If you read this blog regularly, you will know that I (Amy) love a good Gothic novel. Even in the height of summer (ok, so it’s 15 degrees and raining right now in Durham, but it is still August), I can’t wait to curl up on the sofa to lose myself in tales of mystery, murder, forbidden love, supernatural beings, multiple narrative voices, and the tangled web of inheritance law (much more interesting than it sounds!). And even though the ‘good’ characters are generally rewarded in the end, in a good Gothic novel there remain fascinating and unresolved undercurrents which trouble the smooth waters of the conclusion. Will the ghosts at the conclusion of Wuthering Heights return more forcefully to haunt the happy couple? Why does Jane Eyre think of St John and not Rochester at the very end of her narrative? Will Emily’s subliminal attraction to villainy undermine her superficially happy marriage in The Mysteries of Udolpho?
Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White is much more than a regurgitation of these well-known plot devices; as Collins writes in the 1861 preface, the ‘only narrative which can hope to lay a strong hold on the attention of readers is a narrative which interests them about men and women’. And it is the enigmatic and rather greedy character of Count Fosco which interests me the most.
In many ways, Fosco reminds me of Milton’s Satan. He is the perfect foil to Victorian gentility. Colourful, dynamic, exotic attractive, repulsive, devious, Fosco is above all a consummate manipulator of words. Entering the ring to fight on behalf of the arguably rather dull characters of God and Adam, C.S. Lewis argues that Satan is ‘the best drawn of Milton’s characters’ only because ‘he is incomparably the easiest to draw’. Lewis contests that bringing Satan to life in poetry is an easier task than depicting divine goodness – because Milton merely had to stretch his imagination as far as the furthest reaches of human wickedness. Perhaps Count Fosco is one of Collins’ best drawn characters for this very reason. He is certainly preferable to the novel’s love interest (the interminably weak Laura; I find the weakness of many women in Gothic novels incredibly troubling), and to the rather sanctimonious Marian.
Like Satan, Fosco is linked with fruit. His frequent consumption of entire fruit tarts is just one of the many playful hints that he is not what he seems. During one scene found early in The Woman in White, the full extent of Fosco’s villainy has not been revealed and the ‘dear ladies’ are still duped. Here, he appears in the role of an eccentric, Europeanised, wealthy womaniser with a rather large appetite:
“Luncheon-time came and Sir Percival did not return. The Count [Fosco] took his friend’s place at the table, plaintively devoured the greater part of a fruit tart, submerged under a whole jugful of cream, and explained the full merit of the achievement to us as soon as he had done. ‘A taste for sweets,’ he said in his softest tones and his tenderest manner, ‘is the innocent taste of women and children. I love to share it with them – it is another bond, dear ladies, between you and me.’”
The serpent spoke to Eve this softly and ingratiatingly. A taste for sweets made with fruit is, perhaps, not so innocent after all. (See the post I wrote about fruit in Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’ for more of my perambulations on this topic.) And significantly, it is Fosco, and not the innocent ladies, who are enticed to devour numerous fruit tarts. Rather, Laura’s emotional distress is manifested in a loss of appetite.
Fosco is particularly fussy when it comes to pastry:
‘Much crust, if you please – much crisp crust, my dear, that melts and crumbles delicious in the mouth’.
I hope I have achieved this in my recipe for fruit tart.
Raspberry and Alpine Strawberry Tart
|100g plain flour|
|1 tbsp caster sugar|
|50g ground almonds|
|1 tbsp water|
|4 tbsp butter|
|150 ml full fat milk|
|2 egg yolks|
|1 tbsp sugar|
|1 tbsp plain flour|
|1 tsp vanilla essence|
|Fresh summer fruits|
|1 x 15cm tart tin|
|1. Rub the butter, sugar, almonds and flour together until it is like fine breadcrumbs.|
|2. Add a little water and work together to make a dough.|
|3. Wrap the dough in clingfilm and put in the fridge for at least 1 hour.|
|4. Grease the 15cm tin and then roll out the pastry and use it to line the tin. The pastry should slightly overhand the tin. Return to the fridge for 30 minutes.|
|5. Remove the pastry from the fridge and fill with baking beans (or rice on a piece of greaseproof paper. This helps the pastry keep its shape whilst baking). Bake it in an oven pre-heated to 180 degrees for 20 minutes.|
|6. Leave to cool, and then trim the edges with a knife. Remove from the tin.|
|7. Heat the milk and vanilla in a pan.|
|8. Whisk the egg yolks, sugar and plain flour until pale and thick.|
|9. Pour the milk into the egg mixture and whisk thoroughly.|
|10. Pour the whole mixture back into the pan and cook on a low heat, stirring constantly.|
|11. When the mixture thickens, pour it into a clean bowl and leave to cool.|
|12. When the crème pat is cool, pour it into the pastry case and top with fresh fruit.|
C.S. Lewis, ‘On Satan’, in John Milton, Paradise Lost, ed. by Gordon Teskey (London: Norton, 2005) pp.401-407 (p.405)
Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White (London: Penguin, 1994)