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  • The History of Liberal Violence in The Woman in White
  • Sophia Hsu (bio)

In the first pages of Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (1859–60), the novel’s hero, Walter Hartright, introduces Professor Pesca, a political exile who initially provides comic relief to a tale of sensational violence. By “doing his utmost to turn himself into an Englishman” (7), Pesca shows deference to his host country and thereby neutralizes the danger that he might otherwise pose as a foreigner. While Pesca disappears from the narrative after this encounter, he returns later in his true garb as a radical nationalist, who inspires “mortal dread” (585) in even the most indomitable character, the villain (and the novel’s other Italian character) Count Fosco. The shocking change in Pesca’s representation helps situate the novel’s critique of English liberalism in the context of the Risorgimento, the mid-century movement for Italian unification contemporaneous with the novel’s serialization.1

In evoking the Risorgimento, The Woman in White offers a vantage point from which to re-evaluate England’s perception of itself as a liberal sanctuary. In the words of Edward Smith Stanley, Earl of Derby, “to the distressed and persecuted of all the world, England was the land of protection” (Hansard 5 June 1822). But even as Victorian society was “self-consciously liberal,” as Lauren M.E. Goodlad indicates, English liberalism was full of tensions as a moral and political philosophy (Victorian Literature x). Though nineteenth-century liberalism most often corresponded with anti-statism and volunteerism, it also referred to the state’s responsibility to individual and social welfare, as well as an ethical responsibility to build civic character in its citizens (Goodlad, Victorian Literature vii–x). “Since the nineteenth century,” Goodlad writes, “[liberalism] has been variously employed to denote diverse political agendas, a set of capitalist economic ideologies, and a broad cultural investment in promoting freedom” (Victorian Literature viii). The numerous and often incompatible goals of liberalism have led critics to view it as a “notoriously elusive notion” (Bellamy 1). This elusiveness continues today; thus, Duncan Bell offers a fluid definition of the concept: what counts as liberalism is what has been “classified as liberal, and recognized as such by other self-proclaimed liberals” (690). To Bell, this elastic understanding of the term “forces us to examine [liberal] traditions as evolving and contested historical phenomena” (690). The call to historicize liberalism and to see it as “evolving,” however, runs counter to the Victorian belief in the myth of stable, eternal English freedom. Many Victorians assumed that [End Page 111] ancient constitutional liberties were the source for the contractual nature of their parliamentary government, tradition of self-governance, and rule of law (Goodlad, Victorian Literature 3). But, as Collins illustrates, such self-congratulation and ahistorical thinking were unfounded given the contradictions he exposes via Pesca and Fosco.

These contradictions pertain to the English people’s claim to a liberal cosmopolitanism that allegedly distinguishes them as sympathetic and tolerant, open to foreign groups and cultures in an ethical, intellectual, and aesthetic manner. As Amanda Anderson writes, nineteenth-century cosmopolitanism is a “broad concept” (30) that encourages “the need to enact or embody universalism” (31). Similarly, Goodlad and Julia M. Wright define cosmopolitanism as both “an ethics of cross-border relations” and “an ethos borne by specific individuals and groups wherever they go, within or across national borders” (par. 5). The Woman in White demonstrates how the Victorians’ enactment of cosmopolitanism, exemplified by their welcoming of political exiles such as Pesca, hides their actual intolerance and inhumanity. My argument thus resembles Uday Singh Mehta’s discussion of “the inclusionary pretensions of liberal theory and the exclusionary effects of liberal practices” (46). Mehta contends that empire operates as a limit point for liberalism’s supposed universality, which should extend freedom, equality, and national self-determination to all people. Because liberalism was fashioned in a European context and, hence, according to Mehta, can only manage difference by recasting it through that lens, liberal justifications for empire rely on a narrative of historical progress that denies non-Europeans the capacity for self-rule (28–36). For Mehta, empire reveals liberalism’s exclusions. I add...


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pp. 111-128
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