Between Siblings: Performing the Brother in Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White and No Name

Oct 19, 2018 | Articles

Beth Leonardo Silva


The sisterly pairs of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (1860) and No Name (1862) are sensational in every sense of the word. Thrust into horrific circumstances, The Woman in White’s Marian Halcombe and Laura Fairlie and No Name’s Magdalen and Norah Vanstone are driven by their passionate sisterly devotion to overcome seeming insurmountable odds. More than demonstrating a remarkable bond of feminine affections, however, these pairs of sisters soon take on an even more sensational quality in that they begin to perform the role of the brother they never had. Closely observing the moments in which sisters act like brothers and brother-like figures support these women in ways that might even be considered sisterly, I argue that Collins breaks down the gendered categories of ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ in order to explore what the realm of sibling-hood makes possible. This reading furthers scholarship on these novels in two important ways.

First, building off the work of Vicky Simpson, I argue that Collins makes a spectacle specifically of the patrilineal family model. Pushing against a vertically oriented family lineage, Collins offers another model for the family, grounded in performed horizontal bonds, rather than inherited linear ones. These horizontal, or sibling-like bonds, open up as a ‘queer space’ in which identity can be performed, and where agency can be garnered through role playing. Second, I argue that appreciating the new familial model made available by this breakdown of traditionally gendered familial roles resolves what seems to be a deep tension in both texts between the critique of patriarchal norms on the one hand, and the heteronormative marriages which conclude the novels on the other. Thus far, scholars trying to resolve this tension have concluded that each of these novels ultimately undermines its critical narrative with a disappointingly conservative ending: one that ratifies the heteronormative marriage plot so integral to the preservation of patriarchy.[1] I argue, however, that Collins upholds his criticism through to the very end of both novels.

In The Woman in White, Marian emerges as a feminist character, directing men’s behavior, spying on their plots against her sister Laura, and performing courageous feats of strength and wit, only to have her heroism rewarded at the end with a tangential position in Laura and Walter’s marriage. Similarly, Magdalen in No Name refuses to accept the dictates of patriarchal coverture law and, upon learning that her uncle has denied her and her sister Norah every penny of an inheritance which is rightfully theirs, she takes matters into her own hands. Magdalen takes to the stage literally and figuratively, performing for a public audience that will support her revenge financially and for various individual men from whom she seeks her private vengeance. As with Marian, Magdalen’s striking boldness seems to be negated by the novel’s ending. She nearly dies of stress-induced illness, and is only saved by the care and concern of Captain Kirke, whom she ultimately agrees to marry. Furthermore, it is her sister Norah’s happy marriage, rather than her own mercenary ones, which secure the inheritance she struggled to win back. It is my contention, however, that in both The Woman in White and No Name Collins offers a sibling-like model for more sustainable, equitable marriages that can overcome the insufficiency of old familial structures.

I explore the space of the sibling bond as queer, not because of a hidden sexuality that rejects heteronormativity, but because of an open performance of non-normative familial bonds that resists existing power structures and attempts to reshape seemingly heteronormative bonds into radically more equitable partnerships. While the idea of a ‘queer space’ within the family may seem antithetical, I turn to Duc Dau and Shale Preston’s decision in their introduction to Queer Victorian Families to move away from ‘a dichotomy between family and queer life’ which inherently ‘maintains ahistorical notions of family and queer experiences’ and towards ‘a broader, contemporary designation of cultural deviations’ (4, 7). While many scholars focus on the queer sexuality between the sets of sisters in these novels, I adopt Sharon Marcus’ methodology of taking their intimate sisterly love at surface value, rather than trying to unearth their illicit lesbian relations. Like Dau and Preston, I recognise that ‘there are levels of exclusion among the marginalized’ (6). The performed horizontal bonds I discuss differ from other queer relationships in the degree to which they resist and rewrite the ‘ideal’ family. Acknowledging this, I concur with Dau and Preston that, while the performative sibling bonds I study may ‘appear less non-normative than do others, they all deviate from the family “in its essential type”’ (6). I therefore turn to queer studies as a way of unpacking the non-normative bonds in The Woman in White and No Name, not because I am particularly invested in the sexuality of the subjects but because, more broadly, it is the methodology most attune to discussions of non-standard family dynamics and the ways in which those dynamics resisted the problematic power structures of patriarchy.

Liminal Bodies

Both The Woman in White and No Name begin with the failure of patrilineal bonds. Marian and Laura of The Woman in White and Magdalen and Norah of No Name all lack a father figure who has adequately provided for them. Laura’s father, before his death, had sanctioned the fateful engagement with the treacherous Sir Percival Glyde. Laura confesses to Sir Percival  ‘my father’s influence and advice had mainly decided me to give you my promise’ and she cites this advice as the reason she continues to uphold her engagement (WIW 168). Her father is thus directly responsible for all the horror that ensues from that relationship. Similarly, Mr. Vanstone had brought Magdalen and Norah into the world out of wedlock and fails to correct his will after he finally marries their mother, thus exposing them to abject poverty at his untimely death. These women lack not only competent fathers, but also brothers of any sort, leaving the family structure void of a patriarchal authority figure. As each novel progresses, the failures of the father, and thus patriarchy in general, become ever more apparent. In this crisis, neither Marian nor Magdalen turns to a normative romantic suitor as a means of escape to another family. Instead, both rise to the occasion by shoring up the horizontal bonds necessary to preserve their existing family: i.e. their relationship with their respective sisters. Initially, this requires only a greater performance on their part of roles within their existing family structure: both Marian and Magdalen move beyond imagined boundaries of gender roles and embody the brotherly qualities necessary to provide for themselves and their respective sisters. When the difficulty of their circumstances requires not just brotherly qualities but also literal brothers, they then cast willing men to support their role. Marian directs Walter and Magdalen directs Captain Wragge in how to perform the role of a helpful brother. The horizontal plane of the sibling dynamic opens up a space in which gendered duties are usurped by whoever is most equipped to perform them, regardless of birth or social position. Even as the women turn to specific men for help, they direct the men’s roles and the men submissively obey.

Marian and Magdalen’s complicated performance and casting have a fascinating consequence on traditional familial patterns: the very categories of ‘brotherly’ and ‘sisterly’ begin to break down. ‘Brotherly’ and ‘sisterly’ indicate roles generally assigned to a specific gender of the sibling unit. In both of these novels, however, women perform tasks that would otherwise be called ‘brotherly’ and men accept supporting roles that might otherwise seem ‘sisterly.’ And yet it is not enough to say that the women are like brothers and the brothers are like sisters, for the sisters do love each other as sisters and appreciate the men as brother-like. If this seems confusing, then that very confusion illustrates my point about the limitations of these gendered familial categories. As these lines continue to blur one thing becomes clear: there is room within a sibling or sibling-like bond to act outside of gendered categories. The gendered quality of distinctions between ‘brotherly’ and ‘sisterly’ acts fail to make sense.  To put it another way, it is not accurate to say that Walter and Captain Wragge perform masculine, brotherly roles so that Marian and Magdalen can freely perform sisterly ones. Rather, Marian and Magdalen break down the normative categories of brother and sister, moulding familial relationships which rely on ability, rather than inherited qualities of gender or biological place. Therefore, the terms ‘brotherly’ and ‘sisterly’ in this essay, are not merely synonymous with ‘male sibling’ and ‘female sibling’ positions. Rather, they mark those places where the rigid gender distinctions we assume the Victorians clung to were in fact collapsing in radical and productive ways.

In ‘Queering the Sensation Novel,’ Richard Nemesvari discusses how each of the foundational sensation novels he analyses, ‘explores as a significant subtext the issue of sexual identity by providing characters whose deviation from an acceptably gendered heteronormativity introduces the sensational possibility of queer alterities’ (70–71). The ‘sensational possibility’ that opens up in The Woman in White through ‘queer alterities’ becomes evident from the first time that Walter meets Marian. Awed by the silhouette of Marian’s figure, Walter is shocked to find that when she turns around her womanly shape belies a masculine face: ‘The lady’s complexion was almost swarthy, and the dark down on her upper lip was almost a moustache. She had a large, firm, masculine mouth and jaw […] [a] masculine form and masculine look’ (WIW 35). Walter is deeply unsettled by the contrast between his expectation of womanhood and the version of it that Marian embodies. He is so disturbed that he considers it an error in nature (WIW 34). Nemesvari argues that this ‘demonstrates the disconcerting power queerness has to disrupt categorical thinking,’ specifically in so far as Marian reveals that she will not conform neatly to Walter’s categories of what is masculine or feminine (72). Even more disruptive than Marian’s blurring of the categories of masculine and feminine, however, is the effect this renegotiation has on familial roles.  As Marian challenges normative gender roles, she also breaks down the gendered categories of brother and sister. Without a brother to protect and act for her, Marian partially embodies that brother herself. As Ruth Perry notes in Novel Relations, ‘sisters depended on their brothers for financial support and occasionally establishment, for legal advice and public negotiation, for mobility and escorted travel, and for social and sexual protection’ (154). Lacking a biological brother, Laura and Marian perform all of these tasks for each other: Laura provides Marian with financial support and negotiates to share her home with Marian after her marriage, Marian offers Laura legal advice and refuses to sign a pernicious document which would swindle Laura of her inheritance. Marian also negotiates with Count Fosco for Laura’s well-being, and agonises over how to best protect her sister. The sisters are therefore capable of performing the essential tasks of brotherhood.

One of Marian’s most successful performances of the brotherly role occurs early in the novel when she respectfully requests that Walter leave the estate, as he and Laura have developed an impossible attachment. This act is brotherly, not only in that Marian is essentially negotiating Laura’s suitors for her and protecting her marriage interest, but also in the very masculine manner by which she handles the situation. Indeed, she shows far more strength than Walter, and ‘steadies’ him by counselling him to ‘crush’ his weakness (WIW 73). After twice demanding that Walter shake hands with her as ‘a friend’ Marian boldly declares ‘Don’t shrink under it like a woman. Tear it out: trample it under foot like a man!’ (WIW 73).  When suitors such as Walter are respectful and gentlemanly, Marian’s assertive strength is more than adequate to serve Laura’s needs. The sibling bond, stripped of the gendered distinction between brother and sister, allows Marian the room to perform whatever role best serves her and Laura’s interests. Insofar as Marian can perform this duty, she and Laura are far less vulnerable in the marriage market.

In No Name, Magdalen also demonstrates a uniquely queer female body, although not in the expected sense of a particularly complex sexual identity or orientation. Though less overtly masculine than Marian, Magdalen’s body is still outside the norm of the female body, ripe with ‘exuberant vitality,’ ‘matchless health and strength,’ ‘overflowing physical health which strengthened every muscle, braced every nerve,’ and a height ‘taller than her sister’s, taller than the average woman’s height’ (NN 9). Thus, even before we are acquainted with her talent to perform, Magdalen stands out as a woman who exists beyond the expected scope of womanhood. More vital to Magdalen’s queer identity, however, is her ability to flawlessly perform others’ identities in order to gain agency. Referring to the queer subject in general, Dau and Preston claim: ‘The position occupied by a queer subject makes possible a variety of possibilities to restructure his or her relations with power and desire’ (7).  It is in this sense that Magdalen is queer. In each of the many roles Magdalen plays, her embodiment of a given subject is always calculated to manipulate the people around her and to open up new possibilities for how she might achieve her ends. These roles, moreover, are in no way confined by normative gender categories.

Magdalen pushes the boundaries of assumed gender roles early in the novel, when she first learns that she is penniless and decides that she must therefore give up her childhood love, Frank Clare. Speaking to Frank’s father she declares ‘You don’t know what I can suffer for Frank’s sake. He shall never marry me, till I can be […] the making of his fortune. He shall take no burden, when he takes me; I promise you that! I’ll be the good angel of Frank’s life; I’ll not go a penniless girl to him’ (133). Magdalen here casts herself as a decidedly masculine lover insofar as she meets with Frank’s father to discuss how she might best plan for Frank’s financial well-being. She rejects the idea of being a burdensome ‘girl’ and asserts that she will only marry Frank if she is ‘the making of his fortune’, which is a gentlemanly decision. And yet, Magdalen also labels herself with the markedly feminine term of Frank’s ‘good angel’. She does not see the roles of ‘angel’ and provider as mutually exclusive, but as equally necessary to meet Frank’s needs. The complexity of her character does not go unnoticed by Frank’s father, who advises Norah, ‘be careful how you manage that sister of yours […] she has one great misfortune to contend with: she’s not made for the ordinary jog-trot of a woman’s life […] her future will be no common one’ (134). This warning foreshadows, not simply the heroic lengths to which Magdalen goes to retrieve the fortune for herself and her sister, but also the way in which Magdalen’s performance of these roles complicates the issue of gender. Whether calculating how she can best improve the financial prospects of her lover or exact revenge for her sister, Magdalen uses her feminine wiles to perform her roles with a masculine tenacity.

Thus, both Marian and Magdalen can be understood as queer in the sense that they seize whichever role will empower them to help others, regardless of how society might gender those roles. Though each of their bodies is, to an extent, representative of a queer alterity, their actions go further in pushing the boundaries of what is known and possible. Specifically, when they feel called upon to act for the benefit of their sister, both women take advantage of the liminal space made available within the realm of siblinghood. As a result, alternative horizontal relationships begin to emerge: relationships in which sisters can perform duties normally designated for a brother.

In Need of a Brother

Unfortunately, there are limits to each woman’s ability to perform her brotherly duty. Simpson argues that the ultimate premise of No Name is that ‘the modern family will have to break from the past and be conceived, performed, and legislated in radical new ways’ (118). The same can also be said for The Woman in White. Betrayed by a patrilineal family model, both Marian and Magdalen must negotiate not only how to perform new familial roles, but also how to secure external familial ties when their performances fail to be sufficient.

In The Woman in White, Marian is successful in performing both sisterly and brotherly duties for Laura as long as suitors are behaving in a manner as upright as Walter’s. Laura’s fiancé Sir Percival and his friend Count Fosco are not gentlemen in the moral sense of the word, though their social status as gentlemen initially hides their corrupt characters. As soon as Marian begins to question Sir Percival’s intentions towards Laura, she recognises the potential weakness of her position and takes the additional precaution of recruiting Walter as a brotherly advocate. Taking Walter’s hands ‘with the strong steady grasp of a man,’ she promises him, ‘I will trust you as my friend and her friend; as my brother and her brother’ and then places a ‘sister-like’ kiss on his forehead (WIW 125). It is important that it is Marian who initiates and orchestrates this relationship. She is not accepting, but extending the offer: she defines the terms on which Walter will be allowed the opportunity to assist the sisters. This is not therefore a testament to her weakness as a woman, but rather her ingenuity as a sibling who is willing to mould a friendship into the brotherly figure necessary for her and Laura’s security.

In this one moment, Marian has both the strength of a man and the delicacy of a woman. Her action here cannot be described as either brotherly or sisterly, but merely sibling-like. Similarly, Walter is being cast as a brother, but his passive compliance and tearful response complicate this as well. When Marian instructs him to ‘Wait here alone, and compose yourself,’ he tearfully obeys; ‘I turned away to master myself’ (WIW 125). His response can most accurately be described as generally sibling-like with no predominance over the gender of the sibling position. To complicate matters further, although Marian is strong while Walter is weak, her strength has a feminine quality in so far as Walter describes ‘the force and energy of her face glowed and grew beautiful with the pure inner light of her generosity and her pity’ (WIW 125). The very categories of ‘sisterly’ and ‘brotherly’ roles are everywhere being challenged. Though Marian co-opts the title of ‘brother’ as a known category, she is in fact crafting a new familial role that is not bound to gendered norms. While I continue to use her designation of brother-like figure, part of my point is that a new relationship is in fact being formed.

Unsure that Walter can prioritise his newly promised brotherly devotion over his romantic interest, Marian sends him away. However, she soon comes to regret it. As the danger heightens and Marian becomes less and less able to protect her sister, she increasingly laments the lack of a brother figure. She records in her diary ‘No father, no brother- no living creature but the helpless, useless woman who writes these sad lines’ (WIW 194). This lack of a brotherly figure is linked to Marian’s deep regret over separating Laura and Walter, and she confesses ‘his life and her life lay wasted before me in mute, unendurable reproach’ (WIW  261). A third time, Marian remorsefully records ‘We two women had neither father, nor brother, to come to the house, and take our parts’ (WIW 306). Although Marian seems to lament the absence of both a father and a brother, it is in fact the father who has set this horror into motion. It thus becomes apparent that only the brother-like figure can overcome the inadequacies the patriarchy.

Even as Marian uses the term ‘brother’, however, it is the brother-like figure of Walter that she truly desires. This distinction between ‘brother’ and ‘brother-like’ is crucial to my argument, because it emphasises the non-normative quality of the bond Marian desires. A brother would have been a direct inheritor of the patriarchal legacy. A brother-like figure, on the other hand, is moulded by Marian to meet the specific needs of her delicate situation. Marian continues to perform her duties as well as she is able, mitigating Sir Percival’s villainous deeds through shrewd negotiations with Count Fosco and giving wise counsel to her sister. There is little else that a brother could have done, and she and her sister do survive the trauma. It is Marian who successfully releases Laura from the insane asylum in which she has been held captive due to Count Fosco’s machinations. It is only after the sisters’ successful escape that Walter again enters the novel. His role is to perform the task that she cannot: revenge.

In No Name, Magdalen, too, decides to recruit a family member to assist her in achieving both wealth and revenge. This calculated motivation does not disqualify the relationship from being a familial one. As Simpson notes, ‘most relationships, including the marriage bond, are predicated upon some kind of contractual arrangement of caring and financial reciprocity’ (122). While Marian recognises in Walter a mutual affection for Laura, Magdalen cultivates her relationship with Captain Wragge firstly out of a financial interdependence. Captain Wragge has no biological claim on the Vanstone family but, believing that the Vanstones’ are wealthy, and finding Magdalen has run from home, he presumes upon his connection as a distant step-brother of Magdalen’s mother. Musing that he shall be able to manipulate and therefore profit off of Magdalen, he concludes, ‘I always have looked upon her- I always shall look upon her- in the light of niece’ (NN 153). Yet despite his claim to an avuncular relationship with Magdalen, I would suggest that Captain Wragge is more appropriately understood as a sibling-like figure. When Captain Wragge insists on his avuncular relationship to Magdalen, he is attempting to take advantage of the social and legal power that title would grant him. It highlights his initial desire to manipulate her for his own financial gain. It quickly becomes apparent, however, that it is Magdalen who calls the shots. Blinded by confidence in his own skills of manipulation, Wragge believes that serving as Magdalen’s performance agent will allow him to skim off the top and rob her of vast quantities of money. To his dismay, his attempts are foiled at every turn. He complains:

Our arrangement is eminently satisfactory, except in one particular. She shows a morbid distrust of writing her name at the bottom of any document which I present to her; and roundly declares she will sign nothing […] When it ceases to be to her interest, she plainly threatens to leave off at a week’s notice. A difficult girl to deal with: she has found out her own value to me already. One comfort is, I have the cooking of the accounts; and my fair relative shall not fill her pockets too suddenly, if I can help it. (NN 191)

In other words, having been betrayed by her biological uncle, Michael Vanstone, Magdalen is now wise enough to avoid being duped by Captain Wragge. She takes advantage of the services he offers, but only to the extent that they serve her purposes. Knowing his character, she sees him as a useful pawn for performing necessary investigations into the whereabouts of her biological uncle, as well as for executing the charade by which she marries that uncle’s son, her biological cousin, who has usurped her fortune. However, not once does she allow Captain Wragge the upper hand. At the end it is even revealed that the money Captain Wragge believed he was dexterously stealing with his ‘cooking of the accounts’ was accounted for by Magdalen. When he confesses how he has cheated her Magdalen responds: ‘I know you cheated me […] you were in the exercise of your profession, Captain Wragge. I expected it when I joined you’ (NN 414). Captain Wragge’s failure to cheat Magdalen or, more accurately, Magdalen’s ability to stay one step ahead of Captain Wragge, thus signals, ironically, a more equitable relationship than could be described in avuncular terms. This is a novel in which the uncle is the primary villain, the one who successfully cheats Magdalen and her sister of their inheritance. It is inappropriate, then, to cast Captain Wragge into a similar category, even when he claims it for himself. Instead, he serves as a brother because he works as her equal to further her aims and eventually comes to genuinely care for her interests.

The mutual intimacy Magdalen cultivates with Captain Wragge becomes clearer when we consider how it contrasts with the disgust surrounding the figure of the biological uncle throughout No Name. As Simpson points out, Magdalen is so offended by the betrayal of her paternal uncle that she distances herself from him ‘by referring to Michael as ‘my father’s brother,’ or a relative of a relative, rather than as her own uncle’ (125). With Captain Wragge, on the other hand, Magdalen claims a direct connection. As she struggles to fulfil her mission of vengeance, Magdalen requests of Captain Wragge: ‘Be friends with me again’ (NN 358). Captain Wragge is receptive to her plea, as the narrator notes: ‘There was genuine regret in his face […] he was human; and she had found her way to the lost sympathies in him which not even the self-profanation of a swindler’s existence could wholly destroy’ (NN  358, 359). That is, in addition to calling the shots in terms of when and how Captain Wragge is to proceed in assisting her revenge, Magdalen also claims that the relationship between them is one not only of business partners, but also friendship. Indeed, this friendship soon takes precedence over the business relationship, as Captain Wragge observes the toll their scheme for revenge takes on Magdalen and becomes ‘ill at ease’ (NN 387). Placing Magdalen’s well-being before his own greed, Captain Wragge denounces his share in the spoils if the price of success is Magdalen’s life ‘”Damn the two hundred pounds!” he said. “Two thousand wouldn’t pay me for this!”’ (NN 387). He refuses to go on with the plan until Magdalen asserts beyond all doubt that she desires him to continue ‘of her own free will’ (NN 388).

Finally, and perhaps most persuasively, Captain Wragge serves as a compelling horizontal, rather than avuncular, bond at the very end of the novel when Magdalen is recovering from a near fatal illness and Captain Wragge alone is trusted to serve her. The narrator explains the particular advantage which his friendship, as a constructed horizontal bond, offers: ‘strangers undertaking the responsibility might ignorantly jar on past recollections, which it would, perhaps, be the death of her to revive too soon. Near relatives might, by their premature appearance at the bedside, produce the same deplorable result […] the captain was now seated at Magdalen’s bedside in discharge of the trust confided in him’ (NN 588). The bond which Magdalen initially developed with Captain Wragge for purposes of vengeance and financial gain becomes not only a sentimental attachment, but also the very means by which her life can be preserved.  As Simpson elaborates, ‘the very real emotional connection that develops between Wragge and Magdalen […] may be seen as more genuine than any other model in the novel because […] it is a genuine partnership, one in which each puts up with the shortcomings of the other in order to realize a mutually desirable goal’ (emphasis mine 127). What begins as Captain Wragge’s proposal for an avuncular relationship in which he is free to take advantage of her (and thus perpetuate the existing issues of patriarchy) is quickly reshaped by Magdalen into a mutually beneficial business partnership and friendship.[2] It is a horizontal bond which Magdalen needs and a horizontal bond that Magdalen thus crafts.

What Simpson writes of No Name is therefore true for The Woman in White as well: ‘family is not a static entity that works as a singular body but is instead a fluid and unstable complex of relations’ (123). Crucially, it is specifically the sister who constructs these more dynamic, equitable familial networks by fortifying horizontal bonds with brother-like figures. In The Woman in White, Marian laments that she does not have a biological brother but, rather than resigning herself to this fact, she fluidly shifts between the roles of sister and brother to satisfy her ends, and forges a new relationship with Walter to further strengthen her family. In No Name, Magdalen lacks a brother to support and defend her financial well-being, so she fluidly takes on the brotherly role of revenge and financial profit, soliciting the help of Captain Wragge to support her in her endeavours.

The Problem of Anne

As empowering as Marian and Magdalen find performing the role of brother and moulding other horizontal bonds into sibling-like attachments, both The Woman in White and No Name warn that such performance has potentially serious, even deadly consequences. Magdalen, who, at the beginning of No Name simmers with strength and vitality, ends it in a month-long convalescence that, were it not for the brotherly (or, perhaps more accurately, sisterly) compassion of Captain Kirke, would have ended in her death. In The Woman in White Marian and Laura also experience near-death illnesses and, in the case of Laura, a narrow escape from an asylum. But all of these incidents pale in comparison to the fate of Anne Catherick, Laura’s other half-sister, who literally gives her life to save Laura’s. Tara Macdonald spells out the risk inherent in this darker side of performance: ‘The sensational novel thus details how acts of imposture can be empowering performances of self-creation on the one hand and acts of violent erasure on the other’ (132). But what makes this difference? At what point does performance move from empowerment to self-erasure?

Perhaps the common thread in both novels is the necessity for the performative to turn outward. Clearly Anne performs a dutiful, if exaggerated, sisterly devotion, but, unable to transgression into a more empowered brotherly role or to effectively solicit for herself a brother-like advocate, she ends up dead. Trapped in her memories of the past, Anne defines herself by how Laura’s mother, Mrs. Fairlie, defined her over a decade ago. Her inability to move beyond her unfortunate inheritance is emphasised in her physical appearance. Anne shares the same father as Laura, making their eerie likeness the image of the father who has failed them (WIW 553). A product of the same father who made such an egregious engagement for Laura, Anne’s delayed mental faculties further speak to the patriarchy’s questionable legacy. Anne fails to learn the lesson that Marian seems to understand inherently: when help has not been inherited, it must be cultivated from without. Such cultivation, far from being a sign of weakness, is a strategy by which Marian overcomes the social and legal limitations of her time.

In No Name, Magdalen’s determination to avenge the loss of her and her sister’s inheritance nearly ends in her death. As mutually beneficial as the relationship between Captain Wragge and Magdalen becomes, he is unable to distance himself from the situation enough to actually forbid Magdalen to continue. With the assurance that she is proceeding of her ‘own free will’, he follows through with the plan until it leads to Magdalen’s total breakdown (NN 388). Magdalen, in her moment of greatest distress and vulnerability, is then saved by someone with even less claim to familial attachment than Captain Wragge. Kirke, attracted to Magdalen at first sight, is a virtual stranger to her, but willing to take on ‘the position of her brother or her father- until her friends can be found’ (580). It is Kirke who pays for Magdalen’s lodgings and medical care while she recovers and Kirke whom Magdalen chooses to make her husband and life-long partner. In other words, in both The Woman in White and No Name, the performative space of the sibling is more successful when it turns outward for assistance. If the legacy of patriarchy limits the possibilities available to Marian and Magdalen, the newly forged familial bonds allow these women to overcome the limitations of that inheritance.

This is not to say that sibling bonds which fail to make an outward turn are unsuccessful because they are incestuous. Leila Silvana May focuses on this question, claiming that the potentially incestuous ‘untamed sororal desire’, especially between Anne and Laura in The Woman in White, suggests ‘the capacity of overturning class distinction and thereby undermining social order’ (87, 89). In other words, the incestuous desire between sisters threatens to undermine the foundation of the familial social order, even as it allows that social order to be upheld. She explains that ‘the sisters bestow brotherhood before incestuously absorbing [Walter] into the foundation of the reconstituted family’ and that ‘the final successful family’ is the one in which this threateningly intense sisterly love has been domesticated (May 83, 84). May reads desire between siblings as threatening to existing social structures because it too closely resembles heterosexual romantic desire, and so must be reconstituted as such. I contend that it is heterosexual desire that is threatening. The central threat of The Woman in White is Sir Percival who, in light of his social status, assumed wealth, and patriarchal blessing, appears to be the ideal suitor. While in No Name Norah’s marriage recovers the fortune stolen by the uncle, the plot focuses much more heavily on the way Magdalen reworks the power structures of marriage to try to earn back that income herself. Heterosexual desire is a threat when it continues to perpetuate the legacy of patriarchy, though it can be reshaped into a more equitable, and so more empowering relationships. The bond between siblings, then, is not an incestuous relationship that becomes domesticated, but a model for a revised martial contract grounded in partnership.

Helena Michie, in Sorophobia, suggests a helpful construction of the role of sororal intimacy in these novels when she maintains that sisterhood ‘becomes a playground, or, more sinisterly, a battlefield, in which issues of the outside world can be rehearsed and worked out in the relative safety of a relation between female equals’ (20). In this construction, the role of the sister is performative, but that performance is hidden within the safety of the family fold. She argues further that ‘female identity in No Name is always contingent, specular, always in flux within the structuring and enabling framework of sisterhood’ (Michie 29). Again, Michie limits the boundaries of this performative exploration to the ‘framework of sisterhood’ and ultimately concludes that the novel rewards Norah’s passivity and punishes Magdalen’s aggressive, public performance (28).

The idea that sisterhood is performed and continually in flux is important to my assertion about Marian and Magdalen continually adapting and renegotiating their sisterly roles. We can, however, open Michie’s argument up to include the role of the sibling in general, and to see how it is necessarily performed on the margins, if not entirely outside the existing framework of sisterhood. If Magdalen had remained as passive as Norah, Norah would never have needed to search for Magdalen, and so would never have met and married the man who gained possession of the money that was rightfully theirs (NN 597). As we have already seen, sisterhood is not a broad enough stage for all the necessary tasks of survival to be fulfilled. Both Marian and Magdalen must perform at its edges, embodying the role of brother and soliciting outsiders to perform the role of sibling as well. It is Anne who adheres most closely to the framework of sisterhood, which turns out to be the most dangerous position of all. It is only by taking advantage of performative opportunities and by reaching outward to perform familial bonds that hope is made possible.

I began this section with Tara Macdonald’s assertion that, in the sensation novel, ‘acts of imposture can be empowering performances of self-creation on the one hand and acts of violent erasure on the other’ (132). Macdonald is concerned with imposture that turns inward: one that fails to perform outside expected roles and that fails to cultivate external connections. As I have shown, however, this is not because sibling-like relationships are incestuous. Though the love between sisters in both The Woman in White and No Name is deep and intimate, we can follow the precedent set by Marcus and Corbett in appreciating this intimacy without assuming it is sexual. Both novels present heteronormative marriages as sources of anxiety if not outright physical danger, and sibling relationships as sources of comfort and safety. The need for the sisters to turn outward, then, is not in order to avoid or domesticate a threatening incestuous desire. This outward turn, is to shore up the existing family through the development of external, horizontal bonds that resemble those of siblings but are even better able to overcome social and legal limitations.

The Last Word

No matter how much credit scholars give to Wilkie Collins for exploring the performativity of gender and the spectacle of the family in The Woman in White and No Name, they almost unanimously conclude that the novels ultimately return to a conservative ending.[3] Nemesvari concludes that ‘gender is troubled in order for that trouble to be allayed’ (83). Eileen Cleere argues that The Woman in White ‘foregrounds the abject failure of patriarchy and […] paternalism’ and that its conclusion ‘denounces the original law of the father’ (12). However, she goes on to say that, ‘on the other hand, it ultimately services the demands of heterosexuality, the new middle class patriarchy, and the Victorian marriage plot’ (12–13). May argues that ‘a legitimate heterosexual marriage act must take place to erase anxieties’ (99). And D. A. Miller argues that ‘the novel needs to realize the normative requirements of the heterosexual ménage whose happy picture concludes it’ (118). While I acknowledge that the heterosexual marriages at the conclusion of both novels seem problematic, I argue that they must be re-read for the very specific kind of marriage that they offer: one modelled on the progressive, equitable performance of sibling-hood.

Although No Name ends with the marriage of Magdalen and Kirke, it is critical to note that this bond is based on the equity and empowerment Magdalen experiences while performing a horizontal kinship with Captain Wragge. Used to reading Captain Wragge’s interests and motivations in order to strategically map out their partnership, Magdalen easily reads Kirke’s affection for her, perhaps before he is even sure of it himself: ‘She looked at his changing colour, she listened to his hesitating words, with every sensitive perception of her sex and age, quickened to seize intuitively on the truth’ (NN 592). Having discovered his interest in her, Magdalen then ‘rigidly exacted from him all those little familiar attentions so precious to women in their intercourse with men’ (NN 594). She takes control of the situation, directing their interactions to follow the performance of a courtship. When Kirke expresses concern about Magdalen leaving him to return to her friends, Magdalen claims him as her friend, thus invoking the same description she used to describe her partnership with Captain Wragge. She assures Kirke that her friends ‘can take me to no dearer friend than the friend who has saved my life’ (NN 599). Then, as she used to instruct Captain Wragge in her plans for vengeance, she instructs Kirke in how their relationship will proceed. She requires that he remain at port for a month in order that she might be reunited with her sister and write to him the full account of her conduct. She thus becomes the author of the story which she has already directed. Finally, when Kirke has conformed to all of her requests, when he has read her full account of her actions and decided to marry her, it is Magdalen who directs the final scene: ‘‘Tell me the truth!’ she repeated. ‘With my own lips?’ ‘Yes!’ she answered eagerly. ‘Say what you think of me, with your own lips.’ He stooped, and kissed her’ (NN 610).

From the moment that Magdalen recovers her mental faculties, we see her renegotiating the dynamic between herself and Kirke. Ostensibly indebted to him with her very life, Magdalen uses the same strategies she employed with Captain Wragge to subtly manoeuvre her way into a more equitable position. She accurately assesses his motivations and plays upon them to her advantage, gaining equal footing. With this leverage, she then asserts control by making various demands which are obeyed. Finally, she establishes the future direction of the relationship by directing Kirke to speak his mind ‘with [his] own lips’ (NN 610). If Magdalen is conforming to a marriage plot ending, it is one which is markedly non-normative. Refusing to succumb to the role of damsel in distress, Magdalen instead claims for herself a friend, modelled on the equitable partnership she developed with Captain Wragge, which will enable her to continue directing her own life.

Similarly, in The Woman in White, the heterosexual marriage of Walter and Laura gestures towards a disappointingly conservative negation of the novel’s progressive promises. It is my contention, however, that this heterosexual marriage is in fact downplayed by the text itself, in comparison to the far more prominent confirmation of the sibling-like bond. Rather than affirming the patrilineal heritage which has caused so much devastation, the final scene offers a radically altered image of the family: one which prioritizes horizontal ties of equity over the limiting bonds of patriarchy.

After Marian and Laura have escaped the clutches of Sir Percival and Count Fosco, Walter writes ‘under the same assumed name, two women live, who are described as my sisters […] My sisters are supposed to help me by taking in a little needlework […] Marian Halcombe is nothing now, but my eldest sister’ (WIW 412, 413). Taking up the language Marian offered in the beginning of the novel, Walter accepts the role of brother and, in that capacity, begins to perform the task of restoring Laura’s identity. He later elaborates that his initial romantic attraction has in fact changed to conform to that sibling-like bond which Marian directed him to embrace: ‘the sad sight of the change in [Laura] from her former self, made the one interest of my love an interest of tenderness and compassion, which her father or her brother might have felt, and which I felt, God knows, in my inmost heart’ (WIW 454–55). Walter is not just performing the brotherly role that Marian has directed, but truly embodying it, and in a way that heals the damage done by the father’s negligence in securing her a fraudulent suitor in the first place. In addition to the excessive reference made between Marian, Walter, and Laura to the sibling-like nature of their love, the final scene offers a pointedly non-normative, horizontal familial model as the way forward. Laura’s identity and health have been restored, and she and Walter are married with a baby. Marian has committed to stay with them forever. Upon hearing the news that Mr. Fairlie, the uncle too ineffective to protect Laura from her awful fate, has died, Marian, not Laura, raises the baby and introduces Walter to his son as the Heir of Limmeridge. Walter concludes his narrative ‘Marian was the good angel of our lives––let Marian end our Story’ (WIW 627).

Miller offers a reading of this scene which is emblematic of other conservative readings, arguing ‘what is distinctively cheering about the family portrait is less the connection between husband and wife […] than the bond between father and son’ (133). The raising of the heir, for Miller, implies a closed ‘family circle which will continue to replay-with no end in sight’ (133). I agree with Miller that emphasis is absolutely shifted away from the heterosexual couple, but it seems highly unlikely that it is shifted to an eternally looping patriarchy which the entire novel has worked to undercut. On the contrary, the emphasis is placed on the horizontal, sibling-like bonds that Marian strove to cultivate from the beginning. Placing the child in Marian’s hands shifts the focus from the union of the heterosexual couple and towards a third, horizontal kin. Marian, sister, sister-in-law, and aunt, lifts up the heir to emphasise that the new model, one grounded on the performance of sibling-like roles, is more sustainable for the next generation. The patrilineal family which was broken in the beginning of the novel and which set the series of catastrophes in motion was not sustainable. The previous generation’s adherence to patriarchal custom made them static to the point of stagnation. Interestingly, this stagnation is best represented in both novels by uncles. Though siblings, they are siblings of the previous generation, of the weakened patriarchy. They are frail, decrepit creatures with little compassion and less moral capital. They represent the family-as-static-entity which is clearly unsustainable. No viable offspring are produced from their loins. But in the family constructed by Marian, a family rooted in performative sibling-hood, the next generation is born.

Amid the heart pounding plot twists and turns in Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White and No Name, it is tempting to read the endings of both novels as comforting, if somewhat disappointing, returns to the status quo. However, when we consider the careful emphasis placed on the sibling and sibling-like relationships in these novels, it becomes apparent there is important work being done in rethinking the family structure, right up to the final pages. First, by pushing their performances of the sisterly role into the realm of the brotherly, Marian and Magdalen begin to break down the very categories of ‘sister’ and ‘brother’ until only ‘sibling’ is meaningful. When these performances fall short of overcoming obstacles, Marian and Magdalen then cast Walter and Captain Wragge, respectively, into the role of the brother they never had. Again, however, there is a breakdown in the gendering of these brother-like roles, as both men are sisterly in so far as they take direction from and offer sympathy and care for Marian and Magdalen. These sibling-like relationships, queer in so far as they open up new possibilities for how the family can be conceived and constructed, allow Marian and Magdalen to rewrite the power dynamics in their relationships. Rather than seeking out a husband or lover to rescue them and whisk them off into a new family, Marian and Magdalen forage sibling-like bonds that support and strengthen their agency and allow them to remain intimately connected to their biological siblings. In the end, these bonds are solidified in marriage, but these marriages do not negate the progress these women have made. On the contrary, the marriages confirm the importance and vitality of the new familial model, a model rooted in performed, sibling-like bond.


Works Cited

Cleere, Eileen. Avuncularism: Capitalism, Patriarchy, and Nineteenth-Century English Culture. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004.

Collins, Wilkie. No Name. 1862. Edited by Mark Ford, New York: Penguin, 2004. Print.

The Woman in White. 1860. Edited by Matthew Sweet, New York: Penguin, 2003. Print.

Corbett, Mary Jean. Family Likeness: Sex Marriage and Incest from Jane Austen to Virginia Woolf. Ithaca: Cornell University, 2008. Print.

Dau, Duc. Shale Preston. Queer Victorian Families: Curious Relations in Literature. New York: Routledge, 2015. Print.

Macdonald, Tara. ‘Sensation Fiction, Gender and Identity.’ Sensation Fiction. Edited by Andrew Mangham. Cambridge University Press. 2013. Print.

Marcus, Sharon. Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England. Princeton University Press, 2007. Print.

May, Leila Silvana. ‘Sensational Sisters: Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White.’ Pacific Coast Philology. Vol 3 No. 1 (1995) p. 82-102. Accessed 21 Feb 2017.

Michie, Helena. Sorophobia: Differences Among Women in Literature and Culture. Oxford University Press, 1992. Print.

Miller, D. A. ‘Cage Aux Folles: Sensation and Gender in Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White.’ Representations No. 14 (Spring 1986), pp. 107–136. Accessed 27, Feb. 2017.

Nemesvari, Richard. ‘Queering the Sensational Novel.’ Sensation Fiction. Ed. Andrew Mangham. New York, Cambridge University Press, 2013. Print.

Simpson, Vicky. ‘Selective Affinities: Non-normative Families in Wilkie Collins ‘No Name,’’ Victorian Review. Vol 39. No. 2 (Fall 2013). P. 115–128. Accessed 21 Feb 2017


[1] See, for example,Eileen Cleere’s Avuncularism, Helena Michie’s Sorophobia, and Richard Nemesvari’s ‘Queering the Sensation Novel’.

[2] For more on the parody proposal between Captain Wragge and Magdalen see Lillian Nayder’s Wilkie Collins. New York: Twayne, 1997. Print.

[3] Vickie Simpson stands out from this pattern, concluding ‘Ultimately, it is the non-normative relationships in the novel […] that are arguably the most loyal, fulfilling, and equitable for all members’ (127).