie Collins’s ‘The Woman in White’: A Case for Possible Influence

by Shifra Hochberg

Much critical speculation has been aired about the possible biographical, topical, and literary influences on Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White, an epistolary sensation novel that first appeared in serial form in 1859 in All the Year Round and took its Victorian reading audience by storm. First and foremost among the many theories is a now largely discredited biographical source stemming from what appears to be an urban legend promulgated by John Everett Millais’s son in his memoir of the noted artist, published in 1895. The memoir records the alleged nocturnal encounter of Collins and Millais, sometime in the 1850s, with a beautiful young woman dressed in white, screaming as she ran from a villa in Regent’s Park where she had been held against her will. This figure in white, according to Kate Dickens, sister-in-law of Wilkie Collins, was apparently Caroline Graves, who was later to become Collins’s long-term mistress. As Matthew Sweet, however, posits in his introduction to The Woman in White, the anecdote is unsubstantiated and was most likely a fictionalized borrowing from George du Maurier’s Trilby, published in 1894, which recounted the trials and tribulations of “a young woman in the thrall of the villain’s mesmeric powers” (xxii-xxiii).

A second putative source also noted by Sweet is the artist Henrietta Ward’s mention to Collins of a woman named Mrs. Coffin, who would haunt local cemeteries at night, dressed in ghostly white, scaring children who played in the vicinity. According to Nuel Pharr Davis, Collins apparently conflated this story with that of Caroline Graves’s escape from an unnamed villain (213), though Sweet suggests that “the attractiveness of the anecdote is probably a measure of its unreliability” (xxiii).

The most widely accepted source for The Woman in White, however, which was first suggested by Clyde K. Hyder, is in fact literary—namely Maurice Méjan’s Recueil des causes célèbres, published in 1808. Collins is reported to have purchased a copy of it in France in 1856 and appears to have been inspired by the story of Adélaïde-Marie-Rogres-Lusignan de Champignelles, Marquise de Douhault, with its elements of a disputed inheritance and forced incarceration for alleged insanity.1

I would like to suggest yet another possible literary influence on Collins’s novel that has not been noted by scholars, namely Ugo Foscolo’s Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis, first published in Italian as Ultime lettere de Iacopo Ortis in 1798 and later appearing in English translation in several editions between the years 1814 and 1818—a clear testament to its popularity in England.2 It is the contention of this essay that Last Letters provides a possible subtext for the two major plot elements in The Woman in White—forced marriage for financial gain3 and female madness. In addition, it also provides a model for nomenclature and the key element of female iconography in Collins’s novel—that is, women dressed in white, and more specifically, madwomen dressed in white. While Last Letters is quite brief, compared to Collins’s typically Victorian triple-decker—with its three “epochs” that mark the progress of the narrative—the broad outlines or lineaments of both texts appear to be more than coincidental and hence invite closer examination and scrutiny.

Of further interest, there is the presence of other plot motifs which parallel those of Collins’s novel, though these similarities are most likely merely coincidental. These include: the protagonist as tutor in the home of the woman with whom he falls in love; the heroine’s interest in art, the hallmark of any well-bred young woman’s accomplishments during the nineteenth-century; the tutor exiling himself from his beloved in order to avoid disrupting her marriage plans; and the references to political upheaval and intrigue in Italy, which foreground the action in Last Letters and provide a more subtle—but nonetheless significant—backdrop in The Woman in White. Likewise, as the title itself indicates, Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis has an epistolary structure, as does The Woman in White. Though striking in their similarity, these elements are probably unconnected, but nonetheless noteworthy.4

All of this is not to say that Collins consciously or deliberately modeled theme, plot, onomastics, or female iconography in The Woman in White along the lines of Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis, but rather that the strong similarities point to the likelihood of his knowledge of Foscolo’s novel, which may have provided some subliminal influence and indebtedness that is expressed in a series of thought-provoking parallels.

Ugo Foscolo was an Italian Romantic poet, novelist, and essayist who died in England in 1827, having spent the last years of his life in England, in self-imposed exile from his native land. Foscolo not only wrote sonnets and a well-received elegiac ode, Dei Sepolcri, “Of Tombs,” but he also penned one semi-autobiographical epistolary novel, Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis.5 His many essays on Italian literary figures were published in such periodicals as The Edinburgh Review and The Quarterly Review, and his essay on Dante, published in 1818, is said to have greatly influenced the revival of interest in the great Italian poet in nineteenth-century England. As his interactions with such British literary luminaries as Wordsworth, Byron, Thomas Campbell, and George Crabbe indicate, he was a well-known man of letters and even served as an advisor to the publisher John Murray regarding translations and new editions of works in Italian.6

Collins does not appear to have owned a copy of Last Letters—or at least none appears in William Baker’s admirable reconstruction of Collins’s personal library—and there is no mention of Ugo Foscolo in Collins’s collected letters.7 Nevertheless, in light of his deep and abiding interest in Italian culture, as well as his known facility in the Italian language, the likelihood that he had heard of Foscolo and perhaps read some of his works should not be discounted. This is not to say that Collins consciously borrowed from Foscolo’s text, but rather that he appears to have read it, either in the original Italian or in translation, at some point in time before he wrote The Woman in White.

Matthew Sweet, in fact, suggests that the name of Collins’s arch villain in The Woman in White, Count Fosco, appears to derive from that of Foscolo, though Sweet does not cite any specific context for Collins’s knowledge of the Italian writer. As Sweet writes: “One of Collins’s inspirations for Fosco seems to have been Ugo Foscolo (1778 – 1827), an Italian poet and patriot who fought against Austrian domination of his homeland. After the fall of Napoleon I in 1814, Austrian rule was restored in the Italian States, and Foscolo fled in exile to England, where he lived until his death” (Notes, 660-61, n. 5).8

It should be emphasized that Fosco is not merely an obese villain with a flair for the melodramatic and a fetish for white mice, but also that his background as a spy and former member of the Brotherhood—a secret Italian political society similar to the Carbonari, which was affiliated with the Risorgimento—recalls Ugo Foscolo’s political activism on behalf of a free and united Italy. When Marian Halcombe first meets the Count, for instance, she wonders whether or not “he has been made the victim of some political persecution” or whether, given that he had “not crossed the frontiers of his native country for years past” (225), “he may be a political exile” (226). Ultimately, however, she realizes that Laura is correct in more ways than one when she exclaims, “The Count is the vilest creature breathing! The Count is a miserable Spy—!” (301).

Certainly The Woman in White both begins and ends with reference to the political turmoil in Italy. Walter Hartright mentions the exile of his friend Professor Pesca in the opening pages of the story—”that he had left Italy for political reasons (the nature of which he uniformly declined to mention to any one)” (7)—and it is Pesca’s connection to the Brotherhood that will eventually prove to be the undoing of Fosco. As Pesca admits to Walter towards the end of the novel, “You have heard, Walter, of the political Societies that are hidden in every great city on the continent of Europe? To one of those Societies I belonged in Italy—and belong still in England. When I came to this country, I came by the direction of my Chief” (589). It is Fosco’s betrayal of the Brotherhood—and his recognition of Pesca, at the Opera House, as a Secretary of the organization—that provides the confirmation needed for the Brotherhood’s assassin, a “slim, light-haired man . . . with a scar on his left cheek” (584), to target his victim. Thus Collins’s novel begins and ends with reference to the political situation in Italy.

In addition, in light of the onomastic connection between Count Fosco and the figure of Ugo Foscolo, it can hardly be coincidental that Collins also emphasizes that Fosco is a writer. In Marian Halcombe’s diary entry of June 17, she notes, among the many details of the Count’s colourful life abroad, that he had written “preposterous romances, on the French model, for a second-rate Italian newspaper” (260). The connection between Ugo Foscolo and Count Fosco as writers of Romantic prose is further incorporated into The Woman in White in Fosco’s boastful confession of the conspiracy to incarcerate Laura Fairlie in an asylum for the mentally ill: “‘I shall make this a remarkable document . . . Habits of literary composition are perfectly familiar to me. One of the rarest of all the intellectual accomplishments that a man can possess, is the grand faculty of arranging his ideas. Immense privilege! I possess it. Do you?'” (607-608). At the conclusion of the document, there is even a reprise: “I announced, on beginning it, that this narrative would be a remarkable document. It has entirely answered my expectations. Receive these fervid lines—my last legacy to the country I leave for ever. They are worthy of the occasion . . .” (629).

The connection between Fosco and Foscolo, I suggest, might even be a covert critique and subtle indictment of the Romantic excess that typifies both the diction and tone of Last Letters, with Jacopo’s passionate, occasionally interminable, ravings about the lost Teresa and the lost cause of his homeland.((That Jacopo’s obsessions verge on madness is suggested when he admits, “My reason is sick and cannot put its trust in anything but sleep” (61). Eventually he resorts—in vain—to opium, in the hope that it will enable him to sleep and bring him some measure of tranquility (83).)) As such, the flamboyant diction of the Count; his monstrous corpulence, which makes him nearly larger than life; and his eccentric occupations—all of which verge on caricature—may well be a satirical allusion to the aforementioned discursive excesses that inhere in Foscolo’s depiction of the eponymous protagonist in Last Letters. Thus the allusion to Ugo Foscolo not only enables Collins to enrich his text with subtle referentiality regarding Foscolo’s novel and career, but it also allows him to satirize and comment obliquely on the Romantic literary style and discursive excess that typifies Last Letters.

While this is a style that Collins himself eschews, clearly he does not hesitate to make use of the characteristically Victorian sentimentality favored by his reading audience—an excess, perhaps, of another sort. This type of excess clearly informs his representation of Walter’s feelings for Laura, Marian’s obsessive love for her sister, which borders on the homoerotic,9 and—at least from the perspective of modern sensibilities—the exaggerated sense of duty to the wishes of Laura’s dead father, which denies Laura any autonomy or choice in whom she is to marry. When Collins kills off Fosco at the end of the novel, he is also, perhaps, symbolically killing off the Romantic rhetorical and discursive excesses associated with him, excesses that are even more flamboyant and extreme than his own text’s Victorian sentimentality. It is precisely, however, the Victorian sentimentality of Collins’s text which consigns Laura—in the truest Lacanian sense—to the positionality of object of the narrative gaze of the individual texts that comprise the overall macro-text of The Woman in White. A full discussion of the Lacanian poetics of representation in this novel is, however, beyond the scope of the present essay and will be left for future detailed study.((Regarding the idea of subject and object of the “gaze,” see Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1978) and Charles Rycroft, A Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis (New York: Basic Books, 1968).))

Of related, though tangential, interest, the female textual counterpart to the excesses encoded and satirized in Count Fosco is Marian Halcombe. Though she is the half-sister of the lovely and delicate Laura, Marian is ugly, with masculine facial features that create an intentional dissonance or representational rupture between her feminine figure, her voluptuous shape, and the nearly simian features of her darkly complected face, with its low forehead and heavy eyebrows (32). These features in fact raise the possibility of a subtly encoded Darwinian discourse, not unlike that used by George Eliot in Daniel Deronda, where reptile imagery is associated with Gwendolen, with Leonora Halm-Eberstein, Daniel’s mother, and with Henleigh Grandcourt.10 But again, a full exploration of this is beyond the scope of this essay, whose overt, intended agenda is simply to establish and adumbrate the connection between Ugo Foscolo, Last Letters, and The Woman in White.

The aforementioned motifs encoded by the allusion to Foscolo, which resonate ironically throughout the text, clearly indicate Collins’s interest in the inscription of subtexts through onomastics. Certainly the use of nomenclature to encode historical and literary subtexts was common enough in Victorian fiction, demonstrably so in the novels of George Eliot and in those of Collins’s friend and mentor, Charles Dickens. In this instance, the allusion to Foscolo’s status as a literary figure is what suggests the possibility of exploring the connections between his only novel, Last Letters, and The Woman in White.11

To begin, Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis was inspired by Foscolo’s hopeless love for Isabella Teotochi and based on Foscolo’s earlier prose piece, “Laura, Letters,” written after he escaped from Venice to Milan during his struggle against Austrian occupation following the Treaty of Campoformio in 1797.12 The love plot was intertwined with an equally important narrative strand, namely the failure of Jacopo’s dreams for an independent Italian republic, and as such the novel was loosely autobiographical, reflecting Foscolo’s disappointment in love as well as his inability to bring to fruition a political agenda similar to that of his protagonist, Jacopo, as already noted above.

Written in the form of letters from Jacopo to his friend Lorenzo and punctuated from time to time by Lorenzo’s italicized editorial comments, the novel’s primary narrative trajectory traces the story of an idealist who desires the unification of Italy and who is hopelessly in love with the beautiful and unattainable Teresa, who returns his love. The text is thus shaped by parallel themes of loss—disappointed love for a woman and disappointed love, as it were, for the homeland.

Jacopo has fled Venice because of political persecution, as is made clear in his first two letters to Lorenzo, sent from the Euganean hills and dated in 1797, the same year as the aforementioned Treaty of Campoformio: “The sacrifice of our homeland is complete. . . . My name is on the list of those proscribed . . . and I have left Venice in order to escape the first, and most ferocious, persecutions. . . . Ah, how often in despair of vengeance I feel like plunging a knife into my heart to pour out all my blood amid the last shrieks of my homeland!” (7). This initial exile not only prefigures Jacopo’s decision, later in the novel, to exile himself from Teresa in order to spare her further pain, but also contains the seeds of the novel’s conclusion, since it prefigures the manner of his eventual suicide after Teresa’s marriage takes place.13

Jacopo has been brought into Teresa’s family home as a tutor for her younger sister Isabella, and though Teresa returns Jacopo’s love, she is forced by her father to marry Odoardo, a wealthy nobleman from a politically powerful family, who can restore the family’s declining fortunes. The reasons for this forced marriage are made clear in one of Lorenzo’s editorial asides that punctuate the novel: “Odoardo was rich, and belonged to a family to whose protection Signor T*** was flying from the persecution and snares of his enemies, who accused him of having desired true liberty for his country, a capital crime in Italy. If, on the other hand, he were to ally himself with Ortis by marriage, he would hasten his own ruin and that of his family. Besides which, he had given his word . . .” (71). The two narrative trajectories—that of disappointed love for a woman and disappointed love for the homeland—are further connected when Jacopo muses that Teresa’s forced marriage is inextricably bound up with the political situation in Italy: “in other times she would have been able to choose another husband” (37).

The motif of marriage for money is reinforced at several junctures in the novel, since Teresa is not the only character—though she is clearly the main figure—to be traded away by her family in order to secure a stable financial future. Jacop for example, narrates the story of a young girl who had been the “sweetheart of our friend Olivo P***, and you know how he was reduced to poverty and could not have her for his bride? Today I saw her again, married off to a nobleman” (40).

While the motif of a forced, loveless marriage due to economic considerations is hardly unique to Foscolo or Collins—and thus could conceivably be dismissed as being merely coincidental—the subplot of Last Letters, which concerns the tragic figure of Lauretta, suggests a far more concrete connection between Collins’ and Foscolo’s texts. Lauretta’s story is told in a segment of the novel called “Fragment of the Story of Lauretta,” a text within the text of Letters, and—significantly, with respect to its possible relationship to The Woman in White—provides a model for the motif of female madness, dressing in white as an expression of that condition, and even aspects of female nomenclature.

Lauretta is a young woman of Jacopo’s acquaintance whose family is caught up in the political upheavals in Italy, and she goes mad and dresses only in white following the death of her lover Eugenio. “She is beautiful and still young,” Jacopo writes in his third letter to Lorenzo, “but her mind is unstable, and she is so sad at heart” (8). Like her textual counterpart, Teresa, her fate is also linked to the political undercurrent of the novel: “There, O Liberty, is another victim for you” (8).

Foscolo consciously conflates the figures of Lauretta and Teresa when he has Jacopo tell Lorenzo why he recorded the “Fragment of Lauretta,” thereby suggesting that the two women should be considered as symbolic counterparts or doppelgängers: “Through the story of that unfortunate creature I wanted to show Teresa a mirror of the fatal unhappiness of love” (46). In fact, Teresa’s father begs Jacopo to leave Teresa and not prevent the marriage to Odoardo by his continued presence: “Now have pity on me, and on your youth, and on Teresa’s reputation. Her beauty and her health are fading. Her heart is being consumed in silence, and for you. . . . Sacrifice your passion to her tranquility. . .” (72). Thus the father clearly suggests that Jacopo’s continuing presence in the family home will cause Teresa unbearable emotional and mental distress.14

While Jacopo’s original intention in writing the manuscript fragment detailing Lauretta’s descent into madness was to convince Teresa not to marry Odoardo, he ultimately abandons this plan. Leaving the family estate with a heavy heart, Jacopo heroically decides not to upset his beloved further by showing her a manuscript that could only make her wonder whether or not she, too, will meet a tragic and untimely end because she cannot marry the man she loves.

The thematic connections between the two women remain clear and constant throughout the novel, despite the fact that Teresa does not become mad or die, as does her ill-fated symbolic double, Lauretta. Foscolo clearly delineates the symbolic link between the two women through the use of striking iconographic similarities, since both appear consistently in white whenever their clothing is mentioned in the text and both women have blond hair.

Throughout the novel, Teresa’s is attired—unfailingly—in white. Jacopo, for instance, watches Teresa painting in her boudoir and notes: “She was casually dressed in white, the treasure of her blond hair overspread her shoulders and breast” (22). Like Teresa, Lauretta is blond (47) and appears dressed only in white (48), but unlike Teresa, she is actually driven mad by the loss of her lover. As Jacopo writes in his brief record of Lauretta: ” I saw her in the bloom of youth and beauty, and then I saw her driven mad, rambling, orphaned” (49). Perhaps the most conspicuous instance of her madness is narrated when Jacopo reports to Lorenzo that the last time he saw Lauretta, she was carrying “closed in her work-basket, a skull—and she lifted the cover, and laughed—and she showed us the skull in the midst of a cloud of roses” (60).

A further iconographic similarity between Lauretta and Teresa, pointing to their relationship as symbolic doubles, is that both wear violets on their breast. Lauretta’s blond hair is ” held by a sky-blue ribbon, and there were three withered violets on the centre of the linen which veiled her bosom” (48), while Teresa wears a “posy of violets on her breast” (53), violets that are as yet fresh and untainted by decay. Thus, to reiterate, the similarities in the representational codes used to depict Teresa and Lauretta, as well as the association of both women with disappointed love and the possibility or actuality of related madness, suggest they are essentially flip sides of the same coin.

Given the allusion to Ugo Foscolo in The Woman in White, as noted above—an allusion clearly indicative of Collins’ interest in encoding subtexts through onomastics and the concomitant likelihood that he had read or, at the very least, heard of Ugo Foscolo andby implication, his well-known novel, Last Letters—I suggest that Lauretta and Teresa are reinscribed in Collins novel. To put it differently, the two women serve as paradigms for Laura Fairlie and Anne Catherick. Thus the motif of female insanity; the representational or iconographic codes, which include white clothing and fair hair; and the similarity of names—Laura and Lauretta—appear to have been appropriated, unconsciously or perhaps otherwise, by Collins, pointing to the intriguing possibility of a subliminal textual influence.

That Laura Fairlie and her half-sister Anne Catherick are doppelgängers is, of course, a critical commonplace that needs no exhaustive documentation. As Collins makes clear throughout the novel, Laura and Anne are “the living reflexions of one another” (p. 97). Both women are limned with the same—or essentially similar—iconography throughout the novel, namely light brown hair that is nearly blond, and both are habitually dressed in white clothing. Moreover, Anne Catherick’s childlike behavior, which is inextricably bound up with her mental instability, is mirrored in Laura’s naïve, childlike behavior, which Collins is at pains to mention from time to time (187, 204).

While the primary objective of this essay is to adumbrate the likelihood of an Italian subtext to The Woman in White—a subtext that has never been identified before by critics—the allusion to Ugo Foscolo in Collins’ novel raises several issues that could form the basis for future investigation. First among these possibilities is the way in which recognition of the multiple resonances of Collins’ allusion to Foscolo lays the foundation for a possible exploration of the overall influence of Italian Romanticism and the Italian Romantic novel on Collins himself, in works other than The Woman in White, and on the Victorian novel, in general, though this is clearly beyond the scope of the present essay. As exemplar of the Romantic mode, Foscolo was valorized by many of his early nineteenth-century contemporaries within the British literary community, as already noted above, and his association with Bryon, more specifically, situates him within the group of writers who—as the well-known cliché goes—dragged the pageant of their bleeding hearts across Europe.

Second, the connection between Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis and The Woman in White suggests the possibility of exploring the differences and similarities between the gendered narrative trajectories of the two texts, with implications for the differences between Romantic and Victorian representations of such diegetic strands. For Foscolo, writing within the Romantic tradition of protagonists dying for love—young Werther, for example—and of women being forced to marry someone chosen by their fathers—Rousseau’sLa Nouvelle Héloïse, for instance, though Julie ultimately makes peace with her father’s choice—clearly there are no other narrative options for closure in Last Letters. The protagonist, Jacopo, dies for his beloved, who has been tainted by “the embrace” of Odoardo (134), and because his country has also been invaded—penetrated, as it were—by the Austrians. Collins’ novel, on the other hand, written as a Victorian text for a Victorian readership, has a happy ending of sorts—however we may wish to deconstruct it—with Laura restored to her inheritance, albeit through the birth of her son, her male progeny.

In contrast, the main villain of the piece has been consigned to eternal anonymity in a Parisian morgue. Fosco disappears from the text, nameless, with the clothing that had failed to disguise him as a French artisan hung near his corpse, and with what onlookers at the morgue perceive as “a strange mark on his left arm” (639). The brand of the Brotherhood has been obliterated by “two cuts, in the form of a T, on the left arm . . . , signifying the Italian word, ‘Traditore,’ and showing that justice had been done by the Brotherhood on a traitor” (640). While one might argue that the mark of traitor is itself an identity, signifying the only identity left to Fosco at the end of the novel, it is not unlike the scar on the cheek of Fosco’s assassin, which is the only signifier that identifies him, apart from his fair hair. In any event, Fosco’s true identity has been long lost, as is made clear in the biography Madame Fosco pens after her husband’s death. As Hartright reports, “The work throws no light whatever on the name that was really his own, or on the secret history of his life” (641).

As a third point of interest, the incorporation of an allusion to Ugo Foscolo enables Collins to enrich the narrative texture of The Woman in White by referring to contemporary events in Italy as a means of encoding his own textual agenda regarding the institution of marriage. To be more specific, the reference to Ugo Foscolo and Last Letters, with its linked motifs of thwarted political and personal agency, provides a model for Collins’ critique and representation of the institution of marriage and its ramifications for the fate of women in Victorian England. In Last Letters the failure of the political enterprise and its relationship to Teresa’s need to marry both for money and for political protection for her family lead inexorably to Jacopo’s death. Politics and love are thus inextricably bound up in Foscolo’s text, as I have argued above, since the themes of disappointed love for a woman—who is to be “invaded” and penetrated by a husband chosen for her by her father—and the invaded homeland are clearly metaphors for each other.

For Collins, the theme of Italian liberty that runs as an undercurrent throughout The Woman in Whitealso becomes a parallel to, and subtly enables, the inscription of his domestic agenda—that is, the need for women to be free of the patriarchal constraints of forced marriage. In other words, the freedom movement in Italy becomes a metaphor for a significant aspect of the textual agenda of The Woman in White, which is the need for female agency and liberty on the domestic front. Thus, Last Letters—with its twin motifs of liberty and constraint within political and domestic contexts—provides a model for Collins’ theme of the need for female choice in marriage; for his criticism of social norms that disempower women and incarcerate them, as it were, in the institution of marriage; as well as the social inequities that prevent marriage solely for love, generally speaking, in Victorian England.15 Seen within the biographical context of Collins’ life choices, namely his own refusal to marry, this seems to be entirely apt.16

Of further, related interest, the incarceration of Laura in an insane asylum becomes symbolic of the incarceration or enclosure of women in marriage as a result of patriarchal paradigms and concepts of their place in society. Clearly Laura’s imprisonment in the asylum is the direct result of her imprisonment in marriage to Sir Percival Glyde, facilitated by none other than Count Fosco. The asylum itself thus becomes a metaphor for the institution of marriage, and the theme of insanity becomes a representational code for the implications of women’s positionality in Victorian England and the space they occupy within the domestic realm.17

To conclude, the subtle referentiality that informs Collins’ choice of name for his arch villain, Count Fosco, invites a closer look at his overall knowledge of Ugo Foscolo’s life and literary achievements. The parallels between the pictorial iconography used to depict the two sets of female doppelgängers; the onomastic connection inhering in the names “Laura” and “Lauretta”; the associated narrative themes of female insanity and forced marriage for financial reasons—as well as the multiplicity of other, similar plot motifs, including the female protagonist’s love of art, the tutor in the house who must exile himself for the sake of his beloved, and the specific political backdrop of both texts—suggest the possibility that Collins was influenced by Foscolo’s Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis. At the very least, these similarities suggest that Collins had read Last Letters, either in one of its many English translations or in the original Italian, at some point in time before he wrote The Woman in White, or that he had heard of Last Letters in more than passing detail and with more than transitory interest.

While these parallels may not necessarily represent conscious modeling on the part of Collins or indicate a deliberate, imaginative re-rendering of Foscolo’s novel, an awareness of the likelihood of an intertextual connection between the two works serves to underscore the great breadth of Collins’ knowledge of literary texts—including his impressive familiarity with Italian letters—and, as such, points to the deep and complex wellsprings of his artistic inspiration. At the same time, the intertextual connection between Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis and The Woman in White also points to further, previously unrecognized aspects of Ugo Foscolo’s influence on nineteenth-century British letters.

Of further significance, as we have seen, Last Letters provides a paradigm for the twin motifs of liberty raised in The Woman in White —that of the Italian States, which subtly foregrounds the novel from its opening pages through the assassination of Count Fosco, and that of women in general, whose liberty to choose whom to marry is circumscribed by a patriarchy that condemns them to incarceration in the institution of marriage. This is echoed and paralleled by the theme of incarceration in institutions for the mentally ill, which, in the case of Laura, is the direct result of her marriage to Sir Percival Glyde. This motif of imprisonment in marriage, symbolized by imprisonment and enclosure in an insane asylum, is explored, however, only with respect to women in this text, despite the fact that the circumstances of Wilkie Collins’ personal life clearly indicate his attitude towards marriage as a state of restriction and circumscribed liberty for men as well.

For Foscolo, the madness motif associated with Lauretta and even Jacopo is clearly Romantic and is due to thwarted love, in contrast to Collins’ use of the theme as a trope for the incarceration of women in wedlock—a word whose double meaning, seen in the context of this study, seems entirely apt. Although Laura ultimately escapes the asylum and Sir Percival Glyde, finally entering a marriage of choice, her escape and union with Walter are offset by the clear fact of her mental deterioration after imprisonment in the asylum which had also confined her shadowy double, Anne Catherick. As for Marian, she escapes matrimony, we may surmise, because she has no fortune, has unattractive facial features that would prevent her from being the object of male desire, and—if some critics are to be believed—has a homoerotic attachment to Laura that would mitigate any wish, on her part, to be married.18

As a final and closing observation, recognition of the apparent connection between Foscolo’s text and Collins’s novel lays the groundwork for further investigation of the influence of Italian Romantic fiction—and its concomitant engagement with the politics of the Italian freedom movement—on the Victorian novel and its discursive reifications of the limitations of female agency and liberty within the domestic realm.

Works Cited

Baker, William and William A. Clarke. The Letters of Wilkie Collins. 2 vols. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1999.

Baker, William. Wilkie Collins’s Library: A Reconstruction. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 2002.

Brown, Sarah Annes. Devoted Sisters: Representations of Sister Relationships in Nineteenth-Century British and American Literature. Ashgate, 2003.

Caracciolio, Peter. “Wilkie Collins’s ‘Divine Comedy’: The Use of Dante in The Woman in White,”Nineteenth-Century Fiction 25 (1971): 383-404.

Clarke, William A. “The Mystery of Collins’s Articles on Italian Art,” Wilkie Collins Society Journal 4(1984): 19-24.

Collins, William Wilkie. The Woman in White. Ed. and introd. John Sutherland. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008.

—. The Woman in White. Ed. and introd. Matthew Sweet. London: Penguin, 2003.

Costantini, Mariaconcetta. “A Land of Angels with ‘Stilettos’: Travel Experiences and Literary Representations of Italy in Wilkie Collins,” Wilkie Collins Society Journal 10 (2007): 13-33.

Davis, Nuell Pharr. The Life of Wilkie Collins, Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1956.

Ellis, S. M. Wilkie Collins, Le Fanu and Others. London: Constable, 1931.

Erickson, Laurel. ” ‘In Short, She Is an Angel; and I Am—’: Odd Women and Same-Sex Desire in Wilkie Collins’s Woman in White.” In The Foreign Woman in British Literature: Exotics, Aliens, and Outsiders. Ed. Marilyn Demarest Button and Toni Reed. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1999. 95-116.

Foscolo, Ugo. Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis and Of Tombs. Trans. J. G. Nichols. Fwd. Valerio Massimo Manfredi. London: Hesperus, 2002.

Franzero, Carlo Maria. A Life in Exile: Ugo Foscolo in London, 1816-1827. London: W. H. Allen, 1977.

Gillespie, Gerald Ernest Paul. “The Italian Romantic Drama.” In Romantic Drama, ed. Gerald Ernest Paul Gillespie. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1994. 233-248.

Hochberg, Shifra. “Onomastics, Topicality, and Dickens’s Use of Etymology in Bleak House.” The Dickensian 86 (1990): 85-86.

—. “Onomastics and the German Literary Ancestry of Daniel Deronda’s Mother.” English Language Notes28 (1990): 46-51.

—. “Nomenclature and the Historical Matrix of Felix Holt.” English Language Notes 31 (1993): 46-56.

—. “Animals in Daniel Deronda: Representation, Darwinian Discourse, and the Politics of Gender.” George Eliot – George Henry Lewes Studies 30-31 (1996): 1-19.

Hyder, Clyde H. “Wilkie Collins and The Woman in White,” PMLA 54 (1939): 297-303.

Johansen, Lena Østermark. “Laura Answers Back: Lord Byron, Christina Rossetti and the Canzoniere in Nineteenth-Century England,” Renæssance Forum 3 (2007): 1-17.

Lacan, Jacques. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton, 1978.

Millais, John Guille. The Life and Letters of John Everett Millais. London, 1899.

Morra, Irene. “Wilkie Collins, George Eliot, and Italian Opera,” Essays in Criticism 57 (2007): 217-236.

Peters, Catherine. The King of Inventors: A Life of Wilkie Collins. London: Minerva, 1991.

Radcliff-Umstead, Douglas. Ugo Foscolo. New York: Twayne, 1970.

Robinson, Kenneth. Wilkie Collins: A Biography. London: Bodley Head, 1951.

Rycroft, Charles. A Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis. New York: Basic Books, 1968.

Simmons, James R. ” ‘Read the Name . . . That I Have Written Inside’: Onomastics and Wilkie Collins’sThe Moonstone.” English Language Notes 41 (2003): 69-75.

E. R. Vincent, Byron, Hobhouse, and Foscolo: New Documents in the History of Collaboration.Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1949 .

—. Ugo Foscolo: An Italian Exile in Regency England. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1953.

Wynne, Deborah. “Vidocq, the Spy: A Possible Source for Count Fosco in Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White,” Notes & Queries 44 (1997): 341-342.

Zuccato, Eduardo. Petrarch in Romantic England. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.


References

  1. All quotations from The Woman in White are from the Oxford World’s Classics edition, edited by John Sutherland (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008). See Sutherland’s exhaustive survey of the known probable sources for The Woman in White in Appendix B, “Original Sources forThe Woman in White,” pp. 659-661. Regarding Méjan’s Recueil, Sutherland cites Clyde K. Hyder’s “Wilkie Collins andThe Woman in White,” PMLA 54 (1939), pp. 297-303 and Kenneth Robinson’s summary of Hyder’s article in Wilkie Collins: ABiography (London: Bodley Head, 1951), pp. 126-127. Regarding Kate Dickens’s mention of Caroline Graves, Sutherland cites John Guille Millais, The Life and Letters of John Everett Millais (London, 1899), pp. 278-279. Sutherland contends that Millais’ story is an urban legend, citing Catherine Peters, The King of Inventors: A Life of Wilkie Collins (London: Minerva, 1991), p. 191. Sutherland also notes several cases of forced incarceration in 1858, which could have influenced Collins’s plot, as well as the impact of the notorious Victorian case of William Palmer the poisoner (Introduction, xix ff. and xvi ff., respectively). Also see Matthew Sweet, Introduction, The Woman in White (London: Penguin, 2003), regarding Kate Dickens’s assertion of the identity of the original woman in white, namely Caroline Graves, citing S. M. Ellis, Wilkie Collins, Le Fanu and Others (London: Constable, 1931), p. 28. Sweet notes the connection to Mrs. Coffin, the graveyard apparition dressed in white, citing Nuel Pharr Davis, The Life of Wilkie Collins(Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1956), p. 213. []
  2.  In “Laura Answers Back: Lord Byron, Christina Rossetti and the Canzoniere in Nineteenth-Century England,” Renæssance Forum 3 (2007), 1-17, Lena Østermark Johansen cites three separate editions ofLast Letters in English: in 1814, 1815, and 1818. See Johansen, p. 6, regarding Foscolo’s overall influence in England. All quotations from Foscolo’s novel are from Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis and Of Tombs, trans. J. G. Nichols, fwd. Valerio Massimo Manfredi (London: Hesperus, 2002). []
  3. Ironically, while Laura Fairlie’s father had intended for her to marry into a wealthy and noble family, Sir Percival turns out not only to be penniless, but illegitimate and hence not a baronet. In addition, both Teresa and Laura become engaged to be married before meeting Jacopo and Walter, respectively. Laura will eventually be united with the man she loves, while Teresa is forever bound to the cold, emotionally barren Odoardo, doomed to “live all those days in a deathly silence” (140). []
  4. It may also be noted that Jacopo dies with Teresa’s self-portrait hung about his neck (140), a gift from his beloved when they part. This motif is repeated—coincidentally or otherwise—in Collins’ text when Laura gives Walter the parting gift of “a little sketch drawn throughout by her own pencil, of the summer-house in which they had first met” (126), a memento of the time they had spent together. While Laura and Walter part with his lips pressed to her hand, “not in love, at that last moment, but in the agony and the self-abandonment of despair” (127), Jacopo receives a passionate kiss from Teresa: “Gazing at me with her large languishing eyes, she kissed me, and her moist half-closed lips murmured to mine,” as she cries out, ” ‘I can never be yours!’ ” (57). []
  5. Last Letters has been described by Johansen as “a complex synthesis of Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werthers, Rousseau’s La nouvelle Héloïse , Richardson’s Pamela, and Petrarch’s Canzoniere” (6), with Goethe providing a model for the suicide of a young man thwarted in love; Richardson and Rousseau providing a model for the epistolary mode and for the plot motif of an impoverished tutor in love with his beautiful pupil; Richardson providing the epistolary paradigm; and Petrarch providing the unattainable Laura—a prototype for Teresa. []
  6. For details of Foscolo’s life, particularly his years in England, see, for example, E. R. Vincent’s Byron, Hobhouse, and Foscolo: New Documents in the History of Collaboration (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1949) and his Ugo Foscolo: An Italian Exile in Regency England (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1953); Douglas Radcliff-Umstead’s Ugo Foscolo (New York: Twayne, 1970); Carlo Maria Franzero, A Life in Exile: Ugo Foscolo in London, 1816-1827 (London: W. H. Allen, 1977); and Gerald Ernest Paul Gillespie’s chapter on “The Italian Romantic Drama in its European Context” in his Romantic Drama (Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1994), especially 243 ff., regarding Foscolo’s influence on British letters. See Johansen, p. 6, regarding Foscolo as advisor to Murray. []
  7. See William Baker and William M. Clarke’s The Letters of Wilkie Collins, Volume 1: 1838-1865 and Volume 2: 1866-1889 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1999), as well as Baker’s Wilkie Collins’s Library: A Reconstruction (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 2002). For Collins’ knowledge of Italian culture, see, for example, the following: Peter Caracciolio, “Wilkie Collins’s ‘Divine Comedy’: The Use of Dante in The Woman in White,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 25 (1971), 383-404; Irene Morra, “Wilkie Collins, George Eliot, and Italian Opera,” Essays in Criticism 57 (2007), 217-236; Mariaconcetta Costantini, “A Land of Angels with ‘Stilettos’: Travel Experiences and Literary Representations of Italy in Wilkie Collins,” Wilkie Collins Society Journal 10 (2007), 13-33; and Clarke’s, “The Mystery of Collins’s Articles on Italian Art,”Wilkie Collins Society Journal 4 (1984), 19-24. []
  8. For a different view of a source for Fosco, see Deborah Wynne, “Vidocq, the Spy: A Possible Source for Count Fosco in Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White,” Notes &Queries (1997), 341-342. []
  9. Regarding lesbian interpretations of Marian and Laura’s relationship, see for example, Laurel Erickson, ” ‘In Short, She Is an Angel; and I Am—’: Odd Women and Same-Sex Desire in Wilkie Collins’s Woman in White,” in The Foreign Woman in British Literature: Exotics, Aliens, and Outsiders, ed. Marilyn Demarest Button and Toni Reed (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1999), pp. 95-116. Erickson asserts that “not to see a connection between Marian and current understandings of sexual identities is a misrepresentation of Collins’s text” (96) and that “It would be difficult for any reader to deny the homoerotic tension between Marian Halcombe and her half-sister Laura” (103). See also Sarah Annes Brown, “The Double Taboo: Lesbian Incest in the Nineteenth Century,” in her Devoted Sisters: Representations of Sister Relationships in Nineteenth-Century British and American Literature (Ashgate, 2003), 135-154, especially p. 141. []
  10. See my essay, “Animals in Daniel Deronda: Representation, Darwinian Discourse, and the Politics of Gender.” George Eliot – George Henry Lewes Studies 30-31 (1996), 1-19, regarding Eliot’s representational codes for Grandcourt, Gwendolen, and Daniel’s mother, Princess Halm-Eberstein. []
  11. Another obvious example would be the New Testament reference alluded to in the title of Collins’s novel, The New Magdalen. See also James R. Simmons, Jr.’s ” ‘Read the Name . . . That I Have Written Inside’: Onomastics and Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone,”English Language Notes 41 (2003), 69-75. Regarding Dickens, see, for example, my essay, “Dickens’s Use of Etymology in Bleak House,” The Dickensian 86 (1990), 85-86, regarding the topicality inscribed in Miss Flite’s name, as well as my essays “Nomenclature and the Historical Matrix of Felix Holt,” English Language Notes 31 (1993), 46-56, and “Onomastics and the German Literary Ancestry of Daniel Deronda’s Mother,” English Language Notes 28 (1990), 46-51, regarding Eliot. []
  12. Laura is, of course, an allusion to Petrarch’s Laura. For the influence of Petrarch in general, see Eduardo Zuccato, Petrarch in Romantic England (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), as well as Johansen, who contends that Foscolo’s essays helped popularize Petrarch specifically and Italian poetry in general in nineteenth-century England, with the result that the name “Laura” began to be used for upper-class fictional heroines (12). Thus, Johansen writes, like Petrarch’s Laura, Laura Fairlie is idealized and thus does not even have her own narrative: she is seen only through the eyes of others (13). []
  13. Foscolo’s text makes clear that Jacopo cannot bear to think that Teresa’s marriage to Odoardo has been consummated, “that she was no longer the virgin of two months ago, and that she was a woman polluted by the embrace of another (134), and that this is the primary reason for his suicide. Collins’ text is far more reticent on the subject of whether or not Sir Percival Glyde has been demanding his marital rights, touching on the subject only indirectly, when Percival replies emphatically to Fosco’s question about the likelihood of Laura having children: “Which she is not in the least likely to do—” (333). []
  14. In Collins’ novel, Marian tells Walter: “You must leave us for her sake, as well as for your own. Your presence, here, your necessary intimacy with us, harmless as it has been, God knows, in all other respects, has unsteadied her and made her wretched” (72), and Walter himself later describes his flight to Central America (180) as “that self-imposed exile” (415). Marian further emphasizes that Laura’s impending marriage is “an engagement of honour, not of love” (72), in obedience to her father’s wishes, like Teresa’s marriage to Odoardo. []
  15. It seems clear that Walter Hartright, who is on a different social level than Laura, can only marry her once she has been divested of her name and fortune—and possibly even her sanity—as signifiers of her identity. []
  16. In contrast to my reading of the Italy-domestic nexus, Philip O’Neil contends that the Italian motif signifies “an opposition between an insular propriety and what is identified as a foreign, continual disregard for appearance” (100). Foreigners are seen as a “threat to propriety” and to “the social hierarchy” (101). See Wilkie Collins: Women, Property and Propriety (Rowman and Littlefield, 1988). []
  17. Even Madame Fosco is tamed in marriage, her former personality—”capricious, exacting, and vain to the last degree of absurdity”—subsumed in obedience to her husband. As Marian writes, “If her husband has succeeded in bringing her to her senses, he deserves the gratitude of every member of the family” (193). Fosco himself remarks that in Victorian England a woman may not have “a private opinion of her husband’s principles” and that she must “unreservedly . . . love, honour, and obey him” (628). For a different view of female incarceration in Victorian fiction, see Elizabeth Langland regarding women confined to country houses by the patriarchy and the parallel to their confinement in asylums (4), in “Enclosure Acts: Framing Women’s Bodies in Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret,” in Beyond Sensation: Mary Elizabeth Braddon in Context, ed. Marlene Tromp et al, (Albany, SUNY P, 2000), pp. 3-16. []
  18. While it is true that Count Fosco appears to be sexually attracted to Marian—”behold, in the image of Marian Halcombe, the first and last weakness of Fosco’s life!” (627)—he is already married to Laura’s aunt. []

Ugo Foscolo’s ‘Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis’ and Wilkie Collins’s ‘The Woman in White’: A Case for Possible Influence by Shifra Hochberg
The Wilkie Collins Journal 11 (2012)

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