A Face to Love: The Problem of Female Relationships in Bleak House

Victorian woman sketch 3

“My God!”

Mr. Guppy stares. My Lady Dedlock sits before him, looking him through, with the same dark shade upon her face, in the same attitude even to the holding of the screen, with her lips a little apart, her brow a little contracted, but, for the moment dead. (430; ch. 29)


If readers had been bored to death with Lady Dedlock’s character before this scene, we are not yawning during our visits to Chesney Wold any longer! After over 400 pages of Lady Dedlock’s boredom, my lady’s uncharacteristically sudden exclamation jolts us out of the mental dead-lock we were trapped in whenever she deigned to make an appearance on the page. Readers knew several pages before this moment that Lady Dedlock is not as two-dimensional as she at first appears. But until this scene, my lady had not publicly broken rank and disturbed the perfect ladylike placidity befitting her aristocratic station:


He sees her consciousness return, sees a tremor pass across her frame like a ripped over water, sees her lips shake, sees her compose them by a great effort, sees her force herself back to the knowledge of his presence, and of what he has said. All this, so quickly, that her exclamation and her dead condition seem to have passed away like the features of those long-preserved dead bodies sometimes opened up in tombs, which struck by the air like lightning, vanish in a breath. (430; ch. 29)


Mr. Guppy’s speculations about a distant connection between Esther Summerson (actually Esther Hawdon) and the illustrious Dedlock family tree have exhumed my lady from her grave existence. Dickens illustrates the shock she feels primarily through the change in her typically expressionless face. She has lost her grip on the immovable, marbleized expression usually locked onto her face, the same face that first pricked Mr. Guppy’s suspicions. In fact, it is only by the resemblance between the face of Lady Dedlock and the face of Esther Summerson that Mr. Guppy suspects a connection. There seems little else to link the two of them – their social classes are far apart and Dickens does not merge their daily worlds – and we as readers are left to wonder if their connection is only skin-deep.


Are Lady Dedlock and Esther Summerson only linked by their similar physical features? Does their potential reconnection depend solely on the appearance of their face? Throughout Bleak House Lady Dedlock’s refined beauty recurs in the story as a representative of her fashionable life, while Esther Summerson is plain Dame Durden next to the golden Ada. Nevertheless, Mr. Guppy has recognized the similarity between the two, but their similarity cannot reunite them in a happy future. As the only link between this ill-fated mother and daughter pair, their faces become a danger to them and expose the deeper problem facing women in Bleak House who struggle to form more than surface-level relationships.


When Esther and Lady Dedlock encounter one another for the first time as mother and daughter, it is something in Lady Dedlock’s face that resonates with Esther: “I was rendered motionless. Not so much by her hurried gesture of entreaty . . . as by a something in her face that I had pined for and dreamed of when I was a little child” (536; ch. 36). In this moment as in so many others, it is Lady Dedlock’s face that speaks with a louder voice than any words she says. Esther is overcome with her emotions and the disconcerting display of turmoil from Lady Dedlock, but once Lady Dedlock falls to the ground, entreating Esther to forgive her, Esther’s thoughts turn from Lady Dedlock’s face to her own:


. . . when I saw her at my feet on the bare earth in her great agony of mind, I felt, through all my tumult of emotion, a burst of gratitude to the providence of God that I was so changed as that I never could disgrace her by any trace of likeness; as that nobody could ever now look at me, and look at her, and remotely think any near tie between us. (537; ch. 36)


Esther has already passed through her battle with smallpox, but has not emerged unscathed. Her face is drastically altered, so much so that when Mr. Guppy sees her after her illness, he hastily and insultingly insists that she recognize he cannot ever renew his proposal of marriage to her. Esther does not express any indignation or pain towards Mr. Guppy’s indecent behavior, and in this encounter with Lady Dedlock, she characteristically finds the silver lining, thanking God that her scars will prevent her mother from experiencing any future shame on her account. As Lady Dedlock tells Esther of her pain and despair, she covers her face with her hands and mourns the miserable bonds of her position that make any public reunion between them impossible. In this scene, Dickens’s narrative emphasizes the cruel reality that bonds between mothers and daughters are only as strong as the circumstances surrounding them.


Throughout her narrative, Dickens continually describes Lady Dedlock as a woman behind a veil; in this encounter with Esther, Lady Dedlock discards her veil of “proud indifference” for a brief moment but cannot linger in exposed freedom from her past sins. Even Esther must don a veil to hide her marked visage from the gaze of the world. Esther’s literal veil and Lady Dedlock’s figurative veil indicate a larger problem of establishing relationships and connections for women. In Dickens’s world, where propriety required the proper dress, the proper manners, and the proper expressions, communication for women becomes closely tied to the nonverbal, to the appearance of faces. If faces become obscured, then the means of connection are lost in the fogs of circumstance and secrecy. Through the women of Bleak House, Dickens asks us as readers to consider the inaudible power of faces and the grave injustices that arise when women are both voiceless and faceless.

Are You Bored to Death?



 “My Lady Dedlock (who is childless), looking out in the early twilight from her boudoir at a keeper’s lodge, and seeing the light of a fire upon the latticed panes, and smoke rising from the chimney, and a child, chased by a woman, running out into the rain to meet the shining figure of a wrapped-up man coming through the gate, has been put quite out of temper. My Lady Dedlock says she has been ‘bored to death.’” (9; ch. 2)


Lady Dedlock is bored with the rain, bored with Chesney Wold, bored with the fashionable society, and basically just bored with her entire existence. And so are we! If any Victorian author could manage to merge the attention span of a two year old with the disdainful elegance of a lady, Dickens is the man who could and who did. The life Lady Dedlock leads is full of nothing but the uninteresting and unimportant, and Dickens does not pass up any opportunity to highlight her dreary days: “Concert, assembly, opera, theatre, drive, nothing is new to my Lady, under the worn-out heavens” (161; ch. 12). In the world of Bleak House, Lady Dedlock’s lethargic life contrasts sharply with the care-worn days of those who are indefinitely caught in the unending cycle of appeals in the Court of Chancery, even though she too is involved in the infamous Jarndyce & Jarndyce case. Dickens clearly critiques the fashionable, upper-class through Lady Dedlock’s days of frivolity and selfishness.


But as Dickens depicts Lady Dedlock in all her vanity and carelessness, I wonder if Lady Dedlock could be anything more than just a spoiled social-lite? Does she serve any function in Bleak House beyond enabling Dickens to lower a social critique upon the life of the upper-class? As the fog over-saturates the streets of London and the rain over-saturates the grounds of Chesney Wold, Lady Dedlock is so over-saturated with lethargic boredom that Dickens reduces her to little more than a caricature. Crafting one female character, or even a few, as over-blown caricatures is not a crime, and certainly Dickens often creates caricatures in order to address larger issues through his work. However, can we as readers identify any woman in Bleak House who is a fully formed, three-dimensional character? Are Dickensian women merely reduced to either their foibles or their virtues in order to advance the social agenda of Bleak House?


So many of Dickens’s female characters are larger-than-life, but perhaps the two that rise to the foreground are Mrs. Jellyby and Mrs. Pardiggle. Like Lady Dedlock, they are defined by their idiosyncrasies. We are introduced to Mrs. Jellyby as the last reservoir of peace amidst her chaotic family and home: “Mrs. Jellyby whose face reflected none of the uneasiness which we could not help showing in our own faces . . . received us with perfect equanimity. She was a pretty, very diminutive, plump woman, of from forty to fifty, with handsome eyes, though they had a curious habit of seeming to look a long way off. As if – I am quoting Richard again – they could see nothing nearer than Africa!” (38; ch. 4). Mrs. Jellyby is so consumed by her pet-project of charity to African people that she grossly neglects her home and children. In her negligence, Dickens critiques the kind of missionary fervor that supersedes the duties and calls of a woman in her household. Mrs. Pardiggle appears in the story as another means for Dickens to make the same critique but through a contrasting angle.


Mrs. Pardiggle’s charitable projects do not prevent her from shirking her familial duties, but instead they engulf her children into the inexorable perseverance which she applies to her work. Mrs. Pardiggle proudly declares to Esther and Ada, “But they [her children] are my companions everywhere; and by these means they acquire that knowledge of the poor, and that capacity of doing charitable business in general – in short, that taste for the sort of thing – which will render them in after life a service to their neighbours, and a satisfaction to themselves” (108; ch. 8). Although Mrs. Pardiggle spends her time far more actively than Lady Dedlock, Dickens critique is implicit in Esther’s observation that she, Ada, and Richard had never met such wretched children before as Mrs. Pardiggle’s children: “We had never seen such dissatisfied children. It was not merely that they were weazened and shriveled – though they were certainly that too – but they looked absolutely ferocious with discontent” (107; ch. 8). In Dickens’s following depiction of Mrs. Pardiggle’s trip to the brickmaker’s house, Mrs. Pardiggle’s over-zealous evangelicalism is exposed as an egregious flaw rather than a Christian virtue. Like Mrs. Jellyby, she is reduced to a comical tool for Dickens to condemn Christian charity which does more harm than good.


Mrs. Jellyby and Mrs. Pardiggle are plainly secondary characters to the story of Bleak House, and it would not be fair to judge Dickens’s portrayal of women solely through them. However, even the principle female characters – Esther Summerson and Ada Clare – are characterized as limited, feminine types. Esther is dubbed “Dame Durden” and becomes the trope of the maternal care-giver, while Ada is the young, golden-haired angel who is cast as the virtuous and demure bride for the dashing Richard. Esther and Ada have more dimensions than Mrs. Jellyby or Mrs. Pardiggle, but their world seems to be just as narrow as Lady Dedlock’s world, although perhaps less boring than hers. They lead a happy life at Bleak House, but is it only a happy life because Dickens did not give them the complexity to desire a life different than the one readily available to them?


The humor and variety of Bleak Houses’s characters make them memorable and justify the popularity of Dickens’s novel. However, if we look to Bleak House for depictions of female characters that push the boundaries of stereotypical nineteenth-century women, then we may simply be bored to death.

Mirror, Mirror, on the Page

“My writings are public property: it is only myself apart from my writing that I hold private and veto about as a topic.” (George Eliot qtd. in Dillane, 145)

 In a letter to Elma Stuart, George Eliot penned the above quotation, permitting us a brief glimpse into her rather elusive attitude towards any kind of public image. In her examination of Eliot’s complicated relationship with the press, Fionnula Dillane points out that Eliot was one of the few authors at the time who enjoyed the “unique distinction” of completely avoiding any prying photographer’s lens (145). Was George Eliot photogenic? Sadly, we will never know for sure, and Dillane argues that the nagging lack of any photographic embodiment of George Eliot, the celebrated and occasionally controversial author, resulted in an effort by initial reviewers to embody Eliot through mining her fictive works for “the authentic visual image that acted as a ‘genuine’ copy for the real author” (149).

The convergence of cheap photography and emphasis on the visual in empirical sciences created a precarious dilemma for Eliot and an irresistible temptation for her fans and reviewers to equate the personas of her fictional narrators with the camera-shy authoress (Dillane 145). Yet, our discussions of Eliot’s fictional and journalistic work challenge any one-to-one correlation between the narratorial and authorial voices. Moreover, ‘George Eliot’ is only an “illusory mask” for Marian Evans, and Dillane highlights the additional complications Eliot’s gendered identity as an authoress posed for her or for any woman who wanted to enter into the man’s world of letters (149, 151). How then are we to arrive at any kind of knowledge of the authentically embodied George Eliot? If Eliot’s gender and unorthodox lifestyle precluded her from engaging with her public directly (along with her own personal aversions to the public limelight), what avenues are left to us to encounter the true Eliot?

Dillane outlines for us two alternate reductions of Eliot commonly perpetrated by her initial critics and fans: planting Eliot in her “native setting” as displayed through her earlier, more pastoral-like works to deduce her implicit biography or suppressing the existence of any physical origin or body of Eliot to transform her into “a Sibyl or Sage” of moral authority (154). Dillane derides both of these approaches for attempting to dissect Eliot’s mind through pages as two-dimensional as photographs. Yet I wonder if we can legitimately find clues of Eliot’s experience as an author in her writing, if not an exact blueprint of her thought. In a letter written on February 24, 1861, during the process of publishing Silas Marner, Eliot tells John Blackwood, her publisher, that she prefers her works to appear in the order in which she wrote them because they “belong to successive mental phases.” Perhaps we cannot measure the precise degree to which these “successive mental phases” are apparent in her works, but if we permit Eliot to know her own mind and writing more intimately than we ever can, then we may find many reflections of Eliot, the woman and the author, in the multiple mirrors of her journalistic and fictional writing.

Any reflections we find are certainly not as stable and fixed as a photograph, but neither are they so stagnant and paralyzed, impervious to the changes of time. In the artistry of her early fiction such as Silas Marner or the narrators of her later fiction such as Middlemarch, we can find traces of a mind that wrestled with social structures and moral responsibility. In her essays and reviews, such as “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists,” her views on art and education are implied beneath the layers of wit and irony. And if her published works are insufficient, her prodigious output of letters offers another mirror for us to peer into and steal a glimpse of her authorial embodiment. This tripod of fiction, journalism, and letters might be a more viable platform than the tripod of “the goddess, the witch, [and] the celebrity” that Dillane finds to begin attempting to understand George Eliot in any of her many roles and works (165).



Uncommonly Disastrous Spots of Commonness: Narrating Lydgate’s Mottled Tragedy

Lydgate’s hair never became white. He died when he was only fifty, leaving his wife and children provided for by a heavy insurance on his life. He had gained an excellent practice, alternating, according to the season, between London and a Continental bathing-place; having written a treatise on Gout, a disease which has a good deal of wealth on its side. His skill was relied on by many paying patients, but he always regarded himself as a failure: he had not done what he once meant to do. His acquaintances thought him enviable to have so charming a wife, and nothing happened to contradict their opinion. . . . He once called her his basil plant; and when she asked for an explanation, said that basil was a plant which had flourished wonderfully on a murdered man’s brains. (512-13; bk. 8, finale)


And so Teritus Lydgate’s part in the drama of Middlemarch ends with the grotesque image of Rosamond a la basil plant, feeding on his cold, dead brains. His brains that should have discovered the primary tissue of the human body were leeched dry by the greedy roots of his wife’s exquisitely refined taste. Such an image certainly seems to purposefully prejudice readers against Rosamond and exonerate Lydgate as yet another heir of Adam bewitched and tricked by one of Eve’s daughters. However, the narrative does not denounce Rosamond as the sole cause of Lydgate’s original sin. Before we have had the chance to catch more than a fleeting glimpse of Lydgate’s character, the story pauses, as Victorian tales often do, to draw up a chair for us and thoroughly acquaint us with Lydgate’s history and nature. But who is sitting opposite us in this cozy parlor to divulge all the necessary details of Lydgate’s life? Is it George Eliot? Or the narrator? Or the town of Middlemarch? Who is filling our ears so amply with all of Lydgate’s comings and goings before he arrived in Middlemarch and after he arrived in Middlemarch?

Once we briefly meet Lydgate at Stone Court, the narrative deviates from the budding romance between Middlemarch’s rose and medicine’s rising star to tell readers how Lydgate rose to shine so brightly. A friendly voice draws us into confidence and says, “At present I have to make the settler Lydgate better known to any one interested in him than he could possibly be even to those who had seen the most of him since his arrival in Middlemarch” (91; bk. 2, ch. 15). These apologetic words prepare readers for the long exposition of Lydgate’s life that follows, but who exactly is speaking to us? The first person “I” is used, but does that indicate that Eliot is introducing her own voice into the narrative? Or has the narrator taken on such a significant role that she speaks as a character would from her own point of view? The tone of the chapter remains explanatory and transparent, predisposing me to take the speaker at her words and trust her knowledge of Lydgate’s history. However, if the speaker is using the personal “I” might that indicate that whether it is Eliot or the narrator speaking, her perspective is not unobstructed by the shading of perspective and interpretation?

Towards the end of the chapter, we are told that Lydgate “was still in the making, as much as the Middlemarch doctor and immortal discoverer, and there were both virtues and faults capable of shrinking or expanding” (96; bk. 2, ch. 15). Lest we think too prematurely that his faults will drive the part he plays in Middlemarch, the speaker importunes us to grant Lydgate our sharpest attention: “The faults will not, I hope be a reason for the withdrawal of your interest in him. Among our valued friends is there not some one or other who is a little too self-confident and disdainful; whose distinguished mind is a little spotted with commonness . . . ?” (96; bk. 2, ch. 15).  In this statement, it seems we are spoken to by a friend of Lydgate seeking to present him in the best possible light. As she describes his faults, she notes the laudable traits that accompany them:

All his faults were marked by kindred traits, and were those of a man who had a fine baritone, whose clothes hung well upon him, and who even in his ordinary gestures had an air of inbred distinction. Where then lay the spots of commonness? . . . Lydgate’s spots of commonness lay in the complexion of his prejudices, which, in spite of noble intention and sympathy, were half of them such as are found in ordinary men of the world: that distinction of mind which belonged to his intellectual ardour, did not penetrate his feeling and judgment about furniture, or women, or the desirability of its being known (without his telling) that he was better born than other country surgeons. (96; bk. 2, ch. 15)

Whoever our friendly speaker truly is, she clearly wants us to sympathize with any missteps Lydgate may make while navigating the complexities of balancing grand ambitions with narrow circumstances. In spite of this, I am left wondering whether Lydgate’s actions, without the shading of friendly interpretation, merit the sympathetic judgment the narrator or Eliot desires us to exercise.

By book seven, Rosamond and Lydgate have married and stumbled through several unpleasant conflicts over their limited income. Their struggle climaxes when Rosamond unsuccessfully attempts to ask for money from Lydgate’s wealthy Uncle Godwin. As Lydgate attempts to reason with Rosamond and convince her to stop secretly acting in opposition to him, his words are full of gentleness and supplication: “‘Rosamond,’ he said, turning his eyes on her with a melancholy look, ‘you should allow for a man’s words when he is disappointed and provoked. You and I cannot have opposite interests. I cannot part my happiness from yours. . . . When I hurt you, I hurt part of my own life. I should never be angry with you if you would be quite open with me’” (412-13; bk. 7, ch. 65). In this moment, his words to Rosamond seem to justify our narrating speaker’s view of him as a man whose virtues far exceed his faults. Yet, the chapter ends with this complicating comment: “He wished to excuse everything in her if he could – but it was inevitable that in that excusing mood he should think of her as if she were an animal of another and feebler species. Nevertheless she had mastered him” (413; bk. 7, ch. 65). The speaker does not leave us with the picture of Lydgate as the victimized husband but acknowledges his intrinsic prejudice to view women as the weaker sex. Although the speaker of this judgment, whether it is Eliot or the narrator, may speak with a certain interpretation or shaded perspective, perhaps we can still trust her to present Lydgate and all the men and women of Middlemarch from more angles than only those of a sympathetic author or loyal friend.

Silly Novels or Silly Standards? Eliot’s Great Expectations for Women

The one candle was dying out: the room was full of moonlight. My heart beat fast and thick: I heard its throb. Suddenly it stood still to an inexpressible feeling that thrilled it through, and passed at once to my head and extremities. The feeling was not like an electric shock, but it was quite as sharp, as strange, as startling: it acted on my senses as if their utmost activity hitherto had been but torpor, from which they were now summoned and forced to wake. They rose expectant: eye and ear waited while the flesh quivered on my bones.

 ‘What have you heard? What do you see?’ asked St. John. I saw nothing, but I heard a voice somewhere cry –

 ‘Jane! Jane! Jane!’–nothing more.

 ‘O God! what is it?’ I gasped.

 I might have said, ‘Where is it?’ for it did not seem in the room– nor in the house–nor in the garden; it did not come out of the air- -nor from under the earth–nor from overhead. I had heard it– where, or whence, for ever impossible to know! And it was the voice of a human being–a known, loved, well-remembered voice–that of Edward Fairfax Rochester; and it spoke in pain and woe, wildly, eerily, urgently.” (Jane Eyre ch.35)

After this moon-lit, telepathic experience, Charlotte Brontë’s heroine, Jane Eyre, spurns the great commission of the stony, loveless St. John to follow the compass of her heart and search with unbounded determination, fueled by love’s passion, for her moody yet cherished employer, Mr. Rochester. Jane’s improbable romance sung sweet ditties of unassailable true love to my girlish heart when I first read Brontë’s novel as a doe-eyed preadolescent, and it still beguiles my more jaded sensibilities today. Nothing about Jane’s love story is plausible: she is a poor, plain governess with no connections and no property (at least for the first three quarters of the novel), yet she ensnares Mr. Rochester, a gentlemen of extensive property, worldly experiences, and exotic tastes, with all the minimal efforts of a competent therapist by sitting quietly and listening to the confessions of his tortured soul. The plot is not original to Brontë, but nonetheless Jane Eyre has endured as a favorite Victorian romance.

Would it endure, however, under the standards George Eliot outlines for women novelists in “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists?” Eliot deftly and humorously debunks the contrived romance novels by frivolous women with a generous measure of biting sarcasm which would surely earn her a job offer from satirical news sources like The Onion. She systematically undermines the patronizing praise nineteenth century reviewers gave to these feeble novels and scientifically classifies them as “the mind-and-millinery species,” “the oracular species,” “the white neck-cloth species,” or “the modern-antique species.” Towards the end of her essay, Eliot ends her dissection of these lady novelists and their novels to point out that praise-worthy works and authors are never showered with the abundance of empty praise offered to lady novelists. As she explains how truly talented authors are received, she includes the three women with whom we have kept company for several weeks: “Harriet Martineau, Currer Bell [i.e. Charlotte Brontë], and Mrs Gaskell have been treated as cavalierly as if they had been men. And every critic who forms a high estimate of the share women may ultimately take in literature, will, on principle, abstain from any exceptional indulgence towards the productions of literary women” (161). Eliot separates Harriet Martineau, Charlotte Brontë, and Elizabeth Gaskell from the censure she lowers on silly novels by lady novelists, but do they fully escape the pitfalls Eliot delineates in her essay? Are Eliot’s standards for great novels based upon widely applicable principles or specific genre expectations she holds for novels written by and about women?

As I read “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists,” several of the deficiencies Eliot describes in the different species of silly novels seemed to apply to Jane Eyre. The heroines of the “mind-and-millinery species” are plagued by “a vicious baronet, an amiable duke, and an irresistible younger son of a marquis as lovers in the foreground, a clergyman and a poet sighing for her in the middle distance, and a crowd of undefined adorers dimly indicated beyond” (140). Jane has only two out of the hoard of admirers Eliot describes, but Mr. Rochester does fit the description of the “rakish men [who] either bite their lips in impotent confusion at her repartees, or are touched to penitence by her reproofs,” and St. John is a clergyman who sighs in a bloodless sort of way for Jane’s hardy determination if not her generous heart. Eliot rails against the “confusion of purpose” so often seen in works by lady novelists when they attempt to introduce “shreds from the most heterogeneous romances” into their stories that take place in “quite modern drawing-room society” (153). This critique could ostensibly apply to Jane Eyre when Mr. Rochester relates to Jane the story of his whirlwind romance with the exotic beauty, Bertha Mason, who suddenly transforms shortly after their marriage into a deranged schizophrenic. Up until this point in Brontë’s novel, the story was firmly fixed on English soil and warranted no inclusion of characters or events from the distant Caribbean.

To be fair, the main thrust of Eliot’s indictment against over-drawn novels seems to be against the comically absurd heights that lady novelists reach for with plots and characters that do not justify the altitude. Nevertheless, Jane Eyre is one novel by the three women Eliot identifies as meritorious authors that could be guilty of the same flaws as the silly novels she derides. In the last paragraph of her essay, Eliot writes, “No educational restrictions can shut women out from the materials of fiction, and there is no species of art which is so free from rigid requirements. Like crystal-line masses, it may take any form, and yet be beautiful; we have only to pour in the right elements – genuine observation, humour, and passion” (162). Observation, humor, and passion are the essential characteristics, according to Eliot, for worthy novels and novelists. However, her argument in “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists” leading up to these three essentials indicates that they are not open principles so much as specific, unnegotiable expectations.

Gendered Communication & Speaking Faces

As Gaskell constructs her story of the cruel injustices suffered by the working classes in Mary Barton, she reflects on the hidden struggles and woes of every stranger we may pass by in the course of our lives. She writes, “But he [John Barton] cannot, you cannot, read the lot of those who daily pass by you in the street. How do you know the wild romances of their lives; the trials, the temptations they are even now enduring, resisting, sinking under?” (63). Gaskell points out that on one street we may brush against “the girl desperate in her abandonment, laughing in mad merriment with her outward gesture, while her soul is longing for the rest of the dead,” while on another corner “you may push against one, humble and unnoticed, the last upon earth, who in heaven will forever be in the immediate light of God’s countenance” (63). In this narrative aside, she highlights the difficulty of reading a person’s true character in their face, yet as the story unfolds, the ability to discern truth in countenances becomes a pivotal factor in the interactions of the people of Manchester.

The moments in Mary Barton when countenances speak rather than voices also highlight the gendered difference in communication. Gaskell’s female characters frequently perceive the message in the speaker’s face before they have said a word, while the men often fall short of fully interpreting the nonverbal truth communicated through countenances. In the case of Mary’s aunt Esther, the male character’s inability to understand the message of her face propels her further down the path of ruin and despair. When Esther accosts John Barton in the street, Gaskell highlights the nonverbal plea plainly apparent in Esther’s expression: “He pushed the bonnet back, and roughly held the face she would fain have averted, to the light, and in her large, unnaturally bright grey eyes, her lovely mouth, half open, as if imploring the forbearance she could not ask for in words, he saw at once the long-lost Esther” (emphasis added 124). Esther’s plaintive looks ask for John’s mercy, but he fails to perceive her plea: “He flung her, trembling, sinking, fainting from him, and strode away” (125). John’s failure to interpret Esther’s countenance is one of many instances in Gaskell’s narrative when masculine inability to hear inaudible communication harms the lives of those around them.

By noting the gendered differences in her characters’ communication, Gaskell combines questions of social justice and the problems of poverty with the additional difficulties facing women in such a society. The women in Mary Barton not only suffer the pain and fear accompanying hunger and homelessness but also the frustration of misunderstanding when the message of their faces remains unheeded. In this way, Gaskell’s novel contributes to the conversation in the nineteenth century surrounding the arenas in which women’s voices ought to be heard.

Elegant Economies in a Tragicomedy

As Gaskell introduces her readers to the endearing and eccentric inhabitants of Cranford, she prepares us to discern the reality about Cranford by reading in-between, around, and behind the lines that regulate their lives. In the opening chapter, Gaskell writes, “We had tacitly agreed to ignore that any with whom we associated on terms of visiting equality could ever be prevented by poverty from doing anything that they wished. If we walked to or from a party, it was because the night was so fine, or the air was so refreshing; not because sedan-chairs were expensive” (8). By describing this intentional self-deception practiced by the Cranford ladies, Gaskell teaches us to look through their nonsensical interpretations of gentility and propriety to the rich and holistic depiction of English country life contained within the pages of Cranford.

Throughout the novel Gaskell delights and amuses with her gently satirical descriptions of the habits and interactions of the hierarchical Cranford ladies. Mrs. Jamieson is revered as the most “honourable” of all the Cranford women, and she is deferred to in all questions of propriety because of her distant connections with the aristocracy. Yet, she is still susceptible to social gaffs, as Gaskell illustrates during her visit to Miss Betty Barker. While the ladies at the gathering are worrying over how to form pools of card players, Mrs. Jamieson compromises her aura of gentility by falling soundly asleep. Miss Barker ignores the impropriety of falling asleep in the midst of company and chooses to interpret Mrs. Jamieson’s behavior as a compliment: “‘It is very gratifying to me,’ whispered Miss Barker . . . ‘very gratifying indeed, to see how completely Mrs. Jamieson feels at home in my poor little dwelling; she could not have paid me a greater compliment’” (81). Gaskell again points out how truly un-aristocratic Mrs. Jamieson actually is by describing the vexation Mary feels when her attempt to discreetly take a healthy portion of sugar for her tea is ruined:

“Sugar was evidently Mrs. Jamieson’s favourite economy. I question if the little filigree sugar-tongs, made something like scissors, could have opened themselves wide enough to take up an honest, vulgar, good-sized piece; and when I tried to take two little minnikin pieces at once, so as not to be detected in too many returns to the sugar-basin, they absolutely dropped one, with a little sharp clatter, quite in a malicious and unnatural manner.” (93)

Mrs. Jamieson may present herself as a member of the gentry, but in reality she is as prone to fall asleep in a warm room as any other Cranford lady and must pinch certain luxuries because of her modest means. By reading around the higher status Mrs. Jamieson claims as her right, we can detect the harmless posture of ignorance Mary, Miss Matty, and others adopt to preserve the strict social rules of Cranford.

By choosing to ignore the obvious lack of true gentility and social superiority in Mrs. Jamieson, the Cranford ladies display their generosity and kindness towards one another. However, the rigid rules Cranford society constructs for itself are not always harmless. As Miss Matty tells the story of her brother Peter’s humiliation by their father and consequent flight from Cranford to join the navy, Gaskell depicts the grievous pain Cranford’s stringent sense of propriety can cause. Gaskell concludes this sad anecdote with Mary’s tragic comment, “But Peter did not come back. That spring day was the last time he ever saw his mother’s face. The writer of the letter – the last – the only person who had ever seen what was written in it, was dead long ago – and I, a stranger, not born at the time when this occurrence took place, was the one to open it” (69). Peter’s attempt to poke fun at the eccentricities of Cranford’s social structure results in the bereaved death of his mother (71). Through Peter’s needless exile and many more humorous yet somber tales, Gaskell invites us to read between the lines of Cranford society. We are prompted to sympathize with the residents of Cranford, but also to question the values of nineteenth-century provincial life.

Fifty Shades of Bronte?

For the past six months or more, trailers for the erotic film “Fifty Shades of Grey” based on the novel by E. L. James have consumed visual media, bombarding any consumer of basic cable or social media sites with scintillating suggestions of taboo yet pleasurable fantasies. While the trailer and advertisements focus on the hyper-sexualized content of the film, they also communicate the arguably constant reality that no individual can be characterized as one identity or summarized in one role. E. L. James was not the first to employ this theme in writing, nor will she be the last. In The Life of Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Gaskell explores this same theme in Charlotte Bronte’s life, focusing on the domestic and authorial roles she lived. There are many more shades besides these two in Bronte’s life, but Gaskell structures her biography around these and by doing so raises questions for readers about the genre of her work. Is Gaskell writing Charlotte Bronte as a heroine or as a nineteenth century woman? Should readers approach The Life as a fictional novel or as a nonfictional biography?

In her chapter on The Life, Linda Peterson argues that Elizabeth Gaskell sought to work against previous tropes in biographies of literary women which depicted their authorial aspirations as conflicting with their domestic duties (134). She suggests that Gaskell sought to present Charlotte Bronte as an example for future women writers of a way to hold these different roles in tension but not in conflict: “As Gaskell addresses these enduring questions in The Life, she disrupts the oppositional mode of the earlier nineteenth century to reformulate the artistic and the domestic as ‘parallel currents.’ Perhaps speaking for herself as much as for Bronte, Gaskell suggests that there are ‘separate duties belonging to each character – not opposing each other; not impossible, but difficult to be reconciled’” (134). Peterson goes on to present a thorough and convincing case for the dual goal Gaskell had in mind as she wrote the biography.

Peterson’s interpretation of Gaskell’s biography coincides well with the portrait of Bronte that Gaskell provides. Early on in The Life, Gaskell begins emphasizing Bronte’s distinctly feminine and maternal qualities. After Mrs. Bronte died, Gaskell casts Charlotte as the daughter who stepped into her mother’s role in the home: “Charlotte’s deep thoughtful spirit appears to have felt almost painfully the tender responsibility which rested upon her with reference to her remaining sisters. . . . Charlotte was motherly friend and guardian to both; and this loving assumption of duties beyond her years, made her feel considerably older than she really was” (64). This emphasis continues throughout volume one, as Peterson notes, and continues into volume two even as Gaskell’s primary focus shifts to Bronte’s literary endeavors. After emphasizing her constancy in fulfilling her domestic duties, Gaskell elevates Bronte’s character as an author into what Peterson describes as a “literary genius”: “One set of words was the truthful mirror of her thoughts; no others, however apparently identical in meaning, would do. She held that strong practical regard for the simple holy truth of expression . . . She never wrote down a sentence until she clearly understood what she wanted to say, had deliberately chosen the words, and arranged them in their right order” (246-7). Gaskell’s lofty portrait of Bronte may be justified by her subject’s great achievements, but nonetheless, her lavish praise and occasional narrative evaluations of Bronte’s actions lead us to question the objectivity Gaskell did or did not maintain in her biography.

While most of Gaskell’s biography consists of extracts from letters Bronte wrote or received, she does periodically interject her voice into the text. As Gaskell relates the process of Jane Eyre’s publication and reception, she pauses to point readers towards the evaluation we ought to make of the following extracts: “I shall give extracts from her replies [to G. H. Lewes], as their dates occur, because they will indicate the kind of criticism she valued, and also because throughout, in anger, as in agreement and harmony, they show her character, unblinded by any self-flattery, full of clear-sighted modesty as to what she really did well . . .” (266). As a twenty-first century reader, I am disposed to judge Gaskell critically for such a gushing comment and question the honesty of her biography. However, if we think of Gaskell as not only maintaining two parallel themes in her account of Bronte’s life but also two parallel genres – the novel and the biography – we may approach her work less skeptically and appreciate it for what it does accomplish. By balancing parallel themes and genres, Gaskell presents a multi-shaded portrait of Charlotte Bronte, a woman of great literary achievement and domestic dedication.

Harriet Martineau: Does she Philosophize or Womanize?

In the elusive and abstract world called academia, sweeping generalizations are a grave faux pas, tantamount to standing on a chair in a five star restaurant and belting out “Friday” by Rebecca Black. Nonetheless, I believe I can safely claim that Harriet Martineau was an exceptional woman. Not only did she step out of the approved domestic sphere by becoming a published author, but she also voiced progressive opinions about the inherent equality of women to men. She loudly declaims against the abuses of women in Society in America, and in her Autobiography, she celebrates her escape from the traditional role as a wife and mother, responsible for a husband’s happiness. With these liberating professions reverberating in my mind, I eagerly began reading Martineau’s novel, Deerbrook. I expected to find the same views Martineau expresses in her nonfiction work reflected in the lives and characters of her novel, but the correlation wasn’t nearly so exact. Do the egalitarian ideals expressed in her nonfiction manifest in her novel or does the novel proliferate the subjugation of women in the nineteenth century? Does Martineau philosophize ideally but womanize in reality?

In her Autobiography, Martineau clearly expresses the fulfillment she has found in her life as a single woman: “My business in life has been to think and learn, and to speak out with absolute freedom what I have thought and learned. The freedom is itself a positive and never-failing enjoyment to me, after the bondage of my early life” (120).  This conviction that her life has been full with thinking and learning apart from any domestic roles indicates Martineau’s belief in the broad range of spheres women are capable of entering. In Society in America, she declares that only women have the right to decide which duties they are capable or incapable of performing: “Some . . . oppose representation [of women], on the ground that political duties would be incompatible with the other duties which women have to discharge. . . . God has given time and power for the discharge of all duties; and, if he had not, it would be for women to decide which they would take, and which they would leave” (“Political Non-existence of Women” 1.3.7).  Martineau could not make a clearer case for the equal intelligence and equal right to choose a role for women.

I did not expect to find an exact duplication of Martineau’s unorthodox lifestyle in Deerbrook, but I anticipated a stronger push for women’s rights within her characters. The closest any woman comes in Deerbrook to enjoying the same intellectual freedoms as Martineau does is depicted in the life of Maria Young. Maria lives in the privileged singleness Martineau trumpets, but she does so by necessity rather than desire. The narrator’s comments on Maria’s existence lack the contentment Martineau expresses about her own position: “. . .but to Maria, liberty and peace were holiday, and her mind was not otherwise than peaceful. She was serious, but not sad. . . . She had been so long and so far banished from ordinary happiness, that her own quiet speculations were material enough for cheerfulness” (“The Meadows” 17).  A few pages later Margaret states Maria would be called “philosophical” if she were a man (“The Meadows” 23). A few chapters later as the narrator comments upon the unsurpassable happiness of true love, the life of a philosopher is diminished in comparison to the life of a person in love: “. . .but this philosopher, solitary seraph, as he may be regarded, amidst a myriad of men, knows at such a moment no emotions so divine as those of the spirit becoming conscious that it is beloved” (“A Turn in the Shrubbery” 58). In light of these thoughts, Maria’s single existence is in no manner as desirable as the life awaiting Hester and Margaret in their respective marriages.

The contrast between Martineau’s views of women’s rights expressed in her nonfiction and fiction seems to render her inconsistent at best and a womanizer at worst. But I wonder if Martineau tempered her views in Deerbrook because of the genre she was working in and the expectations her audience might have for that genre. Martineau was certainly not the first to write a social realism novel, and that genre carried expectations for plot and character. Perhaps Martineau took a softer approach to advocacy in Deerbrook because her audience was more receptive to a subtler call for change within that genre. I do not think that tactic compromises Martineau’s integrity, but rather it might demonstrate her authorial sophistication.

“Frailty, Thy name is Woman”

Before launching on her exploration into Victorian genres, Liddle states, “For modern readers, Martineau the writer is a more puzzling and less sympathetic figure than Martineau the feminist who advocated women’s education and opposed the Contagious Diseases Acts . . . the successful and independent professional woman” (“The Authoress’s Tale” 46). Harriet Martineau was certainly one of the leading advocates in the nineteenth century for women’s rights, and her life was an example of the meaningful existence a woman could enjoy without the badge of marriage. Yet her advocacy is restricted within the immediate backyard of conventional expectations of women’s roles. The controlled and cautious quality of Martineau’s call for equality in “On Female Education” may lead us to question the extent of her concern for women’s rights. However, Liddle’s argument for the impact of specific genre expectations on Martineau’s Autobiography can extend to Martineau’s other work and rejuvenate our appreciation of her writing.

In the Autobiography, she bluntly declares, “I am, in truth, very thankful for not having married at all. I have never since been tempted, nor have suffered any thing at all in relation to that matter which is held to be all-important to woman, – love and marriage” (119). This frank reflection on her life argues candidly for women’s independence. Martineau’s praise for Sir Walter Scott’s treatment of women in her essay, “On the Achievements of the Genius of Scott,” emphasizes the unconscious awareness Scott raises for women’s belittlement: “It [the term womankind] may lead some watchful intellects – some feeling hearts – to ponder the reasons of the fact, that the word mankind calls up associations of grandeur and variety, – that of womankind, ideas of littleness and sameness” (47). Both of these statements demonstrate a strong concern for the position of women in the nineteenth century.

However, Martineau’s work is not entirely free from the conventional values of her time. Just a few lines after her bold profession of gratitude in singleness, Martineau qualifies her pleasure as an unmarried writer. She writes, “The simplicity and independence of this vocation first suited my infirm and ill-developed nature, and then sufficed for my needs, together with family ties and domestic duties, such as I have been blessed with, and as every woman’s heart requires” (Autobiography 120). The undercutting vein of support for women’s joy in domestic duties appears even stronger in “On Female Education.” Towards the end of this essay, she declares, “Let her [woman] be taught that she is to be a rational companion to those of the other sex among whom her lot in life is cast, that her proper sphere is home – that there she is to provide not only for the bodily comfort of man, but that she is to also enter into community of mind with him” (81). Martineau’s conventionality may well cause us to sigh and let her fall from our esteem as a forerunner of contemporary feminism.

But we might not yet need to remove Martineau from her feminist pedestal. Liddle summarizes Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory on genres, pointing out that existing worldviews are worked out to their best expression in any genre while the same worldviews are also “discursively re-creat[ed]” within any genre. With this thought in mind, we must ask how the genres in which Martineau wrote were already laden with a worldview that both restricted her feminism and provided her with forms to reinvent and challenge existing views of women.

Progressing into Slavery

Several pages in to Harriet Martineau’s chapter “Morals of Slavery” in Society in America, I couldn’t help but sardonically smile at her prediction for slavery in the United States: “Desperate as the state of society is, it [slavery] will be rectified, probably, without bloodshed” (2.5.1). Martineau’s hopeful, albeit unfulfilled, prediction seems blithely naïve in light of the ensuing long years of bloodshed and enslavement that African Americans endured before the illegalization of slavery. Even after the institution of the Thirteenth Amendment, African Americans continued to be oppressed, and recent films like Selma, commemorating the life and work of Martin Luther King, jr., reminds me that societal progress is not as linear as Martineau seems to suppose.

She claims in How to Observe Morals and Manners that “The ideas of equal rights, of representation of person as well as property, and all other democratic notions, originate in towns, and chiefly in manufacturing towns” (2.3.90). Because the United States, as well as England, have firmly progressed into a manufacturing-based economy, they are “rescued, by the full establishment of their manufacturers, from all danger of a retrogradation towards feudalism” (2.3.91). Martineau acknowledges the exception of some markets like the Charleston market where the masters pocket all profits, echoing the feudal system, but she does not sufficiently account for the simultaneous existence of ideals of liberty and perversities of slavery. How can a nation that champions a person’s right to pursue life, liberty, and happiness condone the systematic oppression of an entire race?

Martineau declares the mutual exclusiveness of liberty and slavery in How to Observe, stating, “In like manner, whatever a nation may tell him of its love of liberty should go for little if he sees a virtuous man’s children taken from him on the ground of his holding an unusual religious belief; or citizens mobbed for asserting the rights of negroes . . .” (2.4.123). Yet, the South is part of the same United States as the North, which professed at its founding to believe in liberty for all humankind. In “Morals of Slavery,” Martineau attempts to reconcile this contradiction by falling back on probabilities: “Probably the southern gentry, who declare that the presence of slavery enhances the love of freedom . . . are sincere enough in such declarations; and if so, it follows that they do not know what freedom is” (2.5.1). But moral ignorance seems a frail excuse to fall back upon in the face of the systematic persecution of thousands.

While I commend Martineau for her sociological work and am inspired by her courage to literally and figuratively cross boundaries, her explanation of slavery in the South oversimplifies the complex moral, economic, geographical, and social conditions that perpetuated African American oppression. The theories she proposes in How to Observe are not adhered to in “Morals of Slavery.” I do not think this indicates any lack in sociological or rhetorical skill, but rather testifies to the nearly incomprehensible motives and conditions undergirding slavery in the United States.