The Victorian Family in Queer Time: Secrets, Sisters, and Lovers in The Woman in White and Fingersmith.

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Book Chapter

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Queer Victorian Families: Curious Relations in Literature


There she lay, unconscious that I was looking at her. ...I waited a moment,
looking at her from behind her pillow, as she lay beneath me, with one arm
and hand resting on the white coverlid, so still, so quietly breathing, that the
frill of her night-dress never moved -- I waited, looking at her, as I have seen
her thousands of times, as I shall never see her again -- and then stole back to
my room. My own love!
Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White

She said she could not sleep. She said she was cold. She said she
would like to keep me close to her again, in case she woke up
frightened. She said the same the next night, and the night after that.
...It was ordinary at first, with Maud and me. Her dreams never
bothered her. We slept, quite like sisters. Quite like sisters, indeed.
I always wanted a sister.
Sarah Waters, Fingersmith

Each of the passages presented as epigraphs, one from Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White (1859) and the other from Sarah Waters's Fingersmith (2002), conceptualizes sisterhood as a dynamic that can encompass much more than the attachments and tensions conventionally associated with the sororal bond. In the first, Marian Halcombe gazes upon her half-sister as Laura Fairlie rests on the eve of her wedding to Sir Percival Glyde. This scene, expedient evidence for the several scholars who have read the relationship as one infused with homoeroticism, also serves as one of many instances in which the novel seeks to establish sisterhood as a safe, innocent, blissful haven. Although Laura is vulnerable in this moment, "unconscious," "beneath," "still," and quiet under Marian's powerful gaze, we know she is secure and undisturbed in Marian's love. It is Marian who is distressed in this scene, aware she "shall never see her again" in this way, for soon Laura will be someone (Lady Glyde) and something else (initiated into a heterosexual economy), a fact Marian bemoans more explicitly in another scene when she laments, "she will be his Laura instead of mine! His Laura!"(185; emphasis original). In The Woman in White, sisters are beset by the deviant behavior of men, and male characters are portrayed as disrupting important female bonds. The second of the epigraphs seems an echo of the first, but Waters's novel -- in this instance and more broadly -- fleshes out the centrality of sisterly bonds in Collins's text, Sisterhood is a starting point, even a metaphor, for Maud Lilly and Sue Trinder; as Sue states, "It was ordinary at first. ... Quite like sisters." In bed with Sue, Maud's nightmares cease, just as Laura rests comfortably with Marian nearby. However, Maud's and Sue's sisterhood is, even "at first," much more physical and desire is made explicit: "I always wanted a sister." Sue's concomitant lack and desire are initially cast in this more socially acceptable, familial form but it is a form that will quickly be shed.


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