Thursday, February 9, 2012

Guest Post: The Dickensian Heroine by Melody

Old-Fashioned Charm

Some time ago I thought to myself that most of the female main characters in Charles Dickens's novels seem to have similar dispositions and virtues: they are sweet and benevolent, self-sacrificing and kind, gentle and morally upright; several are clever and discerning. Many of them also seem to love their heroes quietly and are unsure of their feelings being returned - or in the cases of Amy Dorrit and Agnes Wickfield, watching the men they love pursuing someone else.

I find it quite interesting to look at the patterns and similarities between these heroines; and then look also at the very different Bella Wilfer, and the shockingly different Estella Havisham. Here I shall make a list of the heroines, with descriptions of their individual stories and comparisons between them all.

I am, sadly, a rather ill-educated Charles Dickens admirer at this point, in that I've barely read any of his books, so this will all be based on what I know from watching the film adaptations. 

The Typical Dickensian Heroine

Amy Dorrit, Little Dorrit

  Amy is, I think, the ultimate emblem of the Dickensian heroine, and one of my favorite literary heroines. She truly is to be admired, and makes an excellent role model. 

     Amy's circumstances are very difficult. Her father has been in a debtor's prison from around the time of her birth, and she grows up taking care of him; pretty much the rest of her family, too, who are all selfish, demanding, and just plain aggravating. Except for nice Uncle Frederick, who doesn't live with them; I only meant her father, brother, and sister. 
     She is ever obedient, patient, and kind, showing real strength of character when her circumstances must be excessively hard to bear. 
     Then she meets Arthur Clennam (whose character is also exemplary), a man who tries to help her and her family and is very kind to them, despite her father's practically begging for money, and her rude brother.
     Speaking of which, I love the part where she stands up to her brother "Tip" and tells him what's what. That's the spirit. He needs to be yelled at.
     Anyways, back to Arthur. Amy falls in love with him, as we all expect; although apparently it's quite lost on Arthur because he doesn't know until someone tells him. Alas, Arthur is taken with a sweet but shallow young woman who, fortunately for him I'd say, becomes engaged to someone else before he proposes. At least he knew the girl before he knew Amy, and at least he didn't marry her...unlike a Certain Other Charles Dickens hero who shall remain nameless. 
     Then comes the big news. (If you haven't seen/read Little Dorrit yet and don't want the surprise spoiled, I suggest you stop reading here and skip down to Esther.) Arthur meanwhile has asked a certain Mr. Pancks to find information about the Dorrits, and he uncovers the fact that Mr. Dorrit is heir to a fortune. Whereupon Mr. Dorrit, now very wealthy, is released from prison, becomes ridiculously conceited, and they all go off on a grand tour of Italy along with the excessively irritating Mrs. Genral, who is engaged by Mr. Dorrit to teach Amy and her sister Fanny the ways of gentility. 
     Poor Amy. I feel sorry for her when they are poor and she is stuck caring for her father; but when they're rich, suddenly nothing she does is good enough for her family, even though she tries desperately hard to please them. Her goodness and patience show more and more the further it is required. One especially trying situation is how Mr. Dorrit feels himself above Mr. Clennam, whom they owe the discovery of their fortune, and demands that Amy have no association with him, or anyone else from their past - which was her entire life. 
     After all this and more, the happy ending comes: Amy and Arthur are married, and everything is as it should be.
     Amy is one of the few heroines in Charles Dickens's novels where the main character is a girl. Another one is...

Esther Summerson, Bleak House

I always see lots of similarities between Esther and Amy. Not only are they practically the only two females who are the main characters in any of Dickens's stories, they both come from hard backgrounds, tragically lose some parent or other, and are pursued and proposed to by men they do not love. (Only in Esther's case, the man is a little creepy.) They both go through many hardships and are required to be strong, and suffer grief and uncertainty about the men they love. Actually, many of the heroines have these things in common. But I'll get to that later.
Esther, a girl of unknown parentage, is raised for some time by a woman who is cruel and seems to despise her; then she is sent away to school. Fortunately for Esther, a kind gentleman by the name of John Jarndyce becomes her guardian. At the age of 21, she meets the wards of the famous (or perhaps infamous is a better word) Jarndyce case - a court case about a will, or rather more than one. Ada Clare and Richard Carstone are due to get money if and when the real will is discovered. Mr. Jarndyce is their guardian as well, and Esther is engaged by him to be Ada's companion. They all go to live with him at Bleak House.
Mr. Jarndyce is as gentlemanly as they come - kind, considerate, friendly and agreeable. Though more than old enough to be her father, Mr. Jarndyce comes to love Esther and eventually proposes marriage. She accepts even though she is interested in someone else: a Mr. Woodcourt, who has gone off to sea as a doctor and who knows when he'll be back. She has a few reasons for thinking he couldn't care for her, and she respects Mr. Jarndyce and says she thinks she would come to love him.
During the course of the story, Esther undergoes a severely dangerous disease, is stalked by the above-mentioned creepy guy, finds out who her mother is under very trying circumstances, sees people she cares about die, as well as constantly sharing other people's burdens. (This story isn't all doom and gloom, though; it has it's light points. I do not wish to mislead you.) Then of course there is the Woodcourt/Jarndyce issue. After accepting Mr. Jarndyce, Mr. Woodcourt comes back and, surprise! he wants to marry her. Which puts Esther in a very awkward situation. She refuses Mr. Woodcourt as a lady of honor and constancy would. Of course she ends up with Mr. Woodcourt in the end, because Mr. Jarndyce decides to release her from the engagement.
Putting the age difference problem aside, I always prefer Mr. Jarndyce. He's just so... nice. Poor guy... I suppose Mr. Woodcourt was best suited for Esther, though.
Esther certainly meets the criteria of a Dickens heroine in being selfless, kind, considerate, honest, etc.: although she isn't as meek as some of the others.

Lizzie Hexam, Our Mutual Friend

Though Lizzie isn't technically the heroine of Our Mutual Friend, she definitely has the makings of a Dickensian heroine and deserves to be classed with them.

     Lizzie has a situation similar to Amy's in some ways; she is without a mother and cares for her father before he dies, living in quite poor circumstances. Although, rather than her father being in prison for debt like Mr. Dorrit, Lizzie's father works pulling dead people out of the river and is reputed to be a criminal. She sends her younger brother off to school so he can avoid any scandal, and is rewarded for her considerate treatment by his becoming puffed up, and later breaking with her because she shames him and refused to marry his schoolmaster, who, according to him, would put her in a good situation. This man is more than creepy though; he's insane. Fortunately Lizzie is wiser than her brother. 
     Lizzie, like Amy and Esther, falls in love with a man higher in position than herself. Lizzie's case is much more extreme though, for Eugene Wrayburn is the sort who mixes with society and is referred to as a gentleman, whereas she is a boatman's daughter and later on a factory worker.
     So, there is that silent love theme again, and she ends up with him in the end, as generally happens with the Charles Dickens ladies. (The author isn't always as kind to his gentlemen, though...)

Agnes Wickfield, David Copperfield

Agnes fits right into the mold with the others mentioned so far, especially Amy and Lizzie, except her father is a goodly gent and they are more well-to-do. She has no mother, though, and does take care of her father in a sense. She is also pursued by someone undesirable, as Esther and Lizzie are (although Esther's case wasn't as bad). The man is Uriah Heep, the villain of the story, and quite creepy - in a slimy sort of way - as well.

     There's also the 'silent love theme' in this story, although I must say Agnes has it the worst of them all. She grows up loving David, but he pulls the old "she's like a sister to me" trick and she has to look on as he falls for a silly airhead, when Agnes is so obviously the perfect match for him. (What? I'm irritated? Why on earth would you think that? Heh...) At last, in the end, all turns out well and he marries the ever-forgiving and generous Agnes.
     She has all the Dickensian heroine traits - sweet, selfless, gentle, patient, kind; she is also very perceptive, unlike her beloved. 

Madeline Bray, Nicholas Nickleby

And here we have it again; a caring, motherless girl who takes care of her father and is rather poverty stricken. Mr. Bray has to be the worst of the fathers, though. Mr. Dorrit and Mr. Hexam at least had some sort of affection for their daughters; this one is more of a villain. He's selfish through-and-through, demanding, and pretty much just evil, agreeing to marry Madeline off to a man (who is, incidentally, another villainous person) in exchange for settling his debts, without a care for her.

     He conveniently dies before the evil event takes place, fortunately. She would have done it, though, which I think is taking her love and obedience a little too far.
     But anyways, there's always Nicholas around to save the day. In this story, the romantic element is quite different than in the others, because Nicholas falls for her from the beginning, doesn't attempt to hide it, and is always trying to help and protect her. She loves him, too, and the story's ending is thoroughly happy.

Mary Graham, Martin Chuzzlewit

Mary, an orphan, is employed as companion to an old man named Martin Chuzzlewit. She possesses most of the Dickensian heroine traits, as well as being very beautiful. 

     A nice man named Mr. Pinch falls in love with her, but she is already engaged to young Martin Chuzzlewit, grandson of the other one with that name. The match, however, is forbidden by old Mr. Chuzzlewit.  
     Mary has most of the circumstances, too: a sweet disposition, an old man she takes care of, a man she loves but can't marry, another lover who is rather too old for her but very good, and there's also the situation of the not-good, rather creepy guy who wants to marry her.  
     I never cared much for young Martin; he does improve, but he rather annoys me. I like Mr. Pinch's character much better, even if he is balding rather before his time. Ah well, such is, Dickens. 

And More of the Same Sort

Lucie Manette, A Tale of Two Cities
I don't know very much about this young lady, as I haven't read all that much of the book yet, and haven't seen any of the adaptations. She seems to be a true Dickensian heroine, though; gentle, sweet, young, beautiful, motherless, taking care of her father (the circumstances there are very interesting), and more than one young man is in love with her.

Nell Trent, The Old Curiosity Shop
Nell is technically one of the heroines, I suppose, but she's only 14 and dies at the end of the story. (I am not at all fond of the main character in a story dying.) She fits in with the rest, though: both her parents are dead, she lives with her grandfather, they haven't much money, and her brother is a jerk. She's timid, gentle, etc. 

Kate Nickleby, Nicholas Nickleby
I didn't mention Kate earlier because she isn't really one of the heroines; she's the hero's sister. However, she's a main character so I'll mention her here anyways.
     At the beginning of the story, Kate and Nicholas lose their father, and have to go to London to seek help from their uncle. He finds them both positions instead, though Nicholas's isn't good and the uncle turns out to be a villain. He allows and even encourages an acquaintance of his to behave improperly towards Kate, but when Nicholas finds out he sweeps her and their mother away from the evil uncle. 
     Here again we have a dead parent, and also in the story is a young man who quietly worships Kate, though it's unlike any of the other situations because rather than too old for her, he is quite young. And a creepy man pursues her, as I mentioned.

Ada Clare, Bleak House
Esther Summerson is the heroine of this story, but Ada plays a large part in it. Though she isn't a perfect Dickensian heroine, she has many of the qualifications. 

The Exceptions
For all Charles Dickens's uniformity when it came to creating heroines, he did make a few exceptions. Here are two of them.

Estella Havisham, Great Expectations

Estella is just about as different as possible to the other heroines. I suppose it wasn't completely her fault as she was raised to be the way she is; but then, the Dickensian heroines didn't have the greatest backgrounds, either. Estella is mean, cold, and selfish; rather than falling in love with a man she can't marry, it happens the opposite way; and Estella actually marries her creepy pursuer. The man who falls in love with her but can't marry her is "Pip," the main character in the story.

    Estella was adopted by Miss Havisham and trained to be the way she became. Miss Havisham, a man-hater, wanted Estella to be a heart-breaker. 
     In the new mini-series, I found Estella a bit more likable than in the 1999 adaptation. She improved a little, and seemed better deep down inside.  
     Though they never marry during the story, things look hopeful for her and Pip at the end.

Bella Wilfer, Our Mutual Friend

Though Bella isn't anything like Estella, she's not the usual Charles Dickens heroine, either. She couldn't be called sweet, gentle, or patient, and at the beginning of the story she isn't very exemplary, either. She's impertinent, proud, values money too highly, and is rather snide sometimes to her poor admirer Mr. Rokesmith. 

     Both of her parents are living, and though she considers her family to be poor ("degradingly poor"), her father has a respectable position in business.
     She was engaged to marry a man named John Harmon, whom she had never met, and whose father specified in his will that he had to marry her in order to get his inheritance. 
     John Harmon, however, was found drowned, and the fortune went to Mr. and Mrs. Boffin, an older couple who previously worked for old Harmon .
     The Boffins kindly invite Bella to live with them; keep them company, and join them as they go into society. She accepts, and after seeing what money can do, she soon decides that she must marry someone rich.
     Which is bad news for Mr. Rokesmith, Mr. Boffin's secretary, who falls in love with Bella - and has a secret or two hidden away. It all ends perfectly though.
     As I said earlier, Bella improves. Really, all along she had a good heart, it just took some things to bring it out in all areas of her life. I would call her a sweet girl by the end (as well as quite amusing the whole way), and she's one of my favorite Dickens heroines.  

Regency Delight ~Jane Austen, etc.~

Melody is the author of Regency Delight where she bogs about all things Jane Austen, classic literature and period dramas related. Her sweet Charles Dickens posts include reviews of Little Dorrit (2009), A Christmas Carol (1984), Nicholas Nickleby (2002) and a guest post review of Bleak House (2005).

Thank you Melody for taking time to put together this delightful post and for sharing about your favorite Dickensian heroines!

Now, dear readers, it's your turn:
Which Dickensian heroine is your favorite?


Barbara said...

I just wanted to tell you how much I appreciate your posts and...oh! your list of period films! Pure delight!

Melody said...

Thank you for having me, Miss Laurie! It was delightful writing a post for this event! =)

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