This post is the fourth in my honors thesis series, continued from “From Construction to Critique: Men Writing Women in the 1800′s – Chapter One, Part One.” To view the posts in order, click here.
Last post summary: In the first part of this chapter, I introduced John Ruskin’s continuation of the work of Addison and Steele in restricting women to the private sphere. Then I covered how Dickens insisted on domesticity in women through the method of marriage.
When his married women venture agency, Dickens vilifies them. In Little Dorrit, we are told that Mrs. Clennam had been “much [. . .] stronger” than her husband and had “directed” him (LD 2.5.38). She is silenced, though: she is kept “in long confinement” (5.15.156) and excluded from the business her “sex disqualifies” her for. In the novel’s dramatic present, she is shown only as cold, cruel, and embittered. In Tale, Madame Defarge is permitted much fuller scope. She takes charge of the couple’s wine shop, checking intake and inventory, keeping the books, overseeing the serving man (2.16.183). Her husband, she manipulates “as a cat might have done a mouse”(22.231). Despite marriage, she is self-possessed and self-directed: since her husband “has not her reason for pursuing [the Evrémondes] to annihilation” (3.14.369), she ‘must”—and does—“act for [her]self.” Dickens grants her “a strong and fearless character, [. . .] shrewd sense and readiness, [and] great determination” (371). But he demonizes her “firmness” (372), unregulated as it is by masculine “sensibility” (369):
It was nothing to her, that an innocent man was to die for the sins of his forefathers; [. . .] that his wife was to be made a widow and his daughter an orphan; [. . .] they were her natural enemies and her prey, and as such had no right to live. To appeal to her, was made hopeless by her having no sense of pity, even for herself. (372)
As Frederick Busch observes, Madame Defarge is “everything bloody and dangerous” (xii). For Dickens, the freedom to act makes a woman a “tigress” (3.14.372). A woman who is “clever” and “determined” (LD 5.15.154), possessed of her own “purpose,” is a woman to cripple and confine.
Spinsterhood, as Dickens constructs it, is either dark or self-denying. A spinster can be respectable only if selflessly devoted to some social superior. In Little Dorrit, Miss Wade is independent, so she is wicked—cold, uncaring, and given to “cool‑handed thrusts” (16.21.550). Her very face warns, “I am self‑contained and self‑reliant; your opinion is nothing to me; I have no interest in you, care nothing for you, and see and hear you with indifference” (1.2.19). She is possessed of a “passion fiercer” and a “temper more violent” than any other woman in the novel (8.27.277)—ferocity Dickens attributes to having been deprived of a husband. When she claims the “misfortune of not being a fool” (16.21.554), indicting “Society” for requiring foolishness of a woman (18.28.626), Dickens does not deny the charge. But he deplores her focus as that of a “Self Tormenter” (16.21.554) and shows it to be not only useless but damaging: embittered as she is, Miss Wade alienates even the young woman she seeks to educate and enable (Tattycoram abandons her, retreating into dependency). In Tale, we encounter another spinster who is such not by choice but for want of opportunity. Unlike Miss Wade, though, Miss Pross resigns herself to selfless service, so she need not be vilified. True, she is represented as unfeminine—so “wild‑looking” (1.4.30) and “strong of hand” (2.6.99) that she “must be a man!” (1.4.30)—but to a point, her strength can ‘pass’ because it is devoted:
Mr. Lorry knew Miss Pross to be [. . .] one of those unselfish creatures—found only among women—who will, for pure love and admiration, bind themselves willing slaves, to youth when they have lost it, to beauty that they never had, to accomplishments that they were never fortunate enough to gain, to bright hopes that never shone upon their sombre lives. (2.6.100-01)
Miss Pross can be permitted agency because it serves to preserve the helplessness of a household angel: it is to secure the escape of “[her] Ladybird” that she takes out Madame Defarge (3.14.377). Even so, though, Dickens plots to qualify and quiet it: Miss Pross is deafened, relegated to “a great stillness [. . .] never to be broken any more as long as [her] life lasts” (380). Dickens’ constructions are limiting, but not reflective of the entire century.
In 1897, Walter Besant marks the shift in a woman’s position during the course of the nineteenth century. He notes that a “young lady of 1837 [. . .] cannot reason on any subject whatever because of her ignorance”—she is “childishly ignorant” (1605). An early nineteenth-century woman is educated “to know nothing of Art, History, Science, Literature, Politics, Sociology, Manners—men liked these things; women yielded to please the men.” This sort of Englishwoman, one who seeks only to please, Dickens depicts and elevates. By 1897, though, “the young Englishwoman” is different: she is “educated” (1606) and therefore has options, as at least some men acknowledge. As Besant notes, women need no longer
ask themselves whether they must earn their own bread, or live a life of dependence. Necessity or no necessity, they demand work, with independence and personal liberty. Whether they will take upon them the duties and responsibilities of marriage, they postpone for further consideration. (1606)
This change, women across the nineteenth century—from Austen to Eliot—had helped enable, themselves putting writing ahead of marriage. Besant’s notice, though, suggests that men too have begun advocating the education and independence of women. Thomas Hardy, for example, pushes the limits in Jude the Obscure (1895), suggesting that women might—and sometimes ought—exist outside marriage.
To be continued…