The Carson Women

Harry Carson’s death is first introduced in the Carson home. Though he makes sense as a target for the union’s assassination plot, Gaskell does not provide this information in that scene. Instead, we only really know that Jem and Harry have had a fight in the streets, that Harry has shown himself to be particularly unconcerned with the plight of the working men, that someone has been chosen to assassinate a factory owner, and that John Barton has been acting strangely. While John’s murder of Harry neatly ties the already interwoven plots together in ways that make it almost predictable, it is not given to the reader. Part of the reason for Gaskell’s careful presentation and revelation is likely from a desire to create some suspense, but her decision to first reveal to the readers that Harry was the target of the union’s plot through his family’s discovery of his death also suggests that the Carson family’s reactions to his death are of greater significance than his actual moment of death. Given the importance of the event in Mr. Carson’s growth and reconciliation at the end of the novel, it makes sense that his initial reaction would be pertinent in moving the reader toward sympathy so that the resolution is believable. However, Harry’s mother and sisters receive considerable attention in this scene but never reappear. In a novel whose narrator asks readers to consider “the lot of those who daily pass you by in the street,” what do Sophy, Amy, Helen, and Mrs. Carson reveal to readers (101)?

The Carson women are only mentioned or appear in a few moments in the text: Amy is present when George Wilson asks Mr. Carson to have Ben Davenport admitted to the infirmary, one sister was mentioned as being with Harry when he sees Mary, and their extended scene in which they discover Harry’s death. When the scene opens, Amy, Helen, and Sophy are discussing Harry’s behavior toward a popular girl in their circle and criticizing his flirtatiousness. At least one of the sisters has seen his attentions to Mary, but they only consider his attentions to girls of their social standing (177). The readers have seen the full extent of Harry’s flirtatiousness and know that he had shown Mary affection without intending to marry her, which would likely shock his sisters if they knew, considering how they respond to his more subdued efforts with Jane Richardson (187, 266). Amy defends Harry against Sophy’s criticism simply because he is a good brother, to which Sophy replies, “…He is a good, kind brother, but I do think him vain, and I think he hardly knows the misery, the crime, to which indulged vanity may lead him” (266). Here Sophy shows herself to be the more level-headed of the three sisters, but it is also an interesting rhetorical technique to have the family criticize Harry’s actions right before he is revealed to have been murdered. The rest of the scene shows the family in extreme and understandable grief, but Gaskell reminds readers that Harry is not a particularly upright man, though Sophy uses similar language about vanity and flirting that the narrator uses to describe Mary Barton’s own actions. At his death, he cannot be seen as a villain but simply errant — readers are reminded that he is no angel but that his death is still a tragedy. This is in keeping with Gaskell’s portrayals of people as flawed but redeemable and of violence and suffering as tragic no matter who they affect. Yet, to have his sisters unknowingly speak ill of the dead creates an uncomfortable tension.

When the family enters crisis mode, Sophy plays a significant role in spreading the news and caring for the other family members. Once they receive the news from the nurse, she is assigned to tell Mr. Carson (269-271), and she later takes action when Mrs. Carson’s grief prevents her from recognizing the reality of Harry’s death (274-275). Mrs. Carson’s reaction certainly inspires readers to sympathy and compassion, but what about the sisters? Shortly after telling her father, he sends her back so that she does not see the body. The narrator states, “Miss Carson went. She could not face death yet” (271). However, after Mrs. Carson has seen Harry’s body and believes him to be simply sleeping, the narrator describes the sisters’ reactions: “Then the three sisters burst into unrestrained wailings. They were startled into the reality of life and death. And yet in the midst of shrieks and moans, of shivering and chattering of teeth, Sophy’s eye caught the calm beauty of the dead; so calm amidst such violence, and she hushed her emotion” (275). One particularly striking phrase in this passage is “They were startled into the reality of life and death” (275). The Carson family, until now, had four children survive past childhood. Readers have learned of the deaths of Tom Barton, Mary Barton’s unborn sibling, the Wilson twins, and Esther’s child, as well as the deaths of many adults, like Mrs. Mary Barton, Margaret’s parents, George Wilson, and Ben Davenport. While the surviving working class characters are certainly grieved by the loss of their friends and relative, “the reality of life and death” has been perpetually present for them throughout the novel. The reaction of grief does not differ between classes, but the regularity of it seems to plague the working class more than the employing class.

Gaskell seems to be using this scene to accomplish a wide variety of aims: to remind readers that Harry’s death is still tragic despite his flaws and to remind readers that death itself is a tragedy, no matter the class of the person who died. Using the sisters to illustrate these concepts and speak to these concepts works well to remind the readers to be sympathetic toward the Carsons in this moment, but why do they disappear after this? Where are they in the trial or in their father’s new approach to the working class at the end of the novel? Why do they appear to inspire a moment of difficult compassion only to fade completely from view during their father’s character growth? Their function within their scene raises some questions, but what is their function within the novel as a whole?


Gaskell, Elizabeth. Mary Barton. Broadview, 2000.

Crucifiers and Crucified: Questioning Christological Identity in Mary Barton

For much of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton, religion seems to play a fairly marginal role in the novel and in most of the characters’ lives (with the notable exception of Aunt Alice). However, in the climax of the story, this relative silence on religion is, in a way, identified as the primary source of the societal and personal problems at the heart of the novel. In the moving final exchange between John Barton and Mr. Carson, both men see each other anew through the Christian gospel and discover that gospel anew through one another. After this event, the reader, looking back at the novel, is led to read many of the characters through a Christological lens, identifying some characters with Christ through their suffering and some characters, often the same characters, with Christ’s crucifiers through their violence or neglect of others. This crucifier/crucified duality transcends the boundaries between the rich and the poor, between the workers and the masters, showing Christ and thus humanity in all of them. However, the titular Mary Barton does not seem to fit into this paradigm of crucifier/crucified as tidily as many other characters, particularly the male characters. This leads to the question of whether this Christological connection is reserved for male characters, while female characters enter into the Passion of the novel differently or whether Mary too can be read, in a subtler way, as being linked to Christ in her suffering.

After Mr. Carson states that he would rather bear the burden of unforgiveness himself then extend forgiveness to his son’s murderer, Gaskell writes: “all unloving, cruel deeds are acted blasphemy” (342). This is what John Barton has come to understand in the light of the murder he has committed, especially after witnessing Mr. Carson’s anguished suffering, and it is a truth Mr. Carson realizes, to some degree, after this first brutal exchange between himself and John Barton. Carson’s revelation is inspired by the example of a little girl forgiving the rough young lad who knocked her over and especially her words “He did not know what he was doing,” which send him back to the gospel account of Christ’s salvific suffering (345). In thus seeing Christ through the little girl’s action, Carson comes to see Barton’s humanity through Christ, finding the strength to forgive the dying Barton in his final moments. It might seem arrogant to say that Carson sees himself linked to Christ through his own suffering, thus extending forgiveness to Barton who has inflicted that suffering on him, but the words through which he offers forgiveness simultaneously recognize his own need for forgiveness of trespasses: “God be merciful to us sinners.—Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us!” (346). Carson’s later actions reveal that he has not only seen himself as linked to Christ through his suffering but has also seen others, the poor whose needs he has neglected, as equally human by virtue of their shared connection to Christ through suffering. Thus, Carson and Barton are united as crucifiers and crucified alike.

In light of this climactic revelation, we are led to read Jem Wilson through a Christological lens as well. Jem, innocent and falsely accused, standing trial before a hostile court, is characterized particularly by his silence, much like Christ before Pilate and Herod. Indeed, Mary interprets Jem’s gaze as questioning, “Am I to do for what you know your—” (306). The unfinished words her are presumably “father did,” but the ambiguity suggests the possibility of connecting Jem’s sacrifice to the more broadly substitutionary sacrifice of Christ.

So then what about Mary? She is our protagonist after all, so it might seem odd that we do not seem to be clearly led to locate her in this Christological framework, which comes to almost define the novel and in which each of the major male characters can be situated. There are a few different possible answers to this seeming issue.

One possibility is that Mary is actually linked thematically to Christ through her suffering after all. Even as Jem acts as a Christ-type in court, Mary is arguably sacrificing herself for him in turn. Mary’s successful efforts to prove Jem’s alibi, push her to a point of physical and psychological exhaustion that seriously threatens her life after the trial. While Jem, unlike Christ, goes free after his trial, it seems that Mary comes close to fulfilling the Passion by dying, and her recovery from that state of near-death resembles, perhaps, a kind of resurrection.

However, Mary’s return to life can, probably more compellingly, be read as a rebirth into new life. To be sure, this too is a kind of resurrection, a resurrection of the believer with Christ in traditional Christian theology, but the language of new birth is associated with the role of the Christian rather than Christ, the saved rather than the savior. When Mary first wakes up after her long feverish delirium, Gaskell writes, “Her mind was in the tender state of a lately born infant’s” (324). Gaskell continues to describe Mary in this way, remarking later that “she smiled gently as a baby does” and describing her gaze as “infantine” (325). Clearly, Mary’s recovery and return to life are linked to a rebirth and, given the religious reading suggested by the climax, it seems natural to link that language to the idea of spiritual rebirth in Christian soteriology.

Might Mary then be thematically related to one or both of the two major Mary’s of the gospel accounts: Mary, Mother of God, and Mary Magdalene? Mary’s appearance in the court is compared not to any madonnas but instead to Guido’s Beatrice Cenci, an interesting connection in the ways that it positions Mary as a potential victim of her father and of a detached aristocracy. However, the choice to describe Mary’s melancholy beauty in terms of the Guido painting, when plenty of madonnas could fit the bill, suggests that the Marian connection is not one Gaskell was particularly pursuing. Mary Magdalene, however, seems to offer a more promising parallel. After Jem’s arrest, many try to cast Mary as sexually wanton. She is judged and denied grace by others, linking her perhaps to the reputed backstory of Mary Magdalene. This, in conjunction with the emphasis on Mary’s baby-like birth into new life, might seem to connect Mary to Christ in a more removed and more passive way, linking her to a woman adjacent to Christ rather than to Christ himself.

However, we might be falling into something of a false dichotomy if we reach this conclusion. Carson’s and Barton’s connection to Christ through their suffering and to his crucifiers through their cruelty does not conflict in any way with their simultaneous identities as believers, being born again into new life. To the contrary, all of these aspects of identity are part and parcel of being a believer, and thus we are not constrained to choose one of these several options for reading Mary’s identity. Mary can be linked at once to Mary Magdalene and to Mary Magdalene’s redeemer, just as Mary Magdalene herself was before Mary Barton ever entered the scene.


Works Cited:

Gaskell, Elizabeth. Mary Barton. Ware, UK, Worsworth Editions, 2012.

Choosing Souls Over Social Silhouettes

The Victorian Era, in which Jane and Rochester dwell, can rightly be understood as a period that underlined and accentuated the inequality between men and women, primarily through assigned gender roles. Within this milieu, Jane abjures the social silhouettes of the time in both actions and speech, primarily through her relationship with Mr. Rochester himself. Consequently, both characters, and their relationship with one another, become anomalies.
A few days into her position as governess at Thornfield, Jane pauses to consider the nature of her role and the disposition of the other women inhabitants. While she commends the goodness she sees in them, she expresses a longing for a “more vivid kind of goodness,” which she outlines in the following lines (178). Restless in nature, she opposes the notion that “women are supposed to be very calm generally,” insisting instead that they “feel just as men feel”, and thus “must have action” (178). Through these internal reflections, we first glimpse Jane’s inner struggle with the gender roles from which she feels so estranged.
As her relationship with Rochester develops, Jane continues disputing those social gender convictions. In the orchard scene, before Rochester avows his love for her, Jane, believing her master to be toying with her affections, rebukes him, “I have as much should as you, —and full as much heart!… I am not talking to you now through medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even mortal flesh: —it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal,— as we are!” (338). To such a declaration, Rochester consents, repeated her words and calling her his “equal” and his “likeness” (339).
From this foundation, their courtship takes a novel course, for not only did they view each other entirely as equals, but in many cases Rochester proves the one subdued. Concerning her own struggle between passion and reason, Jane often expresses her ardent desire for self-mastery, voicing frustration when this becomes unattainable and her emotions predominate. She carries this devotion to self-control and self-autonomy into her relationship with Rochester, and to such a stance he concedes. Rochester then, in response to Jane’s independence and self-discipline, allows himself to be the subdued one. The day after the proposal, he notes to Jane the peculiarity of her character, that he “has never met [her] likeness” and yet accedes that she “master[s]” him (345). In the same conversion, Jane teases him regarding his fondness of feeing “conquered, and how pleasant overpersuasion is to [him]” (347). Such a description would have characterized women in this time, but never a man in relation to a woman. Finally, the night following their would-be wedding, as Jane weeps earnestly before him, Rochester, unable to see his beloved so rent, entreats her to solace, “his softened voice announce[ing] that he [is] subdued” (393).
With their affection for one another built entirely upon a mutual understanding of equality, Jane and Rochester, freed from the social ideologies of gender hierarchy, exhibit a love for one another born of admiration for each other’s very souls. And it is out of love for Rochester’s soul that Jane rallies her will to depart from him.

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.

The Fall of the Moon Out of the Sky: Lady Dedlock and Mr. Tulkinghorn

Chapter 41 of Bleak House shows what is certainly one of the novel’s key scenes: a riveting power struggle between Lady Dedlock and Mr. Tulkinghorn, after he has revealed that he know Lady Dedlock’s guilty past. Why is the tension between Lady Dedlock and Mr. Tulkinghorn so compelling? It has something to do with these two figures’ power and restraint, but also with their hidden vulnerability. Lady Dedlock is a powerful personality, who governs her small world by a distant grandeur that impresses her superiority upon those around her. Tulkinghorn is a powerful holder of secrets, who, like a spider quietly spinning a web, wields the secrets to entrap an increasing number of individuals into his control. Each shows a remarkable ability to restrain emotion—these two are unflappable, distant, reserved. Nothing can touch them; one can hardly imagine either one breaking down.

The pair’s evenly matched superiority and self-control raise the level of tension in this scene—raise it through the roof, so to speak. The interview’s rooftop location, with the balcony in view of the night sky, refers pointedly to the distant grandeur of both Lady Dedlock and Tulkinghorn: Lady Dedlock, the “star” of the aristocracy and, Tulkinghorn, the calculating observer (and downfall?) of such stars. But the emotionless Tulkinghorn, pacing on the balcony, may have met his match in Lady Dedlock: “As he paces the leads, with his eyes most probably as high above his thoughts as they are high above the earth, he is suddenly stopped in passing the window by two eyes that meet his own.” When he sees the lady’s eyes so suddenly, he—the immovable Tulkinghorn—has a visceral reaction:

The blood has not flushed into his face so suddenly and redly for many a long year, as when he recognises Lady Dedlock.

Lady Dedlock, by surprising him in this way, gains subtle but significant power over him; even in her hemmed-in situation, she is able to bring her force to bear upon her persecutor. Startled and intimidated by her gaze, this imperturbable man flushes uncontrollably, revealing vulnerability for the first time in the novel.

Tulkinghorn fears Lady Dedlock.

He, who knows her secret, cannot yet wield its power because he cannot read the lady herself:

There is a wild disturbance—is it fear or anger?—in her eyes. In her carriage and all else, she looks as she looked down-stairs two hours ago. Is it fear, or is it anger, now? He cannot be sure.

The two study one another, mentally circling each other like wild animals. Move and countermove. They fight with words, while each maintaining an almost perfect self-control, a cool reserve and immoveable carriage.

As the lady turns to leave, intending to have her way and leave Chesney Wold, Tulkinghorn quietly and politely deals the final blow:

‘Lady Dedlock, have the goodness to stop and hear me, or before you reach the staircase I shall ring the alarm-bell and raise the house. And then I must speak out, before every guest and servant, every man and woman, in it.’ He has conquered her. She falters trembles, and puts her hand confusedly to her head.

By threatening to tell her guilt to her husband’s household, he has exposed Lady Dedlock’s own vulnerability: her loyalty to her husband Sir Leicester.

As Tulkinghorn assures her, “the fall of the moon out of the sky, would not amaze him more than your fall from your high position as his wife.” Tulkinghorn’s power prevails: he compels Lady Dedlock to stay…for now. By causing her downfall, though, Tulkinghorn prepares his own fall. He also has met his match: this lady, when caught in his web, dissolves it entirely.

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.

A Good Woman Is Hard to Write

I don’t think I’ve ever had a conversation of any length with anyone about Dickens without discussing his characterization. It is, after all, what he is probably most famous for. There are those who prefer the realist genre who are annoyed by Dickens’ two-dimensional characters who seem to learn nothing throughout is exceedingly long novels. Then, of course, there are those who consider Fagin, Uriah Heep, and Vincent Crummles to be among the most interesting and entertaining literary characters of all time. Though my loyalties lie with Eliot and other realists, I tend to love the eccentric casts of Dickens’ novels . . . with one major exception, the heroines.

To be fair, I often like the heroines, too, but I find their goodness tiresome. This is especially true with Esther in Bleak House. Frankly, Esther deserves more personality than she gets in the novel. In the preface to the Penguin edition, Terry Eagleton writes, “In a society for which goodness has come to mean thrift, prudence, meekness, self-denial and sexual propriety, the devil is bound to have all the best tunes” (vii). This sums up exactly my dissatisfaction.

If we stop to think about it, Esther is a pretty great woman. It is Esther who “writes” some of the most interesting parts of the novel. She is the one who takes us into the bizarre household of the Jellybys. She is one who narrates the trips with Mrs. Pardiggle to visit the poor. She introduces us Harold Skimpole. Esther is clever and funny, and she is a great writer. But, instead of allowing her to simply be wonderful and demonstrate her character through her actions, Dickens forces her to tell us how wonderful she is.

Periodically throughout the novel, Dickens compels us to remember that Esther is the epitome of Victorian virtue. Every now and then, he reminds us, or has her remind us, that her goodness comes, as Eagleton suggests, from her “prudence, meekness, [and] self-denial.” This is the part I find so annoying. Why can’t Dickens give us a smart, confident heroine? Instead, her “goodness” requires that she question her own intellect and her competence as an author.

When we are first introduced to Esther, we get a whole page on how she is neither clever nor charming. She opens the first section of her narrative with the line, “I have a great deal of difficulty in beginning to write my portion of these pages, for I know I am not clever” (27). She then proceeds to describe childhood conversations where she attempted to convince her doll of this fact, just in case she got the wrong idea. And if that is not enough, she even inserts parenthetical comments allowing for the possibility that she is actually quite vain, although she doesn’t suspect it, simply because she acknowledges that her “comprehension is quickened when [her] affection is” (29). All of these statements reinforce the worst gender stereotypes of the Victorian period. A woman is supposed to be a paragon of virtue whose worth is in her capacity for feeling, not for thought.

As I mentioned above, Esther deserves better than this. I don’t totally fault Dickens for writing her this way because I imagine it would have been difficult for him to conceive of anything else. Still, though, Esther demonstrates throughout the novel that she is indeed clever and insightful and funny and, in general, a wonderfully well-rounded woman. Why is that so difficult to write?

The Periodical as Forum….for female voices?

The role of gender, especially in terms of how gender intersects with authorial persona, was surprising to me in the “Factory Controversy” between Harriet Martineau and Dickens. Towards the end of his highly informative essay about the controversy, Ian Crawford explains that Martineau “reversed the field for gendered attack” in her responses to Dickens (478). By this Crawford means that Martineau promoted herself as a rational, dispassionate writer—one who could approach complex subjects like industrial safety objectively—while she depicted Dickens as a sentimental, less logical writer (478). It is as if Martineau understood how she was likely to be critiqued and, as a writer, was prepared for such attacks. While Crawford does an excellent job of explaining the reason for Dickens defensiveness (in terms of the issue’s value as a icon of the magazine, his own mental health, and the trust in his team in his absence), I would like to explore Martineau’s defensiveness. While any person would be upset by Dicken’s critique—it is personal as it is scathing—Martineau, as a female writer, has particular reason to be frustrated.

As a female writer, Martineau was subject to criticism in a way that Dickens would not have been. Gilbert and Gubar’s “The Madwoman in the Attic” explains her vulnerability well: there is no place for the thinking, discerning woman in the “angel” or the “monster” dichotomy that was available to them. Even though Martineau was very concerned with morals (How to Observe Morals and Manners is reason enough to think so), she was concerned with morals in a way that set her outside of the “angel” persona. Martineau viewed moral understanding as intrinsically connected with rationalism; morals were not emotional to her, so much as dispassionate. This is evidenced through her concerns in the systemic and judicial parts of morality and through her insistence that sympathy itself be grounded in philosophic thinking. Martineau valued her thinking, rational side as a writer very highly; it is what set her apart and gave her reason for writing.

Dicken’s attack on Martineau in “Our Wicked Mis-Statements,” specifically the phrasing, would have been highly offensive to her. Dicken’s opening, which suggests he was reluctant to uncover “weakness in a sick lady whom we esteem,” highlights Martineau’s status as a woman (13). It makes her appear weak, as if her thinking—or even her sanity—were questionable. His offer to “forgive” her for “having strayed into such unworthy paths” suggests that she is weak and can be controlled by others (19). And his final condemnation—that he will “blot her pamphlet out of…remembrance” effectively silences her, as if her voice is not worthy of being heard (19). Such phrasing would hardly have existed if Dickens was criticizing a man. It is as if her ideas are tied to her person and cannot be questioned apart from her.

Interestingly, Crawford’s article suggests that scholars have cast Martineau as a sort of witch in the debate. Unlike Dickens (who writes about her as a sort of fallen angel), contemporary opinion characterizes her at the other extreme. Specifically, Crawford explains that “the dominant understanding of the quarrel has remained one that privileges Dickens and positions Martineau as something of a vituperative termagant” (451). In both accounts then (Dickens and recent contemporary criticism), Martineau is not merely illogical—her logical is not the center of concern.

Reading Crawford’s article made me wonder if periodical essays were a genre that would have been difficult for women to thrive in as writers in the nineteenth century. Lyn Pyckett’s “Reading the Periodical Press” suggests that the periodical press was “an ideological state apparatus which reproduce[d] and reinforce[d] ruling class hegemony” in that it often reflected the dominant opinions of the time (106). This is not to say that the periodical press was merely reflective of dominant culture; on the contrary, Pyckett demonstrates that periodicals were actively involved in the construction of culture and not mere pictures of it. But it also suggests that periodicals were forums that might have been more difficult for female writers to be dissenting within. I say this as someone who knows very little about Victorian female writers in periodicals. It’s just a speculation: unlike fiction, which had characters to soften or complicate judgments, and unlike dailies, which assumedly reported information as well as commented upon it, periodicals were sustained pieces of opinionated writing. It stands to reason that this would have been a difficult context for female writers—as undervalued voices—to enter.

Stalking Eliot

On one level it is difficult to imagine nineteenth century periodicals being so influential in the construction of an author’s identity. But certainly we can find analogues today with stars across all forms of media—film to music to you-tube vloggers. We want to be privy to the lives of the famous and join in the community, be in the know. In our very own Waco, people come from all over to visit a small home decorating store to own part of the magic and peek between fence slats and through curtain gaps to see if Chip and Joanna are as great in ‘real life’ as they appear on television. Today we have the benefit of even further advanced technology (social media via the internet and the numerous devices we use to access it, to name just one) that enables us to pry even deeper into the lives of celebrities. We may be more aware of the constructed nature of these performed identities—particularly in most reality television—but we still want to close the gap between public persona and person, all the while continually conflating the two.

Thus to place ourselves back in the nineteenth century where photographs and periodicals were vogue and writers such as Dickens and Eliot were celebrities in the newest and popular form of media, the novel, shouldn’t be too far of a stretch. We post articles and memes to our Facebook walls and they clipped from the ‘Notes’ section of periodicals to paste into scrapbooks (Dillane 152). It isn’t difficult to imagine the desire to ‘know’ George Eliot, and yet as Dillane examines in her chapter “After Marian Evans: The importance of being ‘George Eliot’,” this feat was quite difficult with complex consequences. In her chapter, Dillane tackles the problem of representation, raising interesting questions as to the role of the public and private, constructed identity, and the complicating overlap of gender with both.

As scholars this semester we’re nearly as guilty as Eliot’s fans in the nineteenth century in wanting to know Marian Evan’s ‘actual self’ even as we study George Eliot’s writings. Granted, our awareness of the complex relationship between these constructed and performed identities redeems us in part, but we still dive eagerly into her letters looking for insight into her art. Dillane offers a needed reminder that the voices we hear in Eliot’s novels—and her essays and under whichever name—cannot be used, at least entirely, to reveal the person of Eliot, much less Marian. We’ve read “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists” and “The Natural History of German Life,” but we cannot fall into the trap of deriving a true Eliot or Evans from the pages. Dillane astutely draws upon Judith Butler’s work on constructed and performed gender identities to complicate the idea that Eliot would have even been able to present herself, had she wanted to. (Studying postmodernism concurrently with this course has Baudrillard’s simulacrum and hyperreality cropping up everywhere!) As Dillane argues, the constraints of Eliot’s gender limited the avenues open to her within the public sphere, limitations alleviated in part by her adoption of a male pseudonym. However, adopting a pen name also seems to have contributed further to her contemporaries’ and later critics’ drives to ‘discover the real her.’

So where does this leave us? I find myself wishing that we would resist our inner scholar’s desire to figure everything out, carefully delineating neat boxes to understand Eliot and her work, and instead be content sitting with the messy reality. Yes, she had many facets to her ever-changing personal and professional identities, and yes it is worthwhile to tease out the various components. But let’s recognize that with constructed identities comes healthy ambiguity, and we ought to embrace it.


Worlds are Colliding: Authorship, Gender, and Self-Formation in the lives of Harriet Martineau and Elizabeth Gaskell


In their articles dealing with self-hood and the authorial voice of the Victorian woman writer, Iain Crawford and Alexis Easley tie the role of the author and the way they are perceived by society directly to gender. Such a connection holds particularly true in the nineteenth century, as gender itself was a large determinant for individual agency. A commonly held belief of the period concerned “the two spheres”, in which the sphere of vocation was gendered as male, while the sphere of the domestic was gendered as female. In their articles, Crawford and Easley show how both Harriet Martineau and Elizabeth Gaskell complicate the separation inherent to the ‘two spheres’ by attempting to move from one to the other through authorship. Though the move is successful, how does it impact the selfhood of the two women and the way they are perceived by their society?

Crawford’s article on Martineau and authorship contextualizes the selfhood of the author in relation to a very heated disagreement Martineau herself had with Charles Dickens. At the time, Martineau was writing for Household Words, a periodical conducted by Dickens. After a difference of opinion regarding government legislation of factories, the two began a heated disagreement, resulting in Martineau’s decision to cease contribution to Household Words. Interestingly, Crawford positions the two authors in their ‘very public spat’ not in terms of ideology (the progressive Dickens vs. the conservative Martineau), but in terms of gender: “Dickens’s reliance upon his male friends and colleagues, together with his creation of an alternative home in the bachelor domestic space of the Household Words office, suggests powerfully the ways in which the lines between the professional and the personal blurred” (462). Crawford suggests that because the authorial space is gendered as male, a type of ‘boys club’, Martineau had no place in it once her opinion clashed with Dickens the conductor. Crawford may be suggesting that if Martineau had not been a woman, a disagreement with Dickens may not have met with rejection from the male sphere of authorship.

It is also interesting to note that in this debate, both Martineau and Dickens seem to take on stereotypes belonging to the opposite gender. Martineau is the voice of logic divorced from emotion, arguing in favor of free enterprise and the necessity to keep government out of market regulation – a typically ‘male view’. On the other hand, Dickens is full of pathos, and writes pieces for Household Words (‘Ground in the Mill’) that describe the horrors of factory conditions – a perspective filled with ‘feminine emotion’. Crawford even states that Martineau regarded Dickens as “someone whose brilliant emotional range she could admire in his work as a novelist while simultaneously suggesting that this very emotionality rendered him quite incapable of the dispassionate objectivity essential in an editor who claimed to shape the public sphere” (478). Moving from the vocation to the domestic, Martineau must also sacrifice the public perception of what her gender should be.

However, the same does not seem to hold true for Gaskell. Though a vocal champion of social causes also attempting to break into the vocational sphere as an author, Gaskell seems able to bring her sense of selfhood as a woman and wife into her role as author. Gaskell beautifully ‘marries’ her vocation and domestic identity together, and the society of her time seems to accept this more willingly. As Easley tells us: “Gaskell’s image of sympathetic middle-class femininity was reinforced by her public appearances in London … she came to be seen as a model of the useful middle-class woman author – the charming ‘Mrs. Gaskell’, whose domestic moralism could be converted into new forms of gendered literary activism” (98). Rather than hiding or subverting her gendered identity, Gaskell used it to give a greater voice to her cause. Incidentally, Gaskell also wrote for Household Words, and in a letter date Nov 25th of1851 Dickens addresses her as ‘My Dear Scheherazade’ – perhaps Dickens does not ‘feel threatened’ by an author who has ‘embraced her female identity’ .

Gaskell’s bringing together of her identity as author and woman makes even more sense when considering her biography of Charlotte Bronte. It is easy to believe that the traits she admired in the author she so loved were attempted by her in emulation. As she says of Bronte, “… nor can she drop the domestic charges devolving on her as an individual, for the exercise of the most splendid talents that were ever bestowed. And yet she must not shrink from the extra responsibility implied by the very fact of her possessing such talents” (272). For Gaskell, both ‘gendered’ forms of identity must be at work.

Both Harriet Martineau and Elizabeth Gaskell attempt to cross from one sphere to the other. In Martineau’s case, this move leads to collision of the two spheres, along with a collision of selfhood and identity; for Gaskell, the two spheres and identities cohabit with one another.

Marian Evans: What Can and Cannot Be Expressed

Based upon Rae Greiner’s insights about sympathetic realism, I noticed a revealing correspondence between Marian Evans and her fictional work. Marian Evans’s own life may reinforce the realism of Middlemarch: Evans’s authorial struggle to remain anonymous is a similar tension to that which plagues Dorothea’s life as Mrs. Casaubon.

I realize that even looking for such a correspondence smacks of superficial fandom—the kind of insatiable public thirst for biographical info that Fionnuala Dillane critiques in “After Marian Evans: The important of being ‘George Eliot.’” Just to clarify, I am not looking for direct correlations between Dorothea and her creator. I’m not claiming a new take on “the real George Eliot” (really, people…let her alone to be her genius self!). I want to know how a tension Eliot uses in her work—the tension between what can be said and what must be silent—can play out in real life.

In Sympathetic Realism in Nineteenth-Century British Fiction, Rae Greiner argues that Victorian realist novels depend upon readers’ cognitive act of sympathy. Particularly in the case of George Eliot, these novels induce sympathy not by portraying characters’ exact feelings, but by glimpsing the obscurity that veils the characters’ own perceptions. What draws us in—what makes the fictional situation real—is the “not-quite-knowing,” the “partial fitting-together.” As readers, we can then imaginatively work with the character as he/she imperfectly untangles feelings or navigates ambiguous social situations (26).

Specifically, Greiner brings up a Middlemarch example (citing scholar Harry Shaw) to clarify how sympathetic realism may function: As Dorothea is watching Featherstone’s funeral procession from her window, she attempts to connect the procession with her own life, highlighting her own funereal loneliness as Mrs. Casaubon. Not only is this passage sympathetic because poignant, but also because Dorothea must deal with multiple contexts/identities at once—like we do in real life. She is watching the funeral, but she is also in a parlor surrounded by guests. She has her own thoughts as she gazes out of the window, but she must not speak them in her visitors’ hearing. At this point, Greiner notes,

A sense of reality emerges in the interplay of what can and cannot be expressed, in what one might say aloud or what one must keep to oneself. (26)

The tension that haunts Dorothea—between what’s acceptable to speak and what must be held in—is exactly what grips Marian Evan’s own life as a Victorian authoress.

Marian Evans was unusually committed to anonymity. Aware of her social context and readership—especially the fraught views about female writers—she wanted to keep her private identity out of the press. Interestingly, she seemed more concerned about her work’s impact than her own privacy. For instance, when her correspondent Charles Bray guesses that she wrote the anonymous article “Evangelical Teaching: Dr. Cumming,” she implores him to keep silence: “I write…just to say, that it is mine, but also to beg that you will not mention it as such to any one likely to transmit that information to London…. The article appears to have produced a strong impression, and that impression would be a little counteracted if the author were known to be a woman” (15 October 1855). This interchange highlights the tension between what can be written (her published works) and what must remain unsaid (her female identity)…in its varied iterations, a universal struggle.

Work Cited

Greiner, Rae. “Going Along with Others: Adam Smith and the Realists.” Sympathetic Realism in Nineteenth-Century British Fiction. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2012.

Domesticate This!

“The drive to domesticate such public figures and to idealize them at the same time, and the important related impulse to make them visible in a veridical age…was something that Eliot could not avoid.”


While reading Dillane’s chapter, “After Marian Evans,” the concept of the projected body and the danger of a woman’s body of written work — when attached to a physical body — struck me like an abusive sister.

The glory of Victorian women writer’s was the escape of the body. As women committed themselves anonymously, or pseudonymously, to a page their bodies were empowered beyond any sphere granted them by the surrounding culture. Reading Martineau and Eliot’s periodical work reminds readers that without the burden of their visible body women could explore social, economic, and artistic avenues with authority, without so much of the gendered apologistic rhetoric demanded of their opinions in company.

However, with the popularity of photography and the Hollywood-esque lionization rapidly rising in Victorian priority lists, the demands for the literary body to become physical was a danger. Whereas a woman could be an expert in the periodical, no one would credit her an expert in person. What that means is that the original, projected, authorial body, that ethereal intelligence and wit of women writers would be grounded, staked, examined, and dissected once that body became physical and represented through photography. The sight of a woman’s body also recalls the concept of the woman’s sphere. Seated and demure, serious, small — the woman’s sphere, replicated in the limited scope of a physical portrait, reminds the audience (particularly the male audience) that the ideas expressed by the author are not dangerous. Subversive, yes, but not dangerous, because the physical woman was not a social hurricane, but a little breeze to the public intellectuals. This reduction from hurricane to breeze, however, could be avoided if only the woman remain incorporeal, a generator of ideas and arguments without the physical vulnerability of the Victorian Woman.

In this way, Dillane is spot on about Marian Evans vs. George Eliot. As the distant authority, the wit, the philosopher, and sympathist, George Eliot could successfully impact the literary realm. Distanced from the physical body of Marian Evans upon whose appearance several cruelly commented, George Eliot could succeed. Reminders of her body, and the tying of George Eliot’s mind to that of Marian Evans’ body, would subject her to the damaging scrutiny of a society that saw her body as a violation of her gender and intellect, in addition to the social and ethical codes of the era.

The periodical disembodied women, a necessary move to empower the woman writer. To write on economics, art, politics, and social issues without the visible evidence of femininity (though retaining the woman’s experiences) was empowering. Marian Evans in particular, as a living violation of society’s expectations, needed a disembodiment, and the placement within the authorial name and physically removed figure of George Eliot.

The EQ of Harriet Martineau


One of the aspects of Martineau’s writing that made me go “hmmm…” was my initial perception of major difference between the voice and content of Deerbrook, as compared with her nonfiction and journalistic writing. How to Observe Morals and Manners and Society in America demonstrate a concern with the appropriate methodology of interacting with cultures unfamiliar to our own, based on a theoretical basis of philosophy and moral awareness, recognizing, as Martineau points out in How to Observe, an individual’s inability to rightly judge and understand the “morals and manners of any hamlet” of even our own home country (8). This text emphasizes the important of distance, rationality, and charitability in our interactions with others, because, really, we are doomed to fail in our judgments, so we might as well be nice about it. Deerbrook, on the other hand, is all about the emotional involvement of two sisters within an almost incestuously close neighborhood that doesn’t seem to have a proper understanding of personal space. Rational or emotional, charitable or judgmental—the works seem at first to be directly contradictory.

Martineau’s critique of Dickens, as depicted by Crawford in “Harriet Martineau, Charles Dickens, and the Rise of the Victorian Woman of Letters,” clarifies the perceived dichotomy somewhat, while illuminating Martineau’s position within Victorian society. Her critique of Dickens falls primarily on his role as an “unrealiable agent of public instruction,” due to what Martineau believed to be overly manipulative emotional rhetoric (478). Martineau feels that Dickens fails in his attempts to educate, supplying “half educated readers” instead with “mischief” and “sentiment” (Martineau qtd. in Crawford 456). Crawford implies, however, that it is this “brilliant emotional range” that Martineau admires in Dickens’s novels (478). This distinction suggests that while Maritneau felt journalistic and theoretical writing should be dispassionate and detatched, she considered emotion and its attendant rhetoric important in fiction.

What, then, does this observation regarding the differing roles of journalism and fiction, then, mean for the differences between How to Observe and Deerbrook, and for Martineau herself?

Beyond clearly utilizing emotion more in Deerbrook than her earlier treatise, both works ultimately argue the same fundamental point: It is impossible to wholly know another. Just as we are challenged in How to Observe regarding our true understanding of our own neighborhoods, so Deerbrook delves into the inability to even fully understand a beloved sibling. In addition to this, both provide a suggestion that we should also treat each other more charitably because of this; How to Observe emphasizes the need to judge a community based on their own terms and merits, while Deerbrook illustrates how wrong judgments have very material effects on the individuals subjected to them. The differing texts, then, are not antithetical regarding their content, and the differences of tone can be attributed to genre.

The differences, however, could also affirm Martineau’s role as a woman in the highly competitve field 19th century journalism required her to break stereotypical gendered boundaries. She has to be detatched and almost overly rational in her journalistic and theoretical prose, as many of her era would view her as having the handicap of being female and thus overly sensitive and emotional (whereas Dickens, being a man, could be as emotional as he wanted, pretty much), but also because her role as tutrix to the masses demanded an even-handed, unemotional, unbiased portrayal of the issues she presented. The Victorian press required her to “unsex” herself, in some senses. Fiction, though, provides an outlet not only culturally more acceptable for a woman and thus more free for Martineau, but also an outlet in which she can use the emotional rhetoric she challenged in Dickens’s journalism to provoke reader response.