Thursday, April 5, 2007

A Bit of Dickens

Dickens is known for angelic heroines, who, by age 17, are embodiments of human perfection. There is no shortage, either, of young men afflicted with unrequited adoration for these paragons—or for anti-paragons (see below). Dickens himself, as a young man, mooned over and pursued a young lady in this fashion.

One such idealized young woman is the title character of Little Dorrit. But it is her older sister, the vain and lovely Miss Fanny, who ensnares the luckless Sparkler:

“…Mr. Sparkler entered on an evening of agony. .. But he had two consolations at the close of the performance. [Miss Fanny] gave him her fan to hold while she adjusted her cloak, and it was his blessed privilege to give her his arm down-stairs again. These crumbs of encouragement, Mr. Sparkler thought, would just keep him going; and it is not impossible that [Miss Fanny] thought so too... Mr. Sparkler put on another heavy set of fetters over his former set, as he watched her radiant feet twinkling down the stairs beside him.”

In short order, Fanny’s conquest of Sparkler is complete, and he is reduced to groveling.

Of course, Miss Fanny is not an isolated case in Dickens’ novels. Pip, the beloved hero of Great Expectations, is “brought up by hand” by his sister, Mrs. Joe Gargery, who was “much in the habit of laying it upon her husband as well as upon me.” Pip and Joe both take to cowering in the chimney corner to stay out of her reach—and the reach of “Tickler,” “a wax-ended piece of cane, worn smooth by collision with my tickled frame.”

A final comment on the Victorian wife-led marriage I draw from Chapter 6 of Nicholas Nickleby:

“It is not for me to say by what means, or by what degrees, some wives manage to keep down some husbands as they do, although I may have my private opinion on the subject, and may think that no Member of Parliament ought to be married, inasmuch as three married members out of every four, must vote according to their wives' consciences (if there be such things), and not according to their own. All I need say, just now, is, that the Baroness Von Koeldwethout somehow or other acquired great control over the Baron Von Koeldwethout, and that, little by little, and bit by bit, and day by day, and year by year, the baron got the worst of some disputed question, or was slyly unhorsed from some old hobby; and that by the time he was a fat hearty fellow of forty-eight or thereabouts, he had no feasting, no revelry, no hunting train, and no hunting--nothing in short that he liked, or used to have; and that, although he was as fierce as a lion, and as bold as brass, he was decidedly snubbed and put down, by his own lady, in his own castle of Grogzwig.”