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WILL LADISLAW AND OTHER ITALIANS WITH WHITE MICE Juliet McMaster University ofAlberta The well-heeledwidow, Mrs Dorothea Casaubon, has respectable relatives and friends who are eager to guard her from the upstart pretensions of the bohemian Will Ladislaw. Her sister Celia quotes the local phrase-maker: "Mrs Cadwallader said you might as well marry an Italian with white mice!" (Eliot 532). Dorothea ruefully ponders this label, and still remembers it months later, when other derogatory labels are being added. " · Young Ladislaw the grandson of a thieving Jew pawnbroker · was a phrase which had entered emphatically into the dialogues ... at Lowick, Tipton and Freshitt, and was a worse kind of placard on poor Will ' s back than the 'Italian with white mice'" (829). The annotators of the Riverside, Penguin, Norton, and Garendon editions of Middlemarch are all silent on this rather intriguing comparison for Will Ladislaw; and since several generations of students of Middlemarch have sought information in vain, I accept the task of explanation. I feel particularly qualified, both as a long-time admirer of the much maligned hero of Middlemarch, and as one who reared hundreds ofwhite mice in her youth, including one who travelled with me (usually in my shirt) from Kenya to England and back. Italians have been frequently associated with white mice in Victorian England, both in fiction and history. I ' 11 start with the fiction. Elizabeth Gaskell's tale of Manchester life, Mary Barton (1848), features an Italian child with a pet white mouse, who together reinforce that novel ' s thesis that the most generous protectors of the poor are the other poor. Mary Barton, the working-class heroine, has much else on her mind as she hurries through the streets near her home: her impetuous course was arrested by a light touch on her arm, and turning hastily, she saw a little Italian boy, with his humble showbox ,—a white mouse, or some such thing. (284) Victorian Review 16.2 (Winter 1990). Victorian Review The child is visually appealing, described as having "glittering tear-drops" hanging on his "long curled eye-lashes." "With his soft voice, and pleading looks, he uttered, in his pretty broken English, the word, ' Hungry! so hungry! ' " Mary, preoccupied with her own troubles, at first passes him by impatiently, telling him, "Oh, lad, hunger is nothing—nothing!" But soon she relents, and shows charity to her starving fellow-creatures, bringing them the last scraps of food from her home. The little foreigner revives as instantly as the little dog in Ruskin ' s The King ofthe Golden River (1851); and we are left with an appealing tableau in which the boy "poured forth his thanks, and shared her bounty with his little pet companion" (284). It is an unabashedly sentimental episode which reinforces the novel ' s appeal for charity to the needy, of whatever race or species, and its celebration of the mutual supportiveness of the poor. Italians and white mice are also indissolubly linked in the freelyassociating mind of Flora Finching in Little Dornt. Hearing that Amy Dorrit is in Italy, she promptly produces her cultural associations: In Italy is she really? . . . with the grapes growing everywhere and lava necklaces and bracelets too that land of poetry with burning mountains picturesque beyond belief though if the organ-boys come away from the neighbourhood not to be scorched nobody can wonder being so young and bringing their white mice with them most humane . . . (590) Next after Vesuvius and its vineyards, apparently, Italy is famous for its young emigrants with their white mice. The most famous fictional Italian with white mice is undoubtedly the villainous Count Fosco of The Woman in White.1 Like other notable villains, Satan and Becky Sharp among them, Fosco is successful as a representative of evil because he is made plausibly attractive (in spite of his obesity). Marian Halcombe, the narrator who introduces him, is quite smitten by his charms (initially, at least). And his "extraordinary fondness for pet animals" is one of his attractive traits (242). Besides a cockatoo and two canaries, he keeps "a whole family of white mice," for which he has constructed, with his own hands, a gaily-painted wire pagoda. Marian Halcombe...


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