Dickens, Charles 1812-1870
Charles Dickens 1812-1870INTRODUCTION
(Also wrote under the pseudonym Boz) English novelist, essayist, and short story writer.
Dickens is one of the best-known and most popular writers in the English language. The day after his death, the London Daily Times eulogized him as "emphatically the novelist of his age. In his pictures of contemporary life posterity will read, more clearly than in contemporary records, the character of nineteenth century life." He left a legacy of fourteen novels, as well as short stories, editorials, and sketches, creating over 2000 characters, some of whom, such as Ebenezer Scrooge, have entered the common vernacular. His novels were not formulaic and scholars often divide them into early, middle, and late works, reflecting his personal growth, maturity, and outlook. His works address social issues such as poverty, injustice, and the dangers of industrial progress, espousing themes of childhood and familial relationships reflective of the greater society, and calling attention to the need for progressive education and to the victimization of women and the poor. His depiction of Victorian London has become part of the historical record, and his skill in narration, description, multilevel plotting, colorful characterizations, and imagery are regarded by most critics as superior. David Lodge wrote, "[Dickens] stands symbolically on the threshold of the modern literary era, and [his] career embodies the difference between being famous and being a celebrity.… Dickens not only wrote novels which became classics of English literature in his own lifetime; he transformed the methods of publishing fiction and thus changed the possibilities of authorship for his contemporaries and their successors."
Dickens was born February 7, 1812, near the coastal town of Port-Sea (now part of Portsmouth), England, the second of eight children. His father, John Dickens, lived above his social station and beyond his financial means, so his family was constantly short of money and moved often. At the age of six Dickens was sent to school, where he discovered classical authors and developed a love of reading. He also enjoyed the ghost stories told to children at bedtime by their nurses. Christmas was an especially happy time for him and was a setting he recreated in many of his stories. At age nine Dickens discovered the theater and developed a passion for the stage. He became a respectable amateur actor and was often lauded for dramatic public readings of his own works. When the Dickens family moved to London, their economic condition worsened because of their father's recklessness. When his debts became insupportable, John was sent to Marshalsea, the London debtors' prison. At age twelve, Dickens had to leave school and was sent to work at a blacking warehouse gluing labels on bottles of shoe polish. At the time, Dickens lived in cheap lodgings and often went hungry. He visited his family, who had joined his father in prison, but felt abandoned by them. Although this situation lasted less than a year, it left a lasting impression of humiliation, rejection, and misery on young Charles.
When his father was released from prison, Dickens returned to school, although his mother wanted him to continue working to support the family. Though he excelled in his studies, at age fifteen Dickens left school, and at eighteen he obtained a reading card for the library at the British Museum, where he continued to educate himself. After leaving school, Dickens worked for two years as a law clerk, then for four years preparing shorthand court reports for the lawyers. As a result of his quickness and accuracy he was offered a job as a newspaper reporter for the Morning Chronicle. From 1834 to 1836 he was a political reporter in Parliament and was soon writing feature articles and sketches about members of Parliament, politics, the London scene, and a variety of characters. His reading audiences enjoyed the absurdities he noted—even in serious situations. Around 1830, Dickens fell in love with Mary Beadnell, a girl several years older than himself. When she broke off the relationship, Dickens resolved to work hard and become successful, and in 1834 his first writings were published. In 1836 he published his first book, Sketches by "Boz", a collection of his periodical contributions, which was well received by critics. George Hogarth, reviewing the book, commented that Dickens was a "close and acute observer of character and manners, with a strong sense of the ridiculous."
Also in 1836, Dickens married Hogarth's daughter Kate. One year later, Dickens welcomed his first child and his first literary success, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1837), vignettes about a group of characters who go out hunting and fishing in the country. Illustrations were done by Hablot Knight Browne under the pseudonym "Phiz." The characters Sam Weller and Sam's father Tony were hugely popular with reading audiences, and this book cemented Dickens's stature in the literary world. The story appealed to all classes, without offensive language or compromising incidents, and signaled the beginning of a long and auspicious writing career.
Within the next four years Dickens published Oliver Twist, or the Parish Boy's Progress (1838), The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1839), The Old Curiosity Shop (1841), and Barnaby Rudge (1841); all but Barnaby Rudge were popular successes. In 1842 Dickens visited America with his wife but was disappointed by the slavery and political situations he witnessed there. On his return from America he wrote American Notes for General Circulation (1842), which criticized America so severely that his reputation in the United States suffered for a period. By the time Dickens published A Christmas Carol, in Prose (1843), five of his ten children had been born. Supporting such a large family, plus a sister-in-law and his needy father strained Dickens financially; in 1844 he temporarily moved his family to Italy, where expenses were half what they were in London. While in Italy he wrote travel sketches about Italy as well as more Christmas stories, and he published The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit (1844), a novel treating greed which was not very successful. In 1846 Dickens moved his family to Switzerland, again in efforts to save money, and while there wrote Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son, Wholesale, Retail, and for Exportation (1848), a novel that marks the beginning of his mature period. His next novel, The Personal History of David Copperfield (1851), a highly autobiographical novel, demonstrates a darker outlook, more serious themes, and a change to more character-driven plots. During the 1850s and 1860s Dickens owned and edited his own magazine, Household Words, and increased the frequency of his public speaking engagements, scheduling readings throughout Great Britain and America. In 1858 he separated from his wife. She took their oldest child and left Dickens with the other nine children and her sister, who were soon joined by Dickens's mistress, Nelly Ternan, twenty-seven years his junior. The affair was kept secret from the public during his lifetime and revealed only in 1939. Toward the end of his life, Dickens quarreled with his publishers, found a new publisher, and started the magazine All Year Round, in which he serially published A Tale of Two Cities (1859) and Great Expectations (1861). As Dickens grew older, his production slowed and the time between novels increased. He made a final American tour in 1868, and although it was successful, he returned home exhausted and ill. During the summer in 1870, after a long day of working on his last and unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870), Dickens suffered a stroke and died the next day. Although he wanted to be buried in Rochester near his sister-in-law Mary Hogarth, his request was denied and he was interred in the Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey. His grave was left open for two days to accommodate the mourners, but when the doors of the abbey closed there were still a thousand people waiting outside to pay their respects.
Dickens's first novel, Oliver Twist, focuses on the unfairness of laws governing the poor. It was published in installments in Bentley's Miscellany with illustrations by George Cruikshank. Oliver, the protagonist, is born in the workhouse to a dying mother and is put in an orphanage, where he is mistreated and starved. Sent to apprentice to an undertaker, he runs away to London, where he associates with criminals. He begins his training as a pickpocket under the tutelage of the Artful Dodger and joins Fagin's gang of child thieves but is rescued by the kindly Mr. Brownlow, who turns out to be his grandfather. In the novel, Dickens uses a combination of comedy and tragedy, a technique he would continue to employ in the future. He contrasts the cheeky antics of the Artful Dodger with the brutal environment of the poorhouse and the savagery of the underworld in this work.
Probably Dickens's most famous work and unquestionably his most popular, A Christmas Carol created a new genre of Christmas ghost stories and set a tone for the Christmas season that strongly influenced succeeding generations of celebrants. The parsimonious and cranky Ebenezer Scrooge finds himself the victim of a haunting on Christmas Eve. He is visited first by his old and long-dead partner, who warns him of the danger his soul faces and offers him salvation if he heeds the spirits who will visit him that night. During the night, Scrooge meets three ghosts, the spirits of Christmases past, present, and future, who show him what his life was, is, and will be if he does not change his ways. In the morning, Scrooge has undergone a spiritual transformation and become part of the communal psyche. A Christmas Carol was an immediate financial, literary, and popular success. Many renditions of A Christmas Carol, in the form of plays, musicals, spoofs, and modernizations, have been produced for the stage, screen, television, and radio.
Many critics assert that Dickens invented some of his best characters for David Copperfield, including the profligate Mr. Macawber, based on his own father, the unctuous Uriah Heep, the formidable Betsy Trotwood, and the endearing Peggoty and her family. In the novel, David's father dies before he is born, and his mother remarries a harsh and cruel man, Mr. Murdstone. Murdstone sends David to a school where he suffers cruelly, and when David's mother dies, he is sent to work in a menial job. Rescued by his Aunt Betsy Trotwood, he finally receives an education. He makes an unsuitable marriage to the silly and impractical Dora, mourns her death, furthers his education with travel, and at last returns to marry Agnes, his true love, and begin his life as a writer. David Copperfield was concerned less with social crusades than Dickens's earlier novels were, and critics note the novel as the beginning of a new phase of his work in which he became more concerned with his characters.
A Tale of Two Cities (1859) is often required reading in high school English literature courses. The novel takes place during the French Revolution, although Dickens treats the political situation more as a backdrop than an inherent part of the story. Fast-moving and full of action, the story follows Sydney Carton, an English lawyer in love with a French woman, Lucie Manette. Lucie loves and marries Charles Darnay, a French aristocrat who has fled to London to escape the Revolution. When Darnay returns to Paris on a mission, he is captured and condemned to the guillotine. Carton, who looks like Darnay, rescues Darnay and takes Darnay's place on the scaffold, speaking the line, "It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done." His unselfish sacrifice leaves Lucie happy with the man she loves and who loves her. Although there are historical inaccuracies in the book, factual history was not important to Dickens.
Originally conceived as a comic novel to bail out Dickens's failing magazine All Year Round, Great Expectations (1861) became Dickens's masterpiece. Philip Pirrip, nicknamed Pip, is a poor orphan who lives with his strict sister and her husband in a coastal town near the moors. One day he chances upon an escaped prisoner in the marshes and tries to help him. Although the prisoner is recaptured, he tells Pip he will repay him. Pip is subsequently summoned to the home of the eccentric Miss Havisham to play with her adopted daughter, Estella. Pip falls in love with Estella, but Miss Havisham, nursing and nurturing the hurt she received when she was left at the altar many years ago, is raising Estella to have no heart; Estella cannot return Pip's affection. Miss Havisham gives Pip money to become apprentice to a blacksmith, and when he later receives money to move to London and set himself up as a gentleman, he assumes it also comes from her. While in London he pursues his education, sees Estella married to another man, and discovers that his true benefactor, the escaped convict Abel Magwitch, is Estella's father. Eleven years later, Pip is working in an export business and decides to visit home. Miss Havisham has died in a fire, and Estella has been widowed. Her experiences have matured and changed her, and she and Pip are finally able to be united.
Less well-known than his novels are Dickens's many short stories, most of them published in Household Words and All Year Round, his own periodicals. Many of his short stories are ghost tales set around the Christmas season and involve magic and memories, such as The Child's Story (1852), about an elderly man, and The Magic Fish-Bone (1868), written in the style of a folk tale. The Life of Our Lord was written by Dickens for his own children and was read to them every Christmas as part of their traditional family celebration. It was not published until 1934, after his children were deceased.
Dickens's work was immensely popular during his lifetime, with wild public anticipation greeting each installment of his ongoing novels as they were published in periodicals. Vast readerships were saddened by the death of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop, and Dickens's unfavorable commentary about Americans in American Notes aroused national outrage among his American readers. His exposure of social ills elicited the full range of public opinion, and the name Charles Dickens was well-known in every English-speaking household. At his death, the world grieved his passing, with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow proclaiming he had never known "an author's death to cause such general mourning."
Dickens's life and works have been the subject of tomes of critical analysis and attention. His books remain in print more than 125 years after his death and are required reading in many high school and college literature courses. Irving Howe wrote: "With the opening chapter of Oliver Twist, Dickens made his way, forever, into world literature.… [I]n its opening chapters … we can recognize the Dickens who belongs in the company of [Nikolai] Gogol, [Honore de] Balzac, and [Fyodor] Dostoevsky." Critics and popular audiences alike have embraced Dickens's works, identifying with the common themes and reveling in the succinct characterizations and vivid depictions. Matthew Titolo suggested that David Copperfield was a milestone for Dickens: " David Copperfield, Charles Dickens's first aesthetically grown-up novel, ironically signals its maturity by linking novel-writing itself with the vicissitudes of childhood.… [The novel] invites us to embrace the ethical compromises of professional life, creating one of the most seductive liberal allegories of grown-up independence in modern literature." Dickens's novels and short stories have been adapted to picture books, "Junior Editions," comic book format, and other bowdlerizations; plays, musicals, films, and television specials based on his work abound and continue to be produced and revived; and he is credited with almost single-handedly creating the holiday atmosphere and expectations now common to the Christmas season.
* Sketches by "Boz," Illustrative of Every-Day Life and Every-Day People [as Boz] (essays and short stories) 1836
The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club [as Boz] (short stories) 1837
† Oliver Twist, or the Parish Boy's Progress (novel) 1838
The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (novel) 1839
Barnaby Rudge: A Tale of the Riots of 'Eighty (novel) 1841
The Old Curiosity Shop (novel) 1841
American Notes for General Circulation (essays) 1842
A Christmas Carol, in Prose: Being a Ghost Story of Christmas (novella) 1843
The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit (novel) 1844
The Chimes: A Goblin Story of Some Bells That Rang an Old Year Out and a New Year In (novella) 1845
The Cricket on the Hearth: A Fairy Tale of Home (novella) 1846
Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son, Wholesale, Retail, and for Exportation (novel) 1848
The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain: A Fancy for Christmas-Time (short stories) 1848
The Personal History of David Copperfield (novel) 1851
The Child's Story (short story) 1852
A Child's History of England [originally published in three volumes] (history) 1852-1854
Bleak House (novel) 1853
Hard Times: For These Times (novel) 1854
Little Dorrit (novel) 1857
A Tale of Two Cities (novel) 1859
Great Expectations (novel) 1861
The Uncommercial Traveller (short stories) 1861
Our Mutual Friend (novel) 1865
The Magic Fish-Bone (short story) 1868
The Mystery of Edwin Drood (unfinished novel) 1870
The Life of Our Lord (short story) 1934
*The first series was published in two volumes in 1836; the second series was published in 1837. These were both republished as Watkins Tottle and Other Sketches Illustrative of Every-Day Life and Every-Day People and The Tuggs's at Ramsgate and Other Sketches Illustrative of Every-Day Life and Every-Day People, both in 1837.
†All of Dickens's novels were originally published serially in magazines, usually over periods of one to two years.
Matthew Cooper (essay date December 1988)
SOURCE: Cooper, Matthew. "Why We Need a New Dickens: Everyone Cares about Oliver Twist. Now We Need to Help the Artful Dodgers." Washington Monthly 20, no. 11 (December 1988): 48-52.
[In the following essay, Cooper considers the inspiration for and nature of Dickens's appeals for social reforms and the need for a similar voice to address current social problems.]
Christmas is always the busy season for Dickens, but this year there's more going on than usual. There's a Bill Murray remake of A Christmas Carol (playing the perfect eighties Scrooge—a TV exec too busy to do lunch with his ghost) and, for the truly sturdy, a two-part, six-hour film of Little Dorrit. Coming soon: Disney's Oliver Twist. And a new biography of Dickens is getting prominent reviews, including front-page billing in The Washington Post Book World.
But what's been missing from the articles I've read about these works is the recognition of Dickens's central accomplishment: he prodded (and entertained) millions of readers into caring about the poor. Instead of seeing the poor, as Malthus did, as some abstract, seething mass of "surplus population," Dickens saw them as individuals, engaging enough to merit novels of 700, 800, 900 pages. He made his readers see them that way too. And that was a revolutionary accomplishment,
One indication of his influence lies in numbers. He was the best-selling author in Victorian England, writing novels that became standard household items, as common as candles and brooms. In the 12 years after he died, nearly four million copies of his books sold in Britain alone—an amazing feat even by Stephen King standards. When it came to influence, Daniel Webster argued that Dickens had "done more to ameliorate the condition of the English poor than all the statesmen Great Britain had sent into Parliament." Even the conservative Economist conceded that Dickens fueled "the age's passion—we call it so designedly—which prevails to improve the condition of the working classes." Queen Victoria hailed his humanizing influence on the nation and his "strongest sympathy with the poorer classes."
As for the poor themselves, they not only saw Dickens as their champion, they read him. Journals of the period are filled with accounts of chimney sweeps and factory hands captured by his work. And when they couldn't make out all the words, there were plenty of illustrations to help them along. The working classes responded by deluging Dickens with invitations to speak before their guilds. "Ah! Mr. Dickens," shouted a carriage driver to Dickens's son, on the day of the novelist's funeral. "Your father's death was a great loss to all of us—and we cabbies were in hopes that he would be doing something to help us."
It was not without reason, then, that Dostoevski called Dickens "the great Christian."' Characters like Oliver Twist and Mr. Bumble, who ran the infamous workhouse, carry lessons as old as the New Testament. When Mr. Bumble terrorized Oliver for asking for a second helping of gruel, even affluent Englishmen knew how the orphan felt. They knew, too, that they had an obligation to help. That kind of empathy stoked the era's major reform movements. The resulting bouquet of triumphs included everything from fewer working hours to free education and universal suffrage.
There's more to Dickens, though, than misty-eyed sentiment. His was a subtle and muscular vision that recognized (and condemned) the sins of impoverished individuals as well as the collective guilt of a society. Dickens gives us not only Oliver Twist but Fagin, the criminal ringleader who pressgangs Oliver into service. He's no victim of society. Fagin's problem is Fagin.
Is there any relevance in this today? After all, the sprawling squalor of Victorian Britain has gone the way of the workhouse. The laissez-faire liberalism that Dickens deplored is light-years away from today's social welfare state. (No food stamps had Oliver. No case-worker.) But America today is in at least one way like the England of the 1830s: most of us see the underclass as a seething, abstract mob. Of course, it's not just our artists who've failed us, but our politicans too. And it's too much to expect all art to serve as social glue, binding each of us to the concerns of the less fortunate. But today, when so much fiction is either mired in minimalist ennui or panting with the lifestyles of the rich and promiscuous, we need someone who can animate our social concern. We need a new Dickens.
A Street-Walking Man
Where to find one? My guess is that it can only be someone who has seen poverty up close; perhaps a journalist. Dickens himself became acquainted with the poor as what today's social scientists would call a "participant observer." He was one of them.
His father, John Dickens, tried to give his children a life of parlours and singing lessons on the paycheck of a navy clerk. As a result, like so many working people of the time, the Dickens family floated in and 'out of debtors' prison (bringing their servant with them, as was the custom of the day). By 1822, when Charles was ten, debt's constant tug forced his family to yank him out of school and place him in a factory pasting labels on pots of shoe polish. When not at work, he spent long days wandering the alleys of work-weary London. With his parents often imprisoned, describing what he saw there became a way of mastering a hostile world. He'd jot down dozens of "sketches," detailed descriptions of just about anything he'd run into. They captured not only turmoil and toil, but character Typical was the one about his uncle's Soho barber, a man who, playing Monday-morning quarterback, recounted how he would have guided Napoleon's troops at Waterloo.
Eventually his family earned its freedom and Dickens became a law clerk, allowing him to tame "the savagery of stenography," as he put it, and later become a reporter. At the time, reporting mostly meant taking shorthand, but Dickens was so talented an editor called him "the most rapid, the most accurate, and the most trustworthy reporter then engaged on the London press."
His star rising, Dickens didn't leave the poor behind. Instead he sketched them. Under the pseudonym "Boz," he churned out copy about vulgar vendors, ragged children, raging arguments. In "The Pawn-broker's Shop," Dickens presented his comfortable readers with a prostitute: "the lowest of the low; dirty, unbonneted, flaunting and slovenly." In his "Visit to Newgate," he took them inside a prison that housed children. "Fourteen terrible little faces we never beheld.—There was not one redeeming feature among them—not a glance of honesty—not a wink expressive of anything but the gallows and the hulks, in the whole collection."
This kind of firsthand experience became central to Dickens's fiction. To write Hard Times, for instance, he traveled to the north to cover a workers' strike. He was no sit-in-the-study author. After writing in the mornings Dickens would take afternoon walks of ten miles or more that returned him to the streets that powered his prose.
Obviously it wasn't just the reporting that made Dickens Dickens. It takes a little more than stenography, and a lot of something called imagination, to spin a 900-page novel. But Dickens's immersion in street life made his novels richer. When a barrister picked up Dickens's work, he saw his servants and his slums. He saw his London.
The stenographer's eye and the novelist's mind gave Dickens the ability—virtually unprecedented—to make the poor seem real. As Gertrude Himmelfarb explains in The Idea of Poverty, this was a time when servants were invisible, even to their masters. When a contemporary critic hailed Dickens's talent for making a "washerwoman as interesting as a duchess," it was a tribute not only to Dickens's wonderful prose, but to his new vision.
After all, one of the main characters in his first lengthy work of fiction, the serial Pickwick Papers, is Sam Weller, a servant. He not only fails to remain invisible; more often than not he seems a good deal wiser than his master. When he first signs on as Pick-wick's valet, the negotiations turn into a "Who's-on-first?" routine that sounds like Weller is hiring Pickwick. Weller still seems in control when Pickwick checks into an inn. After Pickwick stumbles into the wrong bedroom, only to be kicked out by a very unhappy woman, it's Weller who rescues him and guides him to his room. "You rather want somebody to look after you, sir when your judgement goes out a wistin'," Weller chirps. The servant's introduction in the serial's fourth issue sent sales surging.
In his next book, Oliver Twist, and throughout the other novels he was to write until his death in 1870, Dickens stuck to the simple proposition that no class had a monopoly on smarts or morality or decency or humor. This was a revolutionary creed at a time when the affluent saw the poor as a mob—to be feared or appeased, perhaps, but definitely not to be considered as individuals. And the rich were scarcely alone in their class-bound vision. As Dickens was spinning novels, the history of the working class in Manchester was being written by a German emigre named Friedrich Engels.
The idea of Jacobin-style revolution haunted Dickens, who poured his fears into prose in A Tale of Two Cities. In our century of failed revolutions, there's no more haunting or timely image than Dickens's Madame Defarge, knitting by the guillotine. He recognized that, just as the poor weren't all good, the rich weren't all bad. His pages brim with venal landlords, nasty bankers, and callous captains of industry; but good-guy capitalists pop up too. A product of the streets himself, Dickens saw no romance in revolution. It's not the proletariat who overthrew Scrooge, but his conscience.
If Dickens feared revolution, he didn't fall into the opposite trap of forgetting why mobs charged the barricades. He understood that the capitalist society was rife with institutions that kept the poor down. The villains of Hard Times aren't just bad apples, but overlords of a cruel factory system, dehumanizing in the monotony of its work. The tragedies of Bleak House, one of his last and gloomiest books, are found in the systematic injustice of the courts. By challenging these institutions, he made the lawyer or factory owner see that they shared responsibility.
The Idea of Poverty
And when Dickens trained his guns, liberals weren't exempt. The workhouse that Dickens took on in Oliver Twist was one of the most prominent liberal programs of his day. Today it's hard to think of the book's cruel overseers as being progressive. But the Poor Law of 1834 was considered a great liberal victory, one that would segregate the indebted poor and prevent them from dragging their fiscally responsible neighbors into the red. (Talk about the unintended consequences of liberal reform.) When Oliver meekly seeks a double dose of gruel, we see unbridled cruelty. "Enlightened" Victorians saw themselves.
And what they saw was folly. Consider the way that Mr. Bumble—who runs the "progressive" workhouse—understands Oliver's revolt.
"What?" exclaimed Mrs. Sowerberry.
"Meat, ma'am, meat," replied Bumble, with stern emphasis. "You've over-fed him, ma'am. You've raised a artificial soul and spirit in him, ma'am, unbecoming a person in his condition."
The humor of the scene helps carry its meaning. Had Dickens's criticisms been heavy-handed, as Steven Marcus points out, middle-class readers wouldn't have touched his works. Instead of promoting a specific alternative to the workhouse, he satirized it, appealing to his readers' Christian charity. A second key to Dickens's success is his choice of the symbol of the good child, in Oliver Twist or Little Dorrit or David Copperfield. He tapped the well-springs of protectiveness that cultures can be made to feel for the young. Martin Luther King put that same insight into action when Birmingham school children stared down firehoses and police dogs, leaving us with one of the most arresting images of the civil rights movement.
But even as he skewered institutions, Dickens understood that the poor were often in the wrong themselves. If anything, there's a schism in his writing, dividing what you might call, for lack of better terms, the worthy poor from the unworthy between those who merit our admiration and those who don't.
Winning hands down in the Worthy Category, family division, are the Christmas Carol 's Cratchits. It's not just their "conditions" that make them sympathetic—the fact that they're poor or that Bob Cratchit has a boss like Scrooge or that Tiny Tim needs crutches. It's the family's own nobility that lends the story such power, remake after remake. One clear signal to Victorian readers was the Cratchits' white-glove cleanliness—a paramount virtue at a time when filth was almost always followed by disease. The Cratchits were "darned and brushed" before the Christmas feast. After supper "the cloth was cleared, the hearth swept." In the Cratchits, like Oliver Twist or David Copperfield or Little Dorrit, respectable British middle-class readers found an ideal of themselves.
Meanwhile, a first in Unworthiness might go to the brickmakers of Bleak House, who seem like something out of a documentary on battered wives. We spy them when Mrs. Piggle happens by. "An't my place dirty? Yes, it is dirty—it's nat'rally dirty, and it's nat'rally onwholesome," boasts the father. 'And we've had five dirty and onwholesome children, as is all dead infants, and so much the better for them.… And how did my wife get that black eye? Why, I giv' it her; and if she says I didn't she's a Lie!" Today, when many liberals still romanticize the poor, Dickens's ability to distinguish poverty from nobility is well worth remembering.
Dickens understood that there were good and bad individuals within every class. But he rarely saw the individuals who were a mixture of good and bad. His heroes and heroines don't whine, don't curse, and even though they're raised in the company of foulmouthed, cockney villains, they speak the King's English. To be sure, his supporting cast could include people like the Peggottys in David Copperfield who were not so well spoken. But they too were practically flawless. This strict division between the worthy and the unworthy poor is more than an aesthetic flaw. It limits Dickens's relevance today.
Dickens makes his readers want to help the deserving poor. And, indeed, the Victorian (and New Deal) reforms that were, in part, inspired by Dickens focused on these able-to-help-themselves characters. Kids who'd be okay if child labor was abolished; workers who'd prosper with a union. This is the story of America through the 1950s: the New Deal and rising prosperity catapult the "worthy" poor into the middle class. Oliver goes to Levittown.
This left behind an underclass that seemed short on lovable Cratchits and long on pregnant teens, drug addicts, and gang members. What we don't have is the popular literature that will jar the affluent into caring about these less savory characters. We don't have the literature that will condemn their faults and recognize that these are people who can be helped. When I worked in a Big Brothers program in New York City, I remember noticing that there was no novel or film that got at the downright weird complexities of those tenements I visited on 102nd Street. I couldn't point to any book that explained how those kids could be such utter failures in school, unable at age 15 to write a single sentence, and still be as sharp and savvy and as alert as any kids I had known growing up in the New Jersey suburbs. There was no film that I could tell my friends about that captured the complexity of those mothers I would meet who'd blow much of their money on VCRs, and HBO, but who were also selfless when it came to helping their kids. There was—and still is—no writer who combines great talent and great popularity and who captures that bizarre marriage of sin and decency I saw in those tenement families.
The Dickens character who most reflects our dilemma is the Artful Dodger, the young pickpocket who befriends Oliver Twist. He's engaging to be sure. The first thing we see him do is take Oliver drinking; by the end, he's in court, trying to sweettalk a magistrate into pardoning him. But he's a side dish. We never understand or care about him the way we care about Oliver. The next Dickens needs to put us not in our Olivers' shoes, but in those of our own Artful Dodgers.
While a new Dickens couldn't cure poverty, he could inspire personal commitment from the middle class. I don't mean the anesthesia of paying for yet another government program, but involvement. And that takes understanding. Public health care won't improve unless talented doctors and nurses want to choose Harlems over Humans, at least for a few years. We won't really become a kinder, gentler nation unless our leaders know something that's true about those on the bottom. But working with or for the poor requires inspiration; it doesn't come naturally. Individuals disappoint. Projects collapse. Easier lives beckon. Great art, as opposed to Brookings reports, can be the spur we need.
In 1945 Lionel Trilling lamented that no writer in his day had done what many of the leading Victorian writers had done—combine great literature and social concern. "In three-four decades, the liberal progressive has not produced a single writer that itself respects and reads with interest. A list of writers in our time shows that liberal progressivism was a matter of indifference to every writer of large mind—Proust, Joyce, Lawrence, Eliot, Mann, Kafka, Yeats." The absence of such a writer may have been a marginal loss in the middle of this century, when the politics of the time were liberal even if the great novelists were not or when poverty seemed like it could be erased simply through economic expansion and a few social reforms. Today when politicians are retreating from helping the poor and growth offers no panacea, we need another Dickens to inspire each of us to help.
I don't know if there will be a single figure—be it a novelist or filmmaker or journalist—who can animate a nation's imagination the way Dickens did, or whether it may take a disparate group, or even an artistic movement. But I'm certain those Dickens-like qualities will not be had by some writer-in-residence strolling the hallowed halls of Haverford. The Dickens mantle demands a life outside the academy, exposed to the real world. It belongs to the writer who can make us care not only about our Tiny Tims but our Artful Dodgers, too.
Robert Sirabian (essay date summer 1996)
SOURCE: Sirabian, Robert. "Dickens's Little Dorrit. " Explicator 54, no. 4 (summer 1996): 216-20.
[In the following essay, Sirabian comments on the character of Flora Finching, positing that she is more fully and deeply drawn than most of Dickens's female characters.]
Dickens's female characters traditionally have been divided into three types: evil (associated with passion or parental neglect); angelic (associated with the selfless devotion to domestic and maternal duties); and comic (associated with silliness). This type of division not only creates a limited conception of gender roles but also oversimplifies Dickens's attitudes toward his female characters and their relationships with men. When we first meet Flora Finching in Little Dorrit, she appears to be another of Dickens's stereotyped comic females; but as Michael Slater points out, "the more we see (and hear) of Flora, and of the genuine kindness and shrewd common sense that lies beneath her foolish manner, the more we come to accept her as a complex and sympathetic human being" (Slater 246). Flora's "foolish manner" is often interpreted as a mental deficiency, but a more careful examination of her character reveals that her capricious dialogues are part of her role-playing.
A central preoccupation in Dickens's personal life, role-playing allows Flora the freedom to explore other selves that social convention and day-to-day duties prohibit. While some Dickensian role players, such as Rigaud, carry their play to extremes—withdrawing from society behind the Dionysian mask of play—Flora's role-playing is a creative means of self-discovery, of challenging her fixed identity as widow and caretaker of her husband's aunt. Rather than remaining trapped as an aging widow within the narrow confines of her father's house, she explores the meanings of selfhood, including possibilities for romantic relationships that still exist for her. Much like Jenny Wren's play world on the rooftop garden in Our Mutual Friend, Flora's play world, created through her role-playing, is an intermediate space linking her past, present, and future where she can—finally, by confronting Arthur—attempt to redefine her existence.
Flora's socially fixed identity as a secluded widow and caretaker conflicts with the buried emotions of her past. Childhood sweethearts who had fallen in love, Flora and Arthur were forcibly separated by Mrs. Clennam and Flora's father because of religious and class differences. After marrying Mr. Finching and becoming his devoted wife until his death, Flora accepts her position as a quiet, self-sacrificing woman while looking after Mr. Finching's aunt. When she meets Arthur again, however, she reveals a different Flora who is trying to make sense of her personal history and find her place in the present. The freedom of role-playing results from her ability to lose herself in her play; yet unlike the schizophrenic, she is still conscious of the world around her. According to Eugen Fink, "[Humans] exist in two spheres simultaneously, not for lack of concentration or out of forgetfulness, but because this double personality is essential to play" (23). Flora's position becomes relational, encompassing not just her past but accounting for the present and future as well.
When she meets Arthur in the novel, Flora recalls for him their past and the way in which they were abruptly separated. Constantly excusing her indulgences in the past and apologizing for addressing Arthur too informally (by his first name), she recreates herself before him, playing the role of a young lover who tries to rekindle the passion of her old companion. As she does this, Arthur notes Flora's joy in recollecting her past life, describing her ebullience as she acts out past roles. Arthur sees her "putting herself and him in their old places, and going through all the old performances—now, when the stage was dusty, when the scenery was faded, when the youthful actors were dead, when the orchestra was empty, when the lights were out" (Dickens 196-97; bk. 1, ch. 13). For Arthur, childhood is unrecoverable, faded like the scene of a performance that can never be replayed; and the emotions and feelings that he and Flora experienced are for practical purposes gone in his mind forever, destroyed by the harshness of the world over which, as children, they had no control. This is not the case with Flora. Although she accepts her duties as a devoted wife and as supporter of Mr. Finching's aunt, she negotiates the limits of a somber past with the possibilities of the present and future. Her acting out of scenes extends her past, like a continuous performance, into the present, allowing her to speculate about buried emotions of desire and love and to recreate her identity as a vibrant woman rather than a devoted caretaker. The play Flora actively engages in allows her to resist the imposition of a dead present and a fixed role within it. Whereas Arthur views their places in society as prescribed and unchangeable, Flora searches for possibilities through play.
Flora's continual self-corrections for "inadvertently" referring to Arthur by his first name rather than using a formal salutation are part of her role-playing, her attempt to revive his feelings and thoughts in order to understand her own. She does not wish to be recognized by Arthur as Mr. Finching's widow or the provider for his aunt, and Flora's continual self-deprecation about her status is her way of undercutting his polite affirmation of her life. In discussing the concept of imitation in play, Hans-Georg Gadamer observes that a child does not dress up in order to be discovered behind a disguise, but rather "intends that what he [or she] represents should exist, and if something is to be guessed, then this is it" (102). Assuming the role of a chattering, playful woman, Flora wants Arthur to see what she represents in the present, but she is not hiding behind a disguise nor is her imitation an end in itself. The dynamics of her play become clear when upon her tetea-tete with Arthur at the counting house in Bleeding Heart Yard, he prepares for the intrusion of her father and Mr. Pancks:
Once more he [Arthur] put his hand frankly to poor Flora; once more poor Flora couldn't accept it frankly, found it worth nothing openly, must make the old intrigue and mystery of it. As much to her own enjoyment as to his dismay, she covered it with a corner of her shawl as she took it … and seeing two figures approaching, she cried with infinite relish, "Papa! Hush, Arthur, for Mercy's sake!" and tottered back to her chair with an amazing imitation of being in danger of swooning, in the dread surprise and maidenly flutter of her spirits.
(318: bk. 1, ch. 24)
Flora's audience is not only Arthur. Playing for her own enjoyment, she delights in acting out roles of the childhood lover and flustered maiden and in distressing Arthur, whose inability to play has deadened him. Her purpose, however, is not simply to imitate a character type but to create a new self composed of unexpressed feelings from the past—feelings whose absence continually redefines her present—and of imaginative possibilities she projects. Rather than a serious, externally driven activity, play, for Flora, is internally driven, a creative exploration of selfhood. Her role-playing is not simple fantasy but rather a mediation of genuine feelings and desires based on an established past and a projected, imaginative present and future.
Flora's exploration of identity is underscored by her language, which is constructed of disjointed clauses linked together with conjunctions and commas. An absence of any perceivable structure to her syntax or of expected grammatical markers makes her intended meaning difficult to grasp, thus characterizing her as foolish or dimwitted. But this perception results because Flora's language, like her identity, resists set structures which would rigidly fix it within social and cultural conventions. Her language is structured around its play of ideas rather than by conventional transitional and grammatical markers. Fred Kaplan notes that both Joyce's Molly Bloom and Flora Finching are fascinated "by the picturesque, by the promise and allure of a reality that will be far more intense than their present accommodations to rather ordinary lives: and in both the strategic use of the conjunction 'and' is basic to the impression of visionary, semiconscious continuity within their discontinuity of syntax and language" (345).
Her understanding of human nature reveals itself in Flora's intuitive and compassionate attitude toward Mr. Finching's aunt. She sees beneath the facade of the old, garrulous woman and responds to her spontaneous outbursts with patience and dignity. Whereas Arthur has no patience for the aunt and views her as an annoyance, Flora understands her. Flora recognizes that the aunt's sudden retorts at the world are her means of self-expression; but unlike her, Flora chooses not to close herself off from the world. The women represent two possibilities, one a retreat into the self and the other an exploration of the self. With Amy's marriage to Arthur, Flora must accept the "closing scene" between herself and Arthur. Although she sincerely wishes them well, she leaves the novel with an air of despondency. Her relationship with Arthur is resolved, but her future is still undetermined. Whether or not she experiences the romance of her youth again, she will not, like Mr. Finching's aunt, become withdrawn from the world. Flora is one of Dickens's women characters who is realized as a complex human being rather than serving as a comic type, or as an example of dutiful womanhood, such as Agnes Wickfield in David Copperfield. Resisting the resolution of Victorian closure, Flora remains within the realm of play, reenacting the faded scenes of her past as she explores and redefines her identity beyond the confines of Dickens's novel.
Dickens. Charles. Little Dorrit. Ed. John Holloway. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967.
Fink, Eugen. "The Oasis of Happiness: Toward an Ontology of Play." Trans. Ute and Thomas Saine. Yale French Studies 41 (1968): 19-30.
Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method. New York: Crossroad, 1975.
Kaplan, Fred. "Dickens's Flora Finching and Joyce's Molly Bloom." Nineteenth-Century Fiction 23 (1968): 343-46.
Slater, Michael. Dickens and Women. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1983.
Catherine J. Golden (essay date fall 2000)
SOURCE: Golden, Catherine J. "Late-Twentieth-Century Readers in Search of a Dickensian Heroine: Angels, Fallen Sisters, and Eccentric Women." Modern Language Studies 30, no. 2 (fall 2000): 5-19.
[In the following essay, Golden offers a critical analysis of Dickens's stereotypes of women.]
A paradox confronts late-twentieth-century readers examining the novels of Charles Dickens. Dickens's skill in narration, description, multiplot structure, and imagery merit our scrupulous attention. Works including Oliver Twist (1838), A Christmas Carol (1843), David Copperfield (1850), and Hard Times (1854) present a Dickens who is progressive in his treatment of children, the poor, and education. The meanspiritedness of Scrooge's outrage when refusing to provide for the destitute still stings: "'Are there no prisons?'… 'And the Union workhouses?' … 'Are they still in operation?'" (25). Thomas Gradgrind's opening lines of Hard Times —"'Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else'" (47)—indelibly implant the importance of progressive education. Noteworthy also is Dickens's awareness of the victimization of women by villainous men, whom he created in the likes of the vicious robber Bill Sikes of Oliver Twist and the repulsive, menacing dwarf, Daniel Quilp, of The Old Curiosity Shop (1841). Women's connection to violence becomes more perturbing and timely when we consider Dickens's portrayals of women berating and even disfiguring other women within the perimeter of his novels. However, Dickens's depictions of women in these and other of his works seem startling lacking and thoroughly steeped in the traditional views of his times.
Different from contemporary women authors—particularly Charlotte Brontë, who offers spirited Jane of Jane Eyre (1847), or George Eliot, who provides spunky, strong-willed Maggie Tulliver of The Mill on the Floss (1860)—Dickens idealizes the angelic woman. As Patricia Ingham and Merryn Williams note, respectively, in Dickens, Women, & Language (1992) and Women in the English Novel, 1800-1900 (1984), Dickens's female characters fit easily into categorized types. Any fictional type, or composite of characteristics, when imposed on a character by an author, may well reinforce and reflect not only the beliefs of the author but prevailing cultural assumptions, in this case surrounding gender. Drawing examples from text and illustration, I group Dickensian women into three types that resonate in Victorian literature: angels, fallen sisters, and eccentrics. My categories differ from Ingham's and Williams's and do not intend to be comprehensive.1 If we evaluate these models of womanhood according to the Victorian society which fostered as well as criticized them, we can better understand why each leaves modern readers dissatisfied. All three types of Dickensian women pose problems for late-twentieth-century readers in search of a viable Dickensian heroine. While still not satisfying to modern readers, the eccentric woman emerges as the most intriguing of the Dickensian types, revealing an inversion in values of Victorian culture and today.
Agnes Wickfield of David Copperfield, Dickens's favorite novel, ideally represents the Victorian angel in the house. She epitomizes Dickens's ideal woman, a rich reward for every man as well as for David, his fictionalized self and most beloved character. The Dickensian angel demonstrates a model of womanhood, exceedingly popular in the 1840s and 50s, that seems too saccharine, self-effacing, and domestic to a late-twentieth-century readership. Often associated with the stained glass windows of a church, Agnes is ever pointing David upward to higher things. Acting as surrogate wife to her rapidly deteriorating father and sister to David, Agnes embodies the qualities of the angel in the house, immortalized in Coventry Patmore's sequence of poems The Angel in the House (1854-63): patience, unselfishness, earnestness, faithfulness, and devotion.
Agnes and those Dickensian angels who stand behind her also match George Elgar Hicks's depiction of the prototype in Woman's Mission: Companion to Manhood (1863). Hicks designed this canvas as part of a trilogy to illustrate three phases of a woman's duties of ministering angel: tending her infant son, comforting her husband, and ministering to her father in old age.2 Dressed in a demure rich-brown taffeta gown ornamented with lace, Hicks's feminine, supportive, and devoted wife sympathetically ministers to her husband within the orderly haven she has created for him on earth. This now cloying narrative painting tells the story of a wife, who, as country singers might croon today, is "standing by her man" during his hour of trial; upon receiving news of a bereavement, he covers his face with his right hand to conceal his emotion. Hicks takes pains to show how neatly and carefully this loving and attentive wife, in fulfilling her mission as "companion to manhood," has arranged the breakfast things including the morning mail, which carries a black-edged envelope, bringing her husband the devastating news of death.
The selfless Victorian angel approaches the divine on earth by functioning as the holy refuge for her brother, father, or husband, all of whom, in most cases, do not deserve her. Still, the angelic Dickensian woman offers unconditional love and support to her less moral male counterpart even if he unquestionably burdens her until he dies, as in the case of Lizzie Hexam of Our Mutual Friend (1865); scorns her, as Florence Dombey's father does in Dombey and Son (1848); and nearly ruins her life until he finally reforms, as in the case of Agnes Wickfield of David Copperfield. Dickens also ties the morality of ideal womanhood to hearth and home; Agnes creates a haven for Mr. Wickfield despite the fact that his love for his child, by his own admission, becomes "'diseased'" (708). Dickens takes pains to describe how Agnes "set glasses for her father, and a decanter of port wine" (195), or how "Agnes made the tea, and presided over it" (195). Rarely does Agnes venture from the home despite the taint imbued by the growing incompetence of her father. And the novel rewards her richly. The final lines pay a tribute to David's "'good Angel'" (312); David praises Agnes's "Heavenly light" (737), ever pointing him "upward!" until his own death, which he imagines in the final paragraph of the novel (737).
Yet, as Nina Auerbach notes in her harsh critique of Dickens's Agnes, David's good angel is an "immobilized angel" (84), an "unmoved mover, pointing others upward though static herself" (85). Along with the Victorians' beloved Little Nell Trent of The Old Curiosity Shop, Agnes has been received distastefully by readers today. Ever repressing her love for David until he finally confesses his love for her, Agnes remains steadfast to a father who succumbs to drink and loses the family business to despicable Uriah Heep, who moves into her home, sleeps in David's old room, and lusts after her. At what cost, today's readers cannot help but question, does Dickens ultimately grant Agnes a reward for her patience and goodness? Dickens does not consider this question. Likewise, the accompanying illustrations—often telling counter clues in nineteenth-century novels3—never even hint at Agnes's suffering. Hablot Knight Browne intensifies the Victorian image of the angel in the house that Dickens presents. He consistently pictures Agnes in passive roles that, we can imagine, might well have inwardly riled her: smiling among the guests at David's marriage to another woman in "I Am Married," and sitting demurely as the slimy Uriah Heep lingers around her in "Uriah Persists in Hovering Near Us, at the Dinner Party." Her composure in these images matches that in her final depiction, "A Stranger Calls to See Me", where she sits contentedly in the family parlor, surrounded by her husband and children. Agnes holds an open book on her lap, suggesting her role as moral teacher for her children as well as her beloved David, whom she ever points upward. Fittingly, the mantel contains a symmetrically placed pair of angel figurines.
Agnes is but one of many Dickensian angels: Little Nell of The Old Curiosity Shop, Rose Maylie of Oliver Twist, Florence Dombey of Dombey and Son, Esther Summerson of Bleak House (1853), Lucie Manette of A Tale of Two Cities (1859), and Lizzie Hexam of Our Mutual Friend (1865) also appear to be Dickensian saints, to varying degrees. In Dickens's oeuvre, the fragile wax doll, Dora Spenlow of David Copperfield par excellence, typically withers away while Dickens frees and thus rewards the stronger angelic woman when her male counterpart reforms or dies. But such is not the case with Little Nell Trent, another early Dickensian angel whom Dickens ardently embraced. Like Agnes, Little Nell is burdened with the care of an aged parent, in this case, her grandfather, a gambler who, unlike Agnes's father, never reforms. Nothing is more drippingly poignant, albeit maudlin by today's standards, than Dickens's narration of Little Nell's death; her fate was so grave a matter of public concern in 1841 that throngs of Americans lined the pier in New York City awaiting the final installment, shouting out to the crew to learn the answer even before the boat from England reached the shore. Dickens writes of her death in a manner that supposedly brought Thomas Carlyle to tears: "No sleep so beautiful and calm, so free from trace of pain, so fair to look upon. She seemed a creature fresh from the hand of God, and waiting for the breath of life; not one who had lived and suffered death" (652). George Cattermole, in his illustration of "Little Nell Dead," emphasizes Nell's "freshness," beauty, and calm that seemingly transcends her saintly death.
Unlike Agnes, Nell becomes a homeless angel for much of the novel. Still, in true angelic fashion, she remains strong and purposeful throughout her pilgrimage plagued by disaster until the final third of the novel when her strength gives way.4 In this respect, another early Victorian angel, Rose Maylie of Oliver Twist, offers an interesting counterpoint to Little Nell. Dickens burdens the ever sweet and good Rose Maylie with an unknown parentage and a fear of illegitimacy, much as he does Esther Summerson of Bleak House. Unlike Little Nell, however, Dickens spares Rose from a near-fatal illness and blesses her in marriage to the honorable Harry Maylie.5
The Dickensian angelic ideal persisted for two decades with Lucie Manette of A Tale of Two Cities (1859). Early in A Tale of Two Cities, we are introduced to a young lady with blue eyes and "a quantity of golden hair" (29), akin to George Eliot's Eppie of Silas Marner (1861). These qualities accentuate Lucie's angelic nature at a time when external beauty was readily linked to inner goodness. Lucie remains loyal and devoted to her father, Dr. Manette, freed from his cruel imprisonment in the Bastille. Before she marries Charles Evrémonde, called Darnay, Lucie professes to her father, "'I am deeply happy in the love that Heaven has so blessed—my love for Charles, and Charles's love for me. But, if my life were not to be still consecrated to you, or if my marriage were so arranged as that it would part us, even by the length of a few of these streets, I should be more unhappy and self-reproachful now than I can tell you'" (188). Ever an angel, golden-haired Lucy suffers the loss of a beloved son and, too, "stands by her man" as he faces sure death by the Parisian guillotine for the sins of his Evrémonde forefathers.
Williams suggests that, as Dickens's career progressed, he grew aware that interest in his angelic heroines was dwindling. Perhaps that is why in his last two novels, Our Mutual Friend (1865) and the unfinished Edwin Drood, we see Dickens toying with the creation of a new type of woman more satisfactory to readers today (Williams 85-87). Lizzie Hexam departs from her angelic sisters in her courage despite her poverty as well as in her physical strength and responsibility. She is stalked by two dangerous men who are tortured in their love for her, as the 1998 PBS presentation of Our Mutual Friend so well conveys. When the self-destructive, rejected suitor, Bradley Headstone, attempts to murder his rival, Eugene Wrayburn, a careless and insolent barrister, Lizzie—"as if possessed by supernatural spirit and strength" (769)—heroically lifts Eugene's body from the river and saves him. Marcus Stone's compelling opening illustration entitled "The Bird of Prey" shows a progression in the angelic ideal: a steadfast, strong-looking, able Lizzie rows her father in a boat on the Thames. But in contrast, her final depiction tending the dying Eugene Wrayburn in "Eugene's Bedside" echoes the popular iconography of the good Samaritan. Stone transforms Lizzie into an angel, matching Browne's and Dickens's Agnes in softness and compassion and intensifying the still pervasive ideal of angelic Victorian womanhood. Even in her early characterization in the novel, Lizzie conforms to type in her devotion to her ungrateful brother Charley and her trying father Gaffer, a boatman who drags the Thames for corpses. As Lizzie Hexam selflessly declares, "'The harder father is borne upon, the more he needs me to lean on'" (113). Her tempered reward is marriage to Eugene Wrayburn, who reforms only after an extreme test.
Not only angels but fallen women who transgress sexual norms abound in Dickensian fiction. David Copperfield contains both Emily Peggotty and Martha Endell, a fallen woman whom Hablot Knight Browne illustrates in "The River," walking among the blackened sewage of the Thames. Browne's depiction of Martha reflects the cultural regard for the fallen woman. Billowing industrial smoke stacks form a fitting backdrop for the now sullied Martha, who contemplates taking her life by drowning herself in the polluted river.
Dickens often created minor characters who mirror the virtuous and the fallen; just as angelic Sophy Traddles accentuates Agnes Wickfield's goodness, Martha Endell underscores Emily Peggotty's fall. The chapter titles alone convey Dickens's scorn for Little Em'ly, who spurns the love of the honest Ham Peggotty to run off with James Steerforth, David's "'bad Angel'" (312), or so Agnes calls him. Chapter XXX, "A Loss," describes the death of Peggotty's husband, Barkis, but Dickens entitles Chapter XXXI, chronicling Emily's fall and resulting disgrace, "A Greater Loss." Dickens foreshadows the severity of Emily's fall twenty-eight chapters earlier when a reflective David, remembering how little Em'ly came dangerously close to falling into the sea, ponders: "There has been a time since—I do not say it lasted long, but it has been—when I have asked myself the question, would it have been better for little Em'ly to have had the waters close above her head that morning in my sight; and when I have answered Yes, it would have been" (39). Though David's judgment is severe, Daniel Peggotty devotes his life to Emily and saves her with the help of the fallen Martha and David. But there is no place for Emily or Martha in Dickens's Victorian world. Banishment to Australia becomes the punishment for sinning sexually, and Dickens denies Emily marriage, despite her offers. Of love, Emily sadly states, "'that's gone for ever'" (730). Dickens leaves Emily alive but perpetually penitent, spending her days teaching children, tending to the sick, and caring for her devoted uncle, her sexuality permanently sublimated in a bond of non-sexual love.
Oliver Twist provides a bleaker death for the fallen Nancy, Rose Maylie's saintly sister, whose depiction is compromised by George Cruikshank's inability to draw an attractive woman. The original chapter heading of "Two Sister-Women" makes explicit Nancy's and Rose's relative status of sister to each other and Oliver. Never waning is Dickens's regard for the saintly prostitute, who seemingly assuaged the consciences of his middle-class readers through her loyalty to and love for a middle-class child. When Dickens was working through the idea of making Rose Maylie Nancy's saintly counterpart,6 he was already saddled with Cruikshank's unconvincing interpretation of Nancy.7 In "Oliver Claimed by His Affectionate Friends," a broad-nosed, wide-mouthed, squat-faced, slovenly Nancy grabs Oliver by the arm, much as vicious Sikes does. Dickens explains that Nancy carries "a little basket and a street-door key in her hand" (93) to appear respectable enough to pose as Oliver's sister, but these and her clean white apron in the illustration "Oliver Claimed" become costume props accentuating her dishonesty.
In Twist, as in Copperfield, we witness a bonding between the fallen woman and her angelic sister. Much as Agnes comforts Emily before she sails to Australia, Rose, likewise, tries to save Nancy by offering to help her find refuge in a safer world. But Nancy, remaining loyal to her robber lover, dies brutally at the hands of Bill Sikes. As Sikes strikes her down, Nancy holds Rose Maylie's own white handkerchief "as high towards Heaven as her feeble strength would allow, [and] breathed one prayer for mercy to her Maker" (303). A saintly Nancy exits the novel as Rose's double, bonded to her through their loyalty to and love for Oliver.
The relationship between the fallen woman and her angelic sister in both novels satisfies the contemporary feminist reader, who celebrates the bonds of sisterhood bridging angelic purity and fallen sexuality.8 The bonds are broken in both cases through banishment or death, a fate conforming to the standard treatment of the fallen woman. Dickens is not alone in punishing the fallen woman, but in David's refusal to see or touch Emily after she sins sexually, we witness Dickens's judgment of the fallen woman, which is harsher than that of Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot, and Thomas Hardy. All these writers who sympathetically present the fallen woman in fiction were well aware that an element of Victorian society did not allow for a distinction between a prostitute and a young woman who made one mistake. In her controversial Ruth (1853), Gaskell gives Ruth Hilton a second chance after her disgrace and allows her illegitimate child—proof of her fall—to live; although ultimately punished by death, Ruth dies as a good Samaritan, her illness resulting from nursing the very man who seduced her. Hardy and Eliot compound illicit sexuality with murder in Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1891) and Adam Bede (1859), respectively. Killing her seducer, Hardy's Tess Durbeyfield hangs, and Eliot's Hetty Sorrel—guilty of infanticide—escapes the gallows but dies years later in transportation after long suffering. Through Dickens's Nancy, more than Emily, we see Dickens challenging what critic George Watt refers to as the dichotomy of two classes of women,9 which persisted throughout the nineteenth century—the virtuous and the fallen. Dickens suggests that Nancy, with a kind benefactor, might have been a Rose Maylie. Nonetheless, punishment for both erring women is swift and unalterable, aggrandizing the view of the fallen woman in Victorian culture, replete with sternness and Christian morality.
Today, Dickens's fallen women appear as victims of a now dated and easily discarded sexual and moral code sacrosanct to the Victorians and to an extent upheld by Dickens himself. Also dated, Dickens's angels may well bore modern readers, some of whom find their saccharine natures distasteful. However, Dickens's gallery of eccentric women proves more interesting to a late-twentieth-century readership. I place in this category "redundant" women and those widowed or perceived as celibate, as in the case of Betsey Trotwood. …