The Epigraphs of “Lethal White”: Shipping Strike & Robin

by Dr. Beatrice Groves

Epigraphs usually bring a number of texts into relation with the new work – as J.K. Rowling does, for example, in The Silkworm when she uses many different plays to supply the epigraphs for each chapter. But Rowling does something very unusual in Lethal White by using 71 epigraphs drawn from one single other text: Henrik Ibsen’s play Rosmersholm (1886). This is an extraordinary and – I believe – unique depth of epigraphical indebtedness. And it means that Rowling has not created the usual intertextual framework with a number of other works but rather paired her novel with one previous text.1 Although Rosmersholm is a 19th-century play, it does, in fact, function rather like a detective story. Its claims to greatness (and some critics do consider it to be Ibsen’s greatest work) rest above all on its structure and the expert pacing with which its secrets are revealed. Just as with a detective story, the audience can start piecing things together, and the secrets they discover would sit naturally within the murder mystery genre. Indeed, both the secrets of Rebecca’s past (incest and incitement to suicide) resonate with the murder in Lethal White (in which both incest and incitement to suicide have a part to play).2

Lethal White, like all the Strike novels, marries the overarching storyline of Robin and Strike’s partnership with a self-contained murder mystery. Many of the novel’s epigraphs successfully reflect both of these strands simultaneously. For example, the epigraph to chapter 18 – “So matters have got as far as that already, have they!” – appears to be a wry reflection on Barclay’s successful infiltration of Jimmy’s group but is really about the ease with which Robin is now lying to her husband. The final epigraph, likewise – “Your past is dead, Rebecca. It has no longer any hold on you” – is a promise of a redemptive new beginning for both Robin and Billy. One particularly successful epigraph is that to chapter 27: “They cling to their dead a long time at Rosmersholm.” The quotation comes from the opening scene of Ibsen’s play and marks the first description of the white horses that form the play’s dominant motif:

Rebecca (folding up her work): They cling to their dead a long time at Rosmersholm.
Mrs. Helseth: If you ask me, miss, I should say it is the dead that cling to Rosmersholm a long time.
Rebecca (looking at her): The dead?
Mrs. Helseth: Yes, one might almost say that they don’t seem to be able to tear themselves away from those they have left behind.
Rebecca: What puts that idea into your head?
Mrs. Helseth: Well, otherwise I know the White Horses would not be seen here.

White horses are everywhere in both texts.3 “White Horses” was the original title for Rosmersholm, and – as I predicted – in Lethal White, they are even more ubiquitous. (When a White Horse pub, Death on a pale horse in Revelation, and the Uffington White Horse all arrive together in one chapter, Rowling even has Strike mutter, “This is getting stupid.”) The epigraph to chapter 27 points obliquely to these white horses as an emanation of guilty memory as well as their more obvious function as death omens. Disturbed memories of the dead cluster around Chiswell House (the traditional family seat at the heart of Lethal White) just as they do about Rosmersholm (the traditional family seat at the heart of Rosmersholm). Chapter 27 is full of clues about how the literal dead of Chiswell House – Freddie and Jack O’Kent – are connected to the intimations of death that surround it. Raphael tells Robin about how something nasty is hidden in the woodshed and gives a crucial clue to the identity of the murdered child Billy thinks is buried in the dell.

However, the epigraph to chapter 27 – “They cling to their dead a long time at Rosmersholm” – also points to Robin, for as the chapter opens, she is clinging to her dead marriage. Rosmersholm is, like Lethal White, a text primarily about a relationship – the literally chaste but subliminally passionate relationship between its protagonists, Rebecca West and Johannes Rosmer. And while Rowling uses the connection with Rosmersholm in many ways – its white horse symbolism, its political attitude, the sense of the past embodied by a house – it is this relationship that is at the heart of her choice to pair the two texts. Lethal White opens with Robin’s marriage to Matthew and a pair of swans that refuse to come together. The novel closes with Robin walking past swans united as a perfect pair and the accompanying hint that her romantic life is beginning to find its true track (swans being, famously, birds that mate for life).

In one sense, the pairs of Lethal White relate to its murder victim: a dead government minister. Della Winn reminds us that “pairing” is a technical term in parliament – “he could have paired his vote, of course – found a Labour MP and struck a deal” (472) – and the action of the novel takes place in a year when the British government was itself “paired” (A conservative-liberal Democrat coalition ran from 2010-15, the first time that two parties have shared governance at Westminster since the war.) The reader is confronted with a pair of Chiswell “murders” (Jasper and the child long ago), and the second murder takes place in two parts. The reader’s attention is drawn to the way in which all the suspects are paired: “Married couples, lovers, business partners, siblings. Pairs” (630). The short chapter in which Strike mulls over these pairings and solves the mystery (that the murderers are, in fact, a couple) has an epigraph which explicitly links the pairs of Lethal White with the partnership at the heart of Rosmersholm: “We two go with each other…” (chap 59). This quote is from Rebecca and Rosmer’s suicide pact, neatly reflecting Strike’s discovery of the murder pact.

But this chapter opens with Robin calling Strike, and – even more than the pairing within the murder mystery – it is their relationship that the novel’s epigraphical references to Rebecca and Rosmer point to. The centrality of this partnership to Rosmersholm inflects our understanding of the new stage which Robin and Strike’s relationship has reached in Lethal White. Ibsen’s play depicts a friendship based on a meeting of minds and a shared moral outlook. A partnership which, although completely platonic (despite what the jealousy of others might think), has deepened into love without the principals seeming to have realized. The unspoken passion between Rebecca and Rosmer means that it is the epigraphs of Lethal White – after Robin and Strike draw back from intimacy after their hug at her wedding – which carry most of the weight of the potential of their relationship.

Five chapters of Lethal White reflect on Robin and Strike’s relationship through an epigraph about Rebecca and Rosmer. The epigraph to chapter 26 – “I am not so entirely alone, even now. There are two of us to bear the solitude together here” – expresses Rosmer’s reliance on Rebecca and his gradual realization that he is in love with her. It is a perfect fit for a chapter in which Strike’s vulnerability in the face of his nephew’s illness makes him realize the extent to which he has come to depend on and care for Robin. In general, however, these epigraphs point to the way in which Robin and Strike are drawn together by their shared passion for their job. Rebecca’s confidence in what she and Rosmer could achieve – “I have believed that we two together would be equal to it” (chapter 10) – is used to express Strike’s faith in Robin as a detective and his reliance on her as his partner. This idea is built on with the epigraph to chapter 20: “We two have worked our way forward in complete companionship.” Strike and Robin are literally working their way forward in this chapter (piecing together clues assisted by Robin’s breakthrough with her recording), and the epigraph celebrates their working friendship as a reflection of Rosmer’s idealization of his relationship with Rebecca. But the context of the Ibsen quotation is also telling. This phrase is Rosmer’s outraged rebuttal of an outsider (Kroll) who insinuates that Rosmer’s relationship with Rebecca must be sexual. Rosmer angrily, and accurately, refutes this – but Kroll is nonetheless correct in his assumption that their relationship is not really a simple friendship. (Precisely the same context is replayed in the epigraph for chapter 41 – “I was thinking of what brought us together from the first, what links us so closely to one another . . .” – the chapter of Robin and Strike’s companionable drive down to Woolstone.)

Rosemary Ahern gives a lovely description of the way that epigraphs work, how they enact “the generosity of authors willing to part the curtain and show us a glimpse of their mental furniture; to give us a preview of what they think is vital, funny, and true.”4 Rowling first used epigraphs in the final novel of the Harry Potter series: the denouement when all was, indeed, revealed after many years of unanswered questions and cautiously partial glimpses of her “mental furniture.” Since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Rowling has used epigraphs in every book she has written, culminating in the extraordinary pairing she has created between Lethal White and Rosmersholm. I am confident that – having tasted their pleasures and potential – she will not relinquish them but will once more use epigraphs to the full in Troubled Blood. And after her tantalizing Twitter header – which I wrote about in March – I’m crossing my fingers (hard) for Spenser’s Faerie Queene.

Tonight (August 30, 2020), the first episode of a four-part adaptation of Lethal White will air on BBC1. The TV version will, I assume, make no reference to Rowling’s brilliant use of epigraphs, but it will, nonetheless, embody a link with that play that the novel did not. Tom Burke (the actor playing Strike) filmed Lethal White fresh from completing his run playing the lead in Rosmersholm. (This was in summer 2019 at London’s Duke of York’s theater, and in those heady pre-COVID days, I was lucky enough to go and see him.) Rosmersholm is a “rarely-staged masterpiece,”  hence Burke playing both Strike and Rosmer is an overlap of roles so startling as to make one wonder if it can be an entire coincidence. But planned or not, Burke – with the text of Rosmersholm at his fingertips – creates a delightful performative parallel to the epigraphs of the novel, bringing the two texts into relation in his performance as Rowling does on the page.

Look out for new Bathilda’s Notebook posts on September 9 and 10 about what to expect from Troubled Blood.

1 For a full and highly illuminating discussion of the links between the two texts, see
2 For more detail about the play’s plot, see
3 See
4 Rosemary Ahern, The Art of the Epigraph: How Great Books Begin (New York: Atria Books, 2012), xi.

Dr. Beatrice Groves teaches Renaissance English at Trinity College, Oxford and is the author of Literary Allusion in Harry Potter, which is available now. Don’t miss her earlier posts for MuggleNet – such as “Solve et Coagula: Part 1 – Rowling’s Alchemical Tattoo” – all of which can be found at Bathilda’s Notebook. She is also a regular contributor to the MuggleNet podcast Reading, Writing, Rowling.

Writing with cutting-edge literary analysis of the series, Bathilda's Notebook explores the literature and ideas that have most inspired Rowling, from Shakespeare to Sherlock Holmes.
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