Jane and Charles: Women in the Novels of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens
A Light-Hearted View
by Elizabeth Newark
I admire the work of both Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, but sometimes while reading Dickens, I begin to feel as if I have eaten a surfeit of cheap chocolate: mildly squeamish, somewhat nauseated. It is Charles Dickens’ attitude toward, and treatment of, his women characters that bothers me. To taste the difference, one has only to turn to Jane Austen, with her intelligent, lively, healthy, attractive young women characters. Reading Austen is like biting into an apple, crisp and tart.
It’s mainly the young women I’m going to talk about, those eligible for marriage, and to set the scene I’ll start with some of the proposals.
Here is Dickens with a scene from Martin Chuzzlewit. John Westlake is proposing to Ruth Pinch:
[John] sat down by her side, and very near her; very, very near her. Oh, rapid, swelling, bursting little heart, you knew that it would come to this, and hoped it would. Why beat so wildly, heart!
‘Dear Ruth! Sweet Ruth! If I had loved you less, I could have told you that I loved you, long ago. I have loved you from the first. There never was a creature in the world more truly loved than you, dear Ruth, by me!’
She clasped her little hands before her face. The gushing tears of joy, and pride, and hope, and innocent affection, would not be restrained. Fresh from her full young heart they came to answer him.
‘My dear love! If this is — I almost dare to hope it is, now — not painful or distressing to you, you make me happier than I can tell, or you imagine. Darling Ruth! My own good, gentle, winning Ruth! I hope I know the value of your heart, I hope I know the worth of your angel nature. Let me try and show you that I do; and you will make me happier, Ruth-‘
‘Not happier,’ she sobbed, ‘than you make me. No one can be happier, than you make me!’ …
The soft light touch fell coyly, but quite naturally, upon the lover’s shoulder; the delicate waist, the drooping head, the blushing cheek, the beautiful eyes, the exquisite mouth itself, were all as natural as possible.
Well! Fancy that! And now to Austen. Here we have Mr. Knightley proposing to Emma, in the novel of that name:
‘I cannot make speeches, Emma,’ [Mr. Knightley] resumed, and in a tone of such sincere, decided, intelligible tenderness as was tolerably convincing. ‘If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more. But you know what I am. You hear nothing but truth from me. I have blamed you, and lectured you, and you have born it as no other woman in England would have borne it. Bear with the truths I would tell you now, dearest Emma, as well as you have born with them. The manner, perhaps, may have as little to recommend it. God knows, I have been a very indifferent lover. But you understand me. Yes, you see, you understand my feelings- and will return them if you can. At present, I ask only to hear, once to hear your voice.’
She spoke then on being so entreated. What did she say? Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does. She said enough to show there need not be despair-and to invite him to say more himself.
Note that both men say: “If I loved you less …” but there the similarity ends. Dickens gushes; Austen is calm and tender. And note the words “tolerably convincing”. I love that. It’s very Austen.
Back to Dickens. Here is another proposal, this one from Our Mutual Friend. Bella Wilfer is one of Dickens’ livelier and more independent heroines, but she is constantly reduced to the status of a cute and playful child. Bella is eager to be rich but she falls in love with the mysterious Mr. Rokesmith, secretary to Mr. Boffin. Angry with Mr. Boffin over his treatment of Mr. Rokesmith, Bella leaves the Boffin house, not knowing that Mr. Rokesmith is following her. Finding Bella alone with her father, Mr. Rokesmith:
… rushed at Bella and caught her in his arms, with the rapturous words, ‘My dear, dear girl; my gallant, generous, disinterested, courageous, noble girl!’ … Bella, after hanging her head for moment, lifted it up and laid it on his breast, as if that were that head’s chosen and lasting resting-place!
‘I knew you would come to [your father], and I followed you.’ said Rokesmith. ‘My love, my life! You ARE mine?’
To which Bella responded, ‘Yes, I AM yours if you think me worth taking!’ And after that, seemed to shrink to next to nothing in the clasp of his arms, partly because it was such a strong one on his part, and partly because there was such a yielding to it on hers.
At this time Bella still does not know Mr. Rokesmith’s real name and condition. He keeps this secret from her. They have been married some time, and he has often tested her with questions about whether she would be happier if she were not poor, before he reveals himself as a rich man and takes her to the mansion that he has bought and fully furnished behind her back (I find this last action particularly unforgivable. What is the point of being married if you aren’t even allowed to decorate your own new house? I understand that Dickens himself chose the carpets, curtains, etc. for his own home. Poor Mrs. Dickens. What role exactly was left for his wife-except the constant production of babies?). But now a glimpse of Bella the married woman, still believing she is poor:
… with John gone to business … the dress would be laid aside, trim little wrappers and aprons would be substituted, and Bella, putting back her hair with both hands, … would enter on the household affairs of the day. Such weighing and mixing and chopping and grating, such dusting and washing and polishing, such snipping and weeding and trowelling, such making and mending and folding and airing….
There’s nothing so delightful as housework, is there? Is this a description of a young married woman, or a child playing house?
Some people try to represent Jane Austen as a feminist. I don’t think this relevant save in one respect: she presents, as a matter of course, young women who are shiningly intelligent, who are a match, in fact, for Shakespeare’s Rosalind, Beatrice, or Portia.
Elizabeth Bennet is my favorite among Austen’s heroines. Elizabeth is lively, witty, intelligent (of course) and courageous, with a mind of her own. When her loved sister, Jane, is ill at a nearby mansion, she walks three miles through muddy fields by herself to be with her, a very unconventional thing to do. And when the rich and aristocratic Mr. Darcy proposes to her, telling her how much he admires and loves her, but also revealing his sense of the inferiority of her rank and connections, and telling her how hard he has tried to withstand her attractions, she refuses him in no uncertain terms, saying:
In such cases as this, it is, I believe, the established mode to express a sense of obligation for the sentiments avowed, however unequally they may be returned. It is natural that obligation should be felt, and if I could feel gratitude, I would now thank you. But I cannot….
And, when he demands an explanation of her refusal, and conjectures that he has hurt her pride in criticizing her circumstances, she says:
You are mistaken, Mr. Darcy, if you suppose that the mode of your declaration affected me in any other way, than as it spared me the concern which I might have felt in refusing you, had you behaved in a more gentleman-like manner.
Since one of his points has been the unladylike-like behavior of her mother and sisters, that last is a right to his jaw!
When Mr. Darcy proposes to Elizabeth for the second time while they are out walking, after she has overcome her prejudices and he his pride, he comes straight to the point, saying:
You are too generous to trifle with me. If your feelings are still what they were last April, tell me so at once. My affections and wishes are unchanged; but one word from you will silence me on this subject for ever.
Elizabeth now forced herself to speak; and immediately, though not very fluently, gave him to understand that her sentiments had undergone so material a change … as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure his present assurances. The happiness which this reply produced was such as he had probably never felt before; and he expressed himself on the occasion as sensibly and as warmly as a man violently in love can be supposed to do.
They walk on, discussing the ups and downs of their relationship. We hear no gushing exchange of compliments, let alone gushing of tears. No-one clutches anyone. Mr. Darcy does at one point call her “dearest, loveliest Elizabeth;” it remains my favorite term of affection.
I won’t quote Dora Copperfield, with her baby talk and pet dog. She dies, thank goodness.
Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse are 20, a year or two older than the Dickens’ characters but Bella Wilfer and Ruth Pinch are young women considered old enough to marry and, of course, have a baby within a year. What I can’t help wondering is, how did the young Victorian male ever get up the nerve (let alone anything else) to consummate his marriage to one of these sweet, coy, fluttering, completely ignorant, little bundles of cotton candy? It’s a terrifying thought.
Dickens’ canvas is much broader than Austen’s, and of course he wrote far more books. His plots are complicated and his use of detail and range of characters extraordinary. He is particularly good at the odd, grotesque and comic. Anthony Burgess calls him a verbal cartoonist. My favorites are the later novels: Bleak House, Great Expectations and Our Mutual Friend. His heroines, however, in contrast to Austen’s, rejoice in submission, and delight in dependence. They are often described as “little.” They have little feet which peep out from under their full-gathered skirts, little hands that tremble. (Bella Wilfer wears “little” aprons or wrappers in which to do her housework). The man in their life is all- wise.
Dickens’ young women spend their lives devoted to and ministering to that man-who may be father, husband, brother or son-even guardian. They have no lives separate from this function and wish for none; indeed, they will put up with considerable abuse, mental and physical, while maintaining their devotion. To Dickens this is true womanly love. If she is badly treated, a woman must not complain or object. A ‘true’ woman continues to love and devote herself to the abuser, with the idea that such love might redeem him (it never does), finding happiness in her own virtue.
A classic (perhaps extreme) case is Nancy, in Oliver Twist. Bill Sykes mistreats her but she stays with him because ‘he needs her;’ eventually he kills her. Listen to this. Nancy has helped Oliver to escape, but she returns to her own room out of loyalty to Bill. Bill, however, thinks she has betrayed him:
[Bill] grasps her by the head and throat and drags her into the middle of the room.’
‘Bill, Bill,’ gasped the girl… ‘tell me what I have done!’
‘You know, you she-devil!’ returned the robber….
‘Then spare my life for the love of Heaven, as I spared yours, ‘ rejoined the girl, clinging to him. ‘Bill, dear Bill, you cannot have the heart to kill me. Oh, think of all I have given up, … for you.’
The housebreaker freed one arm, and grasped his pistol. The certainty of immediate detection if he fired, flashed across his mind even in the midst of his fury; and he beat [the pistol] twice with all the force he could summon, upon the upturned face that almost touched his own.
Dickens himself seems to have been fixated on the ideal of the ‘little woman,’ the child-wife or sister-wife. It is conjectured that he may have loved his wife’s sister, Mary Hogarth. She lived with them after their marriage and died, unexpectedly and tragically, at the age of 18. Dickens was devastated. Her image, of the young, untouched girl, attractive but sexually innocent, unmarred by childbirth, recurs throughout his novels. One might almost say it turns him on. When Dickens tires of his wife (she has produced 10 children, for which he seems to blame her, and no longer looks adolescent, poor woman), he turns to a very young actress, Ellen Tiernan.
Timid, delicate Fanny Price, of Austen’s Mansfield Park. with her fondness for lying on the sofa and reverence for clergymen, comes closest of Austen’s women to a Dickens’ character. I am not very fond of Fanny, but even she has infinitely more mental health, more vigor and intelligence, and is a far more fully-rounded character than, say, Florence Dombey, of Dombey and Son, with whom she can be readily compared. Fanny is a poor relation whisked away in childhood from her large improvident family and brought up by Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram and their privileged children, at Mansfield Park. She is dependent on them for everything. She is shy, outwardly submissive (she can be very censorious in her thoughts), and regrettably priggish, with a strong sense of duty but, when the chips are down and Sir Thomas, the father figure in her life to whom she owes a large debt of gratitude, tries to force her to agree to marry a man she neither loves nor respects, she stands firm. Sir Thomas rolls out his heavy artillery, and says:
I will therefore only add … that you have disappointed every expectation I had formed, and proved yourself of a character the very reverse of what I had supposed…. I had thought you peculiarly free from willfulness of temper, self-conceit, and every tendency to that independence of spirit which prevails so much in modern days, even in young women, and which in young women is offensive and disgusting beyond all common offence.
These are very strong words. Dickens would applaud. Fanny cries bitterly at these accusations and is appalled at what Sir Thomas thinks of her. “I cannot like him, sir, well enough to marry him,” she says. And, “I am so perfectly convinced that I could never make him happy, and that I should be miserable myself,” she says in desperation. She dare not admit she is in love with her cousin Edmund. But she will not consent to marry the wrong man.
My big battle with Dickens is that I find so many of his women characters neurotic, yet to Dickens that behavior is the ideal. He approves of, even demands, neurotic behavior. His ideal young woman is self-sacrificing in the extreme. She is allowed to have no thought for herself, no desires, no ambitions.
Dombey and Son gives perfect examples of Dickens’ women in full glory of their neuroses. Sweet little Florence Dombey is determined to love her father, who has no time for a daughter. He ignores her and pours all his affection onto her younger brother, Paul, who dies. For Mr. Dombey’s coldness, his indifference, Florence blames herself. It must be her fault. There must be something lacking in her that prevents him loving her.
After her father strikes her and repulses her, Florence finally ‘saw his cruelty, his neglect, and hatred … She saw she had no father upon earth.’ She runs, “orphaned,” from the house. But, not long after, during Florence’s reconciliation scene with her father, she kneels at his feet, saying:
Papa! Dearest Papa! Pardon me, forgive me! I have come back to ask forgiveness on my knees … I never meant to leave you … I am changed. I am penitent. I know my fault. I know my duty better now. Papa, don’t cast me off, or I shall die!
She is the victim, so why is she penitent? Why is it she who has had to change? Why is she asking his forgiveness? Compare these scenes with the scene I have already described to you, of timid Fanny Price standing up to Sir Thomas Bertram. Fanny has a highly developed sense of duty and of respect for authority; she feels she is ungrateful and yet, knowing what is right for her, she holds her ground.
Esther Summerson, in Bleak House, is Lady Dedlock’s illegitimate daughter, but she does not know this. She has no knowledge of her parentage. Lady Dedlock is allowed, by her sister, to believe her baby dead. The sister, who is nastily religious, rears the baby herself, renouncing the world and her own admirer, making the baby a penance. When, on her birthday, the little girl asks her aunt about her mother, she is told: “Your mother, Esther, is your disgrace, and you are hers.
After her aunt’s death, Esther becomes the ward of John Jarndyce, master of Bleak House, and keeps house for him (she is 18) and is called Little Old Woman, Dame Durden, Dame Trot, etc., etc. Here she is, on her arrival at Bleak House, talking with her guardian:
‘Esther, my dear, do you wish to ask me anything?’
He looked so attentively at me, that I looked attentively at him, and felt sure I understood him.
‘About myself, sir?’ said I.
‘Guardian,’ said I, venturing to put my hand, which was suddenly colder than I could have wished, in his. ‘Nothing! I am quite sure that if there were anything I ought to know, or had any need to know, I should not have to ask you to tell it to me. If my whole reliance and confidence were not placed in you, I must have a hard heart indeed. I have nothing to ask you-nothing in the world.’
Now here is Elizabeth Bennet. Lydia Wickham, though sworn to secrecy, has betrayed that Mr. Darcy attended her wedding. Elizabeth, “though burning with curiosity,” asks no questions. But does she meekly accept, does she say, “I am quite sure that if there were anything I ought to know … I should not have to ask …”? Of course not. She cannot bear the suspense; and immediately writes a letter to Aunt Gardiner.
This seems to me normal.
A young woman’s life, according to Dickens, is devoted first, to her father, then to her husband (or that sexless substitute husband-figure, her brother, for example, Tom and Ruth Pinch, in Chuzzlewit, John and Harriet Carker, in Dombey), and then to her children. If she remains unmarried, her father may absorb all her love and care. If, not being a complete idiot, she observes conduct that makes her father unworthy of such love, she must deny her own powers of observation and pretend she does not.
In contrast, I give you my favorite quotation from Austen. It is spoken by Elizabeth Bennet. The proud and privileged Mr. Darcy looms over her as she plays the piano. She looks up at him and says:
My courage always rises with each attempt to intimidate me.
I can’t live up to that, I wish I could. I don’t know what Dickens would make of it, but none of his women characters would have said it.
In Dickens’ novels, the pure young girl character is often exploited by a father figure and/or transformed into the object of someone’s unpleasant sexual desire. (It is interesting how Dickens, without mentioning sex, makes the reader thoroughly aware of it, especially reluctant or perverse sex. In Austen, it seems to me, we are, also without explicit words, aware of strong attraction, the growing bond between two people). It is possible that Dickens’ subconscious guilt over his attraction to his sister-in-law is acted out in this way. For example, take Madeleine Bray, in Nicholas Nickleby. Dickens describes her as follows:
A young lady who could be scarcely eighteen, of very slight and delicate figure, but exquisitely shaped … She raised her veil, for an instant, … and disclosed a countenance of most uncommon beauty, though shaded by a cloud of sadness….
(How do you feel about this description? I find the words “exquisitely shaped” somewhat distasteful, as if the writer ran his hands down his young subject). But well might Madeleine’s countenance be sad. Her self-indulgent, improvident, completely selfish father, is about to sell her to the ancient and dreadful Mr. Gride. (In a recent movie of Nicholas Nickleby, the actor portraying Mr. Gride dribbles, a good touch). And she, though loathing Mr. Gride, is resigned to this sacrifice since, of course, she loves her Daddy and Daddy needs his comforts. (Heaven preserve him from working!) She is rescued by Nicholas in the nick of time. Another such case is Agnes Wickfield, in David Copperfield, almost sold to Uriah Heap.
Not all of Austen’s young women are sensible, of course. Marianne Dashwood, in Sense and Sensibility, aged 17, is dizzy with romanticism. When the man she loves deserts her, she makes herself deathly ill by self-neglect and deliberate wallowing in misery. Dickens might applaud such a decline, but not Jane Austen. Marianne has to learn to grow up, and she does learn with the example before her of the strength and self-control of her sister. Catherine Norland, in Northanger Abbey, is also very young and inexperienced. But despite her silliness she has firm principles, and does not follow blindly after her older brother (male though he is) and friends. In the end, these two young women are learning to think for themselves as well as feel.
Both Austen and Dickens believe in conventional morality, but they deal very differently with young women who break the rules. In Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, Colonel Brandon’s ward, Eliza, is illegitimate. She is seduced and abandoned by Willoughby, and has an illegitimate baby in her turn. She is rescued and cared for, as was her mother. Harriet Smith, in Emma, is someone’s “natural daughter.” Emma is happy to befriend her, convincing herself that Harriet’s unknown father must have been a gentleman.
The great secret about Lady Dedlock, in Bleak House, is that she had a love affair and gave birth to a daughter (Esther Summerson) before her marriage to Sir Leicester Dedlock. She is blackmailed by the lawyer, Mr. Tulkinghorn, and is driven to flight, struggling desperately on foot through sleet and mud, until she ends at the gate of the cemetery where her lover is buried. There she dies. Well, she was guilty, wasn’t she? What other end for her but death?
Poor Little Em’ly, in David Copperfield, is not allowed to return to Ham. He is drowned. She has to emigrate to get a chance at a respectable life. The Colonies are so useful.
Eliza, Brandon’s ward, is not considered socially acceptable but she is not banished or condemned to death. Maria Bertram, after committing adultery, is found a home with Mrs. Norris, a pretty harsh punishment. But I have a feeling she probably took up with the local squire.
Lydia Bennet, in Pride and Prejudice, the youngest of the Bennet sisters, is both silly and heedless. She elopes with Mr. Wickham, and he is coerced by money and Mr. Darcy into marrying her. Lydia is not only unrepentant; she seems to think she has done something clever. We are left to believe that being married to Mr. Wickham is punishment enough. Maria Bertram, in Mansfield Park, leaves her husband and runs off with Mr. Crawford. When he leaves her and her husband divorces her, she is set up in an establishment of her own, ‘remote and quiet,’ and an aunt goes to live with her. She’s not accepted back into her family but she’s not abandoned.
Jane Austen certainly believes in constancy. In Persuasion, Anne Elliot has been talked out of an offer of marriage, for reasons of prudence and snobbery, from Frederick Wentworth, the man she loves, when she is eighteen. She has never married and continues to love Capt. Wentworth. When the book commences, she is 27 and is regarded as on the shelf, ‘only Anne,’ a person of no importance to her selfish father and sisters. The story deals with Captain Wentworth’s re-entry into Anne’s life, and their eventual coming together, and contains one of Austen’s most feeling passages. Anne and Captain Harville (a friend of Capt. Wentworth’s) debate the degree of faithfulness of men and women:
‘Oh!’ cried Anne, eagerly, ‘I hope I do justice to all that is felt by you, and by those who resemble you. God forbid that I should undervalue the warm and faithful feelings of any of my fellow-creatures! I should deserve utter contempt if I dared to suppose that true attachment and constancy were known only by women. No, I believe [men] capable of everything great and good in your married lives. I believe you equal to every important exertion, and to every domestic forbearance, so long as-if I may be allowed the expression-so long as you have an object. I mean, while the woman you love lives, and lives for you. All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one; you need not covet it), is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone.’
(Never let it be said that Austen is hard and mercenary in her attitude to love and marriage). But Austen never suggests that a woman should be devoted to a father or husband who abuses her.
Jane Austen’s novels show none of this morbid devotion to fathers. Emma Woodhouse (in Emma) certainly takes good care of her valetudinarian father, but she rules the roost in her home and local society, pandering to his whims, but going her own way. “I believe few married woman are half as much mistress of their husband’s house as I am of Hartfield,” says Emma. Anne Elliot, in Persuasion, is only too aware of her father’s shortcomings. She has “a knowledge, which she often wished was less, of her father’s character …” He is vain, extravagant, arrogant and silly.
The Bennet parents are highly dysfunctional. Here is Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, considering her parents’ relationship:
[She] however, had never been blind to the impropriety of her father’s behaviour as a husband. She had always seen it with pain but, respecting his abilities, and grateful for his affectionate treatment of herself, she endeavoured to forget what she could not overlook, and to banish from her thoughts that continual breach of conjugal obligation and decorum which, in exposing his wife to the contempt of her own children, was so highly reprehensible. But she had never felt so strongly as now, the disadvantages which must attend the children of so unsuitable a marriage, nor ever been so fully aware of the evils arising from so ill-judged a direction of talents; talents which, rightly used, might at least have preserved the respectability of his daughters, even if incapable of enlarging the mind of his wife.
Dickens would think this treason.
Edith Dombey is another matter.
Edith Dombey (nee Skewton) is not one of Dickens’ child brides. She is a self-possessed young woman and a beauty. She has no money. She immolates herself on the altar of marriage but does so not out of self-sacrifice but out of resentful submission to her mother’s mercenary instincts and her own economic needs. (We’re back with the need for marriage found in Jane Austen’s books. How else can a well-born and handsome young lady of no visible means survive?) We are told of previous suitors who have attempted to ‘buy’ Edith, but who have been frightened off by her mother’s too obvious rapacity. Although she dislikes Mr. Dombey, she agrees to marry him ‘knowing that my marriage would at least prevent their hawking of me up and down.’ (Also, he is very rich). All this is a little hard to accept. Surely there must have been one amongst her suitors she could have rubbed along with-not loved, perhaps, but not loathed? This is closely akin to the decision of Estella, in Great Expectations, to marry Bentley Drummle, the most brutal and unpleasant of her suitors (but also rich). Estella has been reared to vent Miss Haversham’s revenge on men. She is cold and boasts that she is heartless. So why not choose a rich but affectionate man, someone who would suffer from her lack of emotion. Why choose a man who is himself heartless, who ignores her coldness and abuses her and wastes her money?
I will mention here one of Jane Austen’s characters, Charlotte Lucas of Pride and Prejudice, who is often a source of controversy among Austen Society members. Charlotte, aged 27, prosaic minded, chooses to marry a very tiresome man, the clergyman, Mr. Collins (in fact she instigates his proposal after he has been refused by Elizabeth). This is one of my favorite passages from Pride and Prejudice:
Miss Lucas perceived [Mr. Collins] from an upper window as he walked towards the house, and instantly set out to meet him accidentally in the lane.
She marries him for the security he offers; she then makes the best of it. In explaining her engagement to Elizabeth, she says:
I am not romantic you know. I never was. I ask only a comfortable home; and considering Mr. Collins’s character, connections, and situation in life, I am convinced that my chance of happiness with him is as fair, as most people can boast on entering the marriage state.
We are never told that she regrets her marriage.
Edith Dombey seems compelled to make the worst of it. Dombey’s courtship must have taught Edith everything she needed to know about the man, his lack of ability to share, to love, to connect with another human being. Dombey is an un-man. Yet Edith marries him, hating him every inch of the way, pacing the floor unsleeping before her wedding night. When Edith leaves Dombey, with a great show of self-assertion, she goes to James Carker who is also repulsive to her. She allows Mr. Carker to kiss her, but then feels so degraded that she shrinks away, ‘crawls by her like a lower animal,’ when she meets Florence on the stairs. She goes to Carker, we eventually discover, to add to her vengeance on Mr. Dombey. Dombey will think his wife is now Carker’s mistress and this will turn the knife in the wound. In actual fact, she rebuffs Carker as contemptuously as she does Dombey, thus revenging herself on them both, but severely damaging herself in the process.
Doubtless Dickens, with his theatrical interests, enjoyed writing his dramatic confrontations. Edith herself, with her constantly heaving bosom, her flashing eyes, and much bitten lip, is straight from a stage melodrama.
Oh, Jane, dear Jane Austen, come to my rescue with wit and sense and intelligence.
The women in Dickens’ novels are a world away from Jane Austen’s women characters. Austen is ironic, observant, witty, able to depict young women whose manners and mores may be different from ours, yet whom we should enjoy and recognize as fellow human beings if we met them. Dickens is sentimental, overwrought almost to hysteria in dealing with the relations of the sexes. Despite the freedom awarded him as a man, despite his marriage and family, he seems more inhibited (or twisted) than the spinster Jane Austen.
Dombey and Son was published in full in 1848. Jane Austen’s novels were published between 1811 and 1818. What was it in those thirty odd years that so changed the perception of women? Dickens’ view of women comes partly from his own psychological makeup, but when we think of the 19th century, our mental picture is of the demure, submissive woman, in bonnet and bustle, he so often describes. (You know, the bustle must be one of the oddest fashions for an outwardly prudish epoch; it surely serves much the same purpose as the female baboon’s highly colored rear-end).
As evidence of the general view that women should be compliant, I am going to quote from an article entitled Woman in Her Social and Domestic Character, written by a Mrs. John Sandford, and published in 1837:
A woman may make a man’s home delightful, and may thus increase his motives for virtuous exertion. She may refine and tranquilize his mind-may turn away his anger, or allay his grief. Where want of congeniality impairs domestic comfort, the fault is generally chargeable on the female side; for it is for woman, not for man, to make the sacrifice, especially in indifferent matters. She must, in a certain degree, be plastic herself, if she would mould others, and this is one reason why very good women are sometimes uninfluential. They do a great deal, but they yield nothing.
What part did Queen Victoria, who ascended to the British throne in 1837, play in this? When she was married in 1840 to Prince Albert, Dickens affected to be ‘raving with love’ for her. He wrote:
My heart is at Windsor,
My heart is not here.
My heart is at Windsor,
A following my dear.
Was she a catalyst for change in English society? Victoria was born in 1819. Her own upbringing, dominated as she was by her unpleasant, possessive mother, was as narrow and stifling as that of any Dickens’ character. For example, it was only after she became queen that she was able to demand a bedroom of her own; up till then she shared with her mother. She was at that time 18, and the mere facts of her age and sex must have greatly affected the mores of the Court, after decades of self-indulgence and profligacy under the Georges and Williams. The men running the country were brought up short; they were suddenly forced to bridle their tongues and mind their manners in dealing with a prim and proper, very young, woman. As Dickens’ Mr. Podsnap says, in Our Mutual Friend, “The question about everything was, would it bring a blush into the cheek of the young person?”
Other contributing factors were doubtless the growth of industrialism, the move to the cities, and the consequent rapid rise of a newly wealthy, powerful, snobbish, middle-class of manufacturers, importers, brokers-business men of every kind-aloof from the landowners. They had their own narrow social life, customs and prudish non-conformist religious beliefs. I have little time for an aristocracy of birth, people (like Sir Walter Elliot, Lady Catherine de Bourgh or Sir Leicester Dedlock) possessing in perpetuity power and privilege on the strength of some ancestor (male or female) who attracted a king’s attention. But the new power structure, ruled mainly by greed and modeling its behavior on that of the old ‘upper class’ but without the restraint of noblesse oblige, was no better. And it too believed in inherited power: incompetent son might follow enterprising father. For every enlightened industrialist like Mr. Rouncewell in Bleak House, there was a Paul Dombey.
Whatever the cause, the change, as illustrated in literature, came about.
There is one young woman (and I mean woman; she is no blushing doll, though she is under 20), who is an exception to Dickens’ rules. Lizzie Hexham of Our Mutual Friend, published in 1865. Lizzie stands alone. She is working-class, and she really works! She rows her father’s boat as he drags the Thames for drowned bodies. She is, of course, beautiful. She is also illiterate but, oddly, she speaks good basic English, not the mangled prose of the usual Dickensian low-class character. Two men fall in love with Lizzie; a dissolute young aristocrat, Eugene Wrayburn, and a self-educated teacher, a man who has climbed up by his own endeavors from a workhouse upbringing-Bradley Headstone. You would think the second man would be the hero, wouldn’t you? But this book is full of oddities. The men are deadly rivals. Headstone tries to murder Wrayburn, who has baited him, tormented him and triumphed over him in an unforgivable way. He wounds Wrayburn and throws him in the river. Lizzie’s boatcraft comes in useful, and she rescues Wrayburn, whom she reforms and finally marries. Lizzie is allowed to be physically competent and resourceful. Yes, even intelligent. But she is not quite believable, and she does end up devoted to her very doubtful man.
And it is her beauty that attracts her lovers. It is refreshing to find, in Pride and Prejudice, that Mr. Darcy at first considers Elizabeth Bennet merely “tolerable.” He is attracted and disconcerted by her wit and lack of the deference to which he is used, and moves from admiration for her “fine eyes,” to finding her “one of the handsomest women of his acquaintance.” In Persuasion, by the time Captain Wentworth returns to the scene, Anne Elliot is no longer young and has “lost her bloom,” a very Jane Austenian description. He falls in love with her all over again as she reveals her sterling qualities under stress (and a little because another man admires her). With his love, her bloom returns, to the reader’s satisfaction.
So, what have we found? Dickens has problems creating women characters who are women, not girls. He creates sweet, good, biddable ‘little women,’ ready to live for their men. Although there is much comedy in his work, none of his women characters has a sense of humor. His older women tend to be absurd (but occasionally absurd and admirable, like Miss Pross, in A Tale of Two Cities, and Aunt Betsy Trotwood, in David Copperfield); or disagreeable. Austen creates lively, bright, interesting young women and matches them up with suitable men. Her older women may be admirable, like Mrs. Dashwood and Mrs. Gardner; unpleasant like Mrs. Ferrars or Lady Catherine, or comic, like Miss Bates. They come in all shapes. Her view of an ideal marriage relationship comes across in one of the final paragraphs in Pride and Prejudice:
Pemberley was now Georgiana’s home; and the attachment of the sisters was exactly what Darcy had hoped to see. … Georgiana had the highest opinion in the world of Elizabeth; although at first she often listened with an astonishment bordering on alarm at her lively, sportive manner of talking to her brother. He, who had always inspired in herself a respect, which almost overcame her affection, she now saw the object of open pleasantry. Her mind received knowledge which had never before fallen in her way. By Elizabeth’s instructions she began to comprehend that a woman may take liberties with her husband which a brother will not always allow in a sister more than ten years younger than himself.
Take liberties with a husband? What a thought! Dickens would have kittens! But Jane Austen obviously believes marriage should have room for humor and friendship. It seems to me a very sane view of marriage.
Copyright © 1997 by Elizabeth Newark
Elizabeth Newark is a Londoner by birth and a San Franciscan by choice. She was infected by Jane Austen at the age of 14. The senior class in her English secondary school put on Pride and Prejudice as a play one Christmas, and she found it so delightful that she immediately sought out the books. She has still not recovered from the infection.