Monday, September 14, 2015

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


When Charles Dickens creates women and girls who are caricatures, harpies or grotesques, his women are as convincing and entertaining as his male caricatures, villains and grotesques.
Mrs Leo Hunter is as jolly a piece of foolery in The Pickwick Papers as Jingle, Tupman and the rest. Man-woman Sally Brass is as nasty and vicious as her whining brother in The Old Curiosity Shop. Madame Defarge and her clicking needles are the epitome of Dickens’ fear of revolution in A Tale of Two Cities. Sarah Gamp is a gruesomely awful drunken nurse in Martin Chuzzlewit, and in the same novel Mr Pecksniff’s daughters Mercy and Charity are as horrible as their hypocritical father. On the credit side, Betsey Trotwood, both peremptory and charitable, is every little boy’s daydream of the ideal mother in David Copperfield, Nancy is (eventually) a pitiable wretch in Oliver Twist and Miss Flite an engaging eccentric (carrying a huge burden of symbolism in the names of her birds) in Bleak House. These characters (and so many others) are the imaginative equals of Bumble, Quilp, Captain Cuttle, Harold Skimpole, Jo Gargery and the whole gallery of male caricatures in Dickens.
But it’s when we come to women in the foreground of a Dickens novel that we strike problems.
Away from the grotesques, caricatures and harpies, too many of Dickens’ leading women are vacuous puppets, dolls, idealisations and simply too good to be true.
I would like to believe in David Copperfield’s marital problems, but Dora Spenlow is a silly girl, inane in thought and movement. She is there for our amusement (and the pathos in her dying). And David’s second wife Agnes Wickfield is so much the compliant, wise angel-in-the-house that she smells of roses.
Yes, there are some leading women in Dickens who rise to complexity. Lady Dedlock in Bleak House, tortured by the past that might catch up with her. Estella in Great Expectations, haughty and corrupted, but at least (in the novel’s original ending – not the sugar-plum one) as much chastened by her experience as Pip is. And Edith Dombey (in one of my favourite Dickens novels, Dombey and Son) bored, bored, bored with her marriage and running away from it – but Dickens has to spoil it by having her at the last moment denounce her potential lover.
Now there’s the rub. Even in his halfway-believable leading women, Dickens has to sweeten them, tame them, domesticate them. They become either pitiable “betrayed” women – like Lady Dedlock – whose duty is to preserve our sense of morality by dying. Or they become those “legless angels” about whom wits in the Freudianised 1920s used to snicker when Dickens’ posthumous reputation was at its lowest ebb.
Which brings me to Lizzie Hexam in Our Mutual Friend.
She is not one of Dickens’ caricatures. She is one of his leading women. Certainly Dickens ends up domesticating her, by having her marry Eugene Wrayburn (nursing him and being another angel-in-the-house after his brush with death). Certainly she, a working-class girl with a criminal for a father, talks the same sort of Received English dialogue that is most improbably talked by workhouse boy Oliver Twist (we can’t alienate our middle-class readers’ sympathy….). And certainly we do not see the working of her mind.
But Lizzie is a girl with initiative – trying (hopelessly) to reform her father; trying to drag her foolish brother away from impending criminality and a life of waste. And she is physically strong. The image that opens the novel has her strongly rowing on the Thames as her father searches for valuable flotsam.
Critics have tried, without success, to convince me that Bella Wilfer, the novel’s official leading woman, is a complex character, with her emotional integrity drawing her away from corruption by money. I can’t see it. Bella is a doll in Dickens’ romantic plot. Lizzie has more real intellectual will than she has.
Anyway, you can see I like this woman – probably my favourite woman in the whole Dickens canon.
Here’s a poem I wrote about her, which appeared in Landfall 227 (Autumn 2014). It says what it says.

(Our Mutual Friend)

Strong-armed and sunburnt on a soup-green river,
I’d love you more than the poppet
set up to trap rich men with simpered chat,
Lizzie, hauling bloated corpses, knowing
your life is more than this river.

I’d take you at your word, Lizzie,
catechizing a thankless brother, trying to tame
a mercenary thieving father, scavenging
life in scraps, away from the currents,
the sewered, sucking tide.

I’d haul you in my arms, Lizzie,
nesting you in my top-coat,
polishing, booking, wording you, fitting you
for table-company, sipping river-green soup
from fine tureens, forking veal from bone china.

And I’d betray you, Lizzie, capsize your boat
swamping those very things that make you you,
unpolished, unbooked,  your steady arms
pulling oars across the tide, you bride only
to sun and rain -  sister, daughter, strange mother.

The flow is hard against these piles,
your long hair whips the wind, your voice
is calm,  your keen eyes are a compass,
you row in steady strokes, un-fussed.
I’d love you best by leaving you.

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