Creative-Critical Analyses: Reading Characters
|First appearance in the text||Installment 2 (3 December 1859)|
|Socioeconomic Class||Working Class|
|Location||Limmeridge House, Limmeridge, Cumberland, England|
|Profession or Social Role||Valet to Mr. Fairlie|
|Other Relevant Details||Swiss, multilingual|
Representation in the Novel
Collins’s readers encounter Louis only through other people’s eyes—never through Louis’s own perspective.
For many of Collins’s characters, Louis is primarily distinguished by his non-English background and his relationship to Mr. Fairlie. When Walter first encounters Louis, he recounts him as someone who appears on the scene “noiselessly,” describing him as “a foreigner, with a set smile and perfectly brushed hair—a valet every inch of him” (No. 22: VI). For Mr. Gilmore, who encounters Louis flagging under the weight of Mr. Fairlie etching collection, Louis is a “miserable foreigner” who “grinned in the most abject manner, and looked ready to drop with fatigue, while his master composedly turned over the etchings” (No. 9).
From these descriptions, we get very little sense of Louis’s inner life or personal interests. This is due in part to Louis’s status as a secondary character who serves to illustrate Mr. Fairlie’s self-involved indifference to toward those around him. (For example, Mr. Fairlie’s lack of concern at Louis’s misery while the man struggles to hold up his etchings foreshadows Mr. Fairlie’s unwillingness to consider the more serious anxieties or dangers that other characters will face in the tale.) However, this shallow representation of Louis also stems from the character’s role as a servant who is viewed through the eyes of our narrators. As someone who is “every inch a valet,” and as someone we encounter only through the eyes of middle- and upper-class characters while Louis is at work for his employer, Louis’s suppression of public displays of opinion or individuality are what make him a desirable valet for Mr. Fairlie.
How Might Louis Have Encountered Serial Fiction?
Louis occupies a relatively elevated position in the hierarchy of Victorian servants. As a valet, he serves as a personal assistant to Mr. Fairlie, meaning that he is likely to be paid a higher wage than most other servants in the house (Mitchell 55). His daily tasks may also be somewhat less physically backbreaking than those of the lower servants, leaving him more energy to read in whatever free time he may have. (Admittedly, under the thumb of the demanding and Mr. Fairlie, this job is likely to have been more arduous for Louis than it would have been for many valets with less petulant employers.) These factors may allow Louis access to literary media that other working-class people may not have enjoyed. Print culture history scholar Margaret Beetham notes that while it was common for members of the Victorian middle and upper classes to represent working-class readers as people who “[read] only the cheapest serialized novelettes,” it was likely that many working-class readers had a wider range of literary interests:
This was particularly true of domestic servants who were the largest single occupational group and who often had access to their employers’ books and magazines, either because they were passed on or, perhaps more often, because they were read secretly as the servant went about [his or] her work. (Beetham 59)
In the novel, of course, having access to an employer’s reading matter would depend on that employer’s tastes. Mr. Fairlie exhibits a strong negative reaction to emotional stimuli or disruptive noises of any kind, and this suggests that he might not purchase installments of a sensation serial for himself (No. 2). However, it is possible that while they shared Mr. Fairlie’s home, Marian or Laura would have had an interest in Collins’s serial. In this way, Louis might feasibly have gained access to the novel by secretly reading the installments Marian and Laura had cast aside.
Mr. Fairlie describes Louis as being from Switzerland but provides few concrete details about which specific languages Louis speaks (No. 22). As a multilingual person, Louis may have been able to read editions of The Woman in White not only in English, but also in French and German once volume translations of Collins’s novel appeared in print.
Beetham, Margaret. “Women and the Consumption of Print.” Women and Literature in Britain, 1800-1900, Ed. Joanne Shattock, Cambridge University Press, 2001, pp. 55-77.
Mitchell, Sally. Daily Life in Victorian England, The Greenwood Press, 1996.