Early eighteenth-century printer Samuel Richardson had established the novel's feminine protagonist with Pamela in 1740. Even Dickens' Agnes and Dora in David Copperfield are recognizable as stereotypes, but Collins's heroines set new standards for the literary depiction of women and their problems. Marion Halcombe is fully independent of men, and Laura Fairlie in The Woman in White functions well at several levels. That Collins's females violated stereotype is but another indication how carefully he observed women and how he attempted to represent as they really were.

Rachel Verinder in The Moonstone is a subtle yet powerful and compelling character because she is wilful and "man-like" in her tenacity, though feminine in her feelings. Complex and unpredictable, she acts according to the promptings of her heart (yearning towards Franklin Blake) as well as of her mind (concluding that he is guilty of the theft). Through her, Collins shows that the mind, relying only on physical evidence, can lead the thinker to false (albeit logical) conclusions: the way to truth lies through responding to one's intuitions for Collins, who, like Dickens, was something of a Romantic. Rachel emerges from her nightmare of doubt in both herself and Franklin still a strong character. Like his other heroines, Rachel transcends the limitations which the nineteenth century imposed on women, and remains a fully-realized and motivated character.

Rachel is central to the action; her virtue (which is contrasted to that of other female characters such as Miss Clack) remains incontestable. Her idolatrous love for Franklin Blake and his for her drive the plot. The Moonstone gem is timeless; their love is bounded by time. Their love is the antithesis of Herncastle's lust and selfishness, which prompted him to steal the diamond in the first place. For Collins, romantic love is the most positive human trait, the Western equivalent of Eastern religious reverence. Like the Hindu holymen whose responsibility it is safeguard the jewel, Rachel and Franklin are tested by experience and self- sacrifice. Blake 'recovers' Rachel just as the Brahmins recover the diamond.

"No man under heaven deserves these sacrifices from us women," cries Marion Halcombe to Laura Fairlie in The Woman in White when discussing the latter's impending marriage to Glyde. She is angered by the thought of Laura's coming entrapment and subjugation in a loveless marriage undertaken because Laura made her father a death-bed promise. True to Victorian womanhood, she remains a model of patient endurance, for which she is ultimately rewarded with marriage and property. Dark and (in her own eyes, at least) ugly, Marion, like Limping Lucy in The Moonstone , struggles to rescue a fellow female from male domination and attacks masculine denigration of female intelligence and character. Like Lucy, too, her power is largely rhetorical in the story. However, Lucy's love for Rosanna proves instrumental in resolving the Moonstone mystery, just as Godfrey Ablewhite's love of self and sensual pleasure at first frustrates but ultimately facilitates the recovery of the diamond.


Victorian Web Wilkie Collins

Last modified 25 November 2004