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Thread: Was this a dig at Dickens?

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    Registered User kev67's Avatar
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    Was this a dig at Dickens?

    I have been reading Shirley by Charlotte Brontë, which is sort of interesting. It's an industrial novel, a subset of the social novel, of which there are relatively few. Mind you, it has a lot about clergymen, and now it is morphing into feminism. This bit seems to be Charlotte Brontë speaking. It reminded me Jane's feminist speech in Jane Eyre (not that I don't sympathise). I snorted out loud when I read it. Who could she be thinking of?

    'If men could see us as we really are, they would be a little amazed; but the cleverest, the acutest men are often under an illusion about women: they do not read them in a true light: they misapprehend them, both for good and evil: their good woman is a queer thing, half doll, half angel; their bad women almost a fiend. Then to hear them fall into ecstasies with each other's creations, worshipping the heroine of such a poem – novel – drama, thinking it divine! Fine and divine it may be, but often quite artificial – false as the rose in my best bonnet there. If I spoke all I think on the point; if I gave my real opinion of some first-rate female characters in first-rate works, where should I be? Dead under a cairn of avenging stones in half an hour'

    'Shirley, you chatter so, I can't fasten you: be still. And after all, authors' heroines are almost as good as authoresses' heroes.'

    'Not at all: women read men more truly than men read women. I'll prove that in a magazine paper some day when I've time; only it will never be inserted: it will be “declined with thanks,” and left for me at the publisher's'.
    According to Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence once said that Balzac was 'a gigantic dwarf', and in a sense the same is true of Dickens.
    Charles Dickens, by George Orwell

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    Thank you. I have benefited from your typing and copied your quote to use elsewhere.

    I haven't read this but have a copy, which is coming off the shelf the next time I am home.


    ETA. Why did you think specifically of Dickens? His characters tend to be caricatures, male or female, central or peripheral, IMO. I see it as a more general criticism.
    Last edited by spikepipsqueak; 10-03-2016 at 07:03 PM.

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    Registered User kev67's Avatar
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    The passage is in chapter 20. Dickens is quite often criticized for his young, female characters, especially in his earlier books. They tend to be rather angelic but bland. An example would be Lucie Manette in A Tale of Two Cities. Dickens also ran several magazines in which he serialized his and other authors' books.
    According to Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence once said that Balzac was 'a gigantic dwarf', and in a sense the same is true of Dickens.
    Charles Dickens, by George Orwell

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    Testing my memory, here. Beth? in The Old Curiosity Shop also fits the "half doll, half angel" bill.

    But I see Bronte's argument as more of a precursor to that which is common in modern feminism, that women are portrayed throughout literature as 2 dimensional objects rather than 3 dimensional subjects. Dickens wasn't the first or the last to do that.

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    "their good woman is a queer thing, half doll, half angel; their bad women almost a fiend".

    I hope this isn't too far off topic, Kev, but the distinction above immediately called to mind Amelia Sedley and Becky Sharp of Vanity Fair. Thackeray was no feminist, but one of the things I admire about these characterizations is that neither is entirely good or bad; although Amelia, who is far too much like the kind of "half doll, half angel" Bronte mentions, comes close. But she can also be selfish and stupid, for example in impoverishing her family for years because she cannot cut the umbilical cord with her son (even if she manages it eventually). And once her fortune returns, she wants nothing more to do with her poor friends. Little Dorrit never felt that way about the denizens of Bleeding Heart Yard.

    And Becky Sharp, though ultimately a fiend (if in fact she killed Jos, which is left ambiguous) is an awfully appealing one. She's intelligent, resilient, and has a wonderful sense of--hey, fair's fair, I'd have done the same. Amelia has none of those qualities.

    I once saw a "docudrama" about Dickens in which an actor playing Thackeray came on from time to time as a sort of talking head making mostly nasty comments about him. One of the things he said was something to the effect that Dickens was making a pretty good living selling virgins to the nation. I thought this was hilarious line and wondered if Thackeray actually said it. (I know they quarreled for a long time but eventually made it up).

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    Ecurb Ecurb's Avatar
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    I disagree that Amelia's failure to cut connections with her son indicates either selfishness or stupidity. Thackeray makes a point of showing how George Jr. is spoiled by the Osbornes. Money isn't everything. Instead, Amelia's love for her son is meant to be contrasted with Becky's lack of maternal affection for hers. (I agree that Amelia is far from perfect, and that her love for her son is, to some extent, a reflection of her perverse and deluded love for George Sr., but her parents never starved -- if I remember they retained a servant or two even in their poverty.)

    There is a selfish component to most (if not all) forms of love, but George Jr. was better off with Amelia than with the Osbornes.

    Anthony Trollope rated Eliot and Thackeray ahead of Dickens as the great Victorian English novelists because he liked realism and though Dickens' characters were caricatures.

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    Registered User Jackson Richardson's Avatar
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    I expect Bronte was getting at Dickens. The notional heroine of Barnaby Rudge, ie the girl the hero marries, never has a line of dialogue as I remember.

    Although in fairness, Dickens does give us Dora Spendlow and Flora Finching, both parodies of the half angel type and far more moving both of them.

    Trollope is a far more conventional novelist than Dickens and has his fair share of long suffering good girls (Mary in Dr Thorne) but he never gets near the embarrassing sentimentality of Dickens. So I suspect Bronte did have Dickens in mind.
    Previously JonathanB

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    Quote Originally Posted by Ecurb View Post
    I disagree that Amelia's failure to cut connections with her son indicates either selfishness or stupidity. Thackeray makes a point of showing how George Jr. is spoiled by the Osbornes. Money isn't everything. Instead, Amelia's love for her son is meant to be contrasted with Becky's lack of maternal affection for hers. (I agree that Amelia is far from perfect, and that her love for her son is, to some extent, a reflection of her perverse and deluded love for George Sr., but her parents never starved -- if I remember they retained a servant or two even in their poverty.)
    Thackeray emphasizes the degrading effect that poverty has on the characters of Amelia's parents. Amelia agonizes over this but cannot bring herself to do anything about it because it is too personally painful to her (selfish) to separate from her only tie to a husband who routinely lied to her who was actively trying to abandon her when he died (stupid).

    My point, in any case, was that Amelia was not (quite) "half doll, half angel." She was at least two dimensional. I think we agree on that, yes?
    Last edited by Pompey Bum; 10-10-2016 at 10:46 AM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Jackson Richardson View Post
    I expect Bronte was getting at Dickens. The notional heroine of Barnaby Rudge, ie the girl the hero marries, never has a line of dialogue as I remember.
    Really? That's hilarious. I've never read Barnaby Rudge but I've heard he thought it was his best book (despite his making the same claim while promoting David Copperfield) but that it is probably his worst. Writers are notoriously poor judges of their own work. On the other hand, I had a friend who just loved the novel.

    Quote Originally Posted by Jackson Richardson View Post
    Although in fairness, Dickens does give us Dora Spendlow and Flora Finching, both parodies of the half angel type and far more moving both of them.
    Flora Finching may be my favorite Dickens character, partly because she made me laugh the most, but also because she is a moving and rather three-dimensional character. I'm not sure she was a parody of the kind of character Bronte was talking about, though. I heard (perhaps on the same docudrama) that she was a satire on Dickens essentially unloved wife, who devoted her life to him while he was otherwise involved with the much younger woman who served as the model for Little Dorrit. But Flora (for me) is a more memorable character. [/QUOTE]
    Last edited by Pompey Bum; 10-04-2016 at 01:16 PM.

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    Registered User kev67's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Pompey Bum View Post
    "their good woman is a queer thing, half doll, half angel; their bad women almost a fiend".

    I hope this isn't too far off topic, Kev, but the distinction above immediately called to mind Amelia Sedley and Becky Sharp of Vanity Fair. Thackeray was no feminist, but one of the things I admire about these characterizations is that neither is entirely good or bad; although Amelia, who is far too much like the kind of "half doll, half angel" Bronte mentions, comes close. But she can also be selfish and stupid, for example in impoverishing her family for years because she cannot cut the umbilical cord with her son (even if she manages it eventually). And once her fortune returns, she wants nothing more to do with her poor friends. Little Dorrit never felt that way about the denizens of Bleeding Heart Yard.

    And Becky Sharp, though ultimately a fiend (if in fact she killed Jos, which is left ambiguous) is an awfully appealing one. She's intelligent, resilient, and has a wonderful sense of--hey, fair's fair, I'd have done the same. Amelia has none of those qualities.

    I once saw a "docudrama" about Dickens in which an actor playing Thackeray came on from time to time as a sort of talking head making mostly nasty comments about him. One of the things he said was something to the effect that Dickens was making a pretty good living selling virgins to the nation. I thought this was hilarious line and wondered if Thackeray actually said it. (I know they quarreled for a long time but eventually made it up).
    I thought about Becky and Amelia from Vanity Fair, but W.M. Thackery was a friend of Charlotte Bronte. He wrote a review saying that he had wasted (or gained) a day when his publishers were waiting by reading Jane Eyre. I don't know if they fell out, but they had cross words once. They both attended some literary event, and Thackery introduced Bronte to the person he was speaking to as Jane Eyre. This must have irked her, because the next time they met, she asked him how he would like it if he introduced him as Pendennis. I read that in a biography of George Gissing btw.

    Also, Thackery does criticise Amelia from the start, saying she's a bit insipid, but men like that, or something along those lines. I don't blame Amelia for not wanting to give up her son for adoption by the Osbornes. If her family was in poverty it was because her father was an idiot.
    According to Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence once said that Balzac was 'a gigantic dwarf', and in a sense the same is true of Dickens.
    Charles Dickens, by George Orwell

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    Registered User Jackson Richardson's Avatar
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    I've heard Flora was inspired by meeting a middle aged woman he had fancied when they were young and was no longer the adorable angel girl he remembered.

    Since for all her silliness, Flora is undoubtedly a totally admirable character, Dickens seems to be realising women aren't all half angel and all the more human for it.

    The hero of Barnaby Rudge (which has its moments, eg the Gordon riots) marries Emma Haredale. I don't think Emma says anything. (Madelaine who Nicholas Nickelby marries is almost as silent.) Her maid is Dolly Varden who marries the hero's manservant. She is a feisty soubrette and was a very popular figure. She gave her name to a style of hat and also (I've just learnt from wiki) a North American trout. Wiki does not mention Dickens' character.
    Previously JonathanB

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    Quote Originally Posted by kev67 View Post
    Thackery does criticise Amelia from the start, saying she's a bit insipid, but men like that, or something along those lines.
    Yes, he talks about what he sees as men's predeliction for women like Amelia in some detail. While he seems generally onboard with the sentiment, at least he presents it as a preference rather than a moral expectation (as I think Dickens does). At other times Thackeray seems drawn despite himself to the likes of Becky Sharp. And note how Becky's enemies are usually other women; Thackeray knew that men want it both ways.


    Quote Originally Posted by kev67 View Post
    I don't blame Amelia for not wanting to give up her son for adoption by the Osbornes. If her family was in poverty it was because her father was an idiot.
    Well, her dad is a loser in the Milton Friedman "Capitalism must have losers" sense. I found his degeneration (and his wife's) to be rather horrifying. I don't think I'd call him an idiot as much as pathetic.
    Last edited by Pompey Bum; 10-04-2016 at 01:24 PM.

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    Registered User mona amon's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by kev67 View Post
    I have been reading Shirley by Charlotte Brontë, which is sort of interesting. It's an industrial novel, a subset of the social novel, of which there are relatively few. Mind you, it has a lot about clergymen, and now it is morphing into feminism. This bit seems to be Charlotte Brontë speaking. It reminded me Jane's feminist speech in Jane Eyre (not that I don't sympathise). I snorted out loud when I read it. Who could she be thinking of?

    'If men could see us as we really are, they would be a little amazed; but the cleverest, the acutest men are often under an illusion about women: they do not read them in a true light: they misapprehend them, both for good and evil: their good woman is a queer thing, half doll, half angel; their bad women almost a fiend. Then to hear them fall into ecstasies with each other's creations, worshipping the heroine of such a poem – novel – drama, thinking it divine! Fine and divine it may be, but often quite artificial – false as the rose in my best bonnet there. If I spoke all I think on the point; if I gave my real opinion of some first-rate female characters in first-rate works, where should I be? Dead under a cairn of avenging stones in half an hour'

    'Shirley, you chatter so, I can't fasten you: be still. And after all, authors' heroines are almost as good as authoresses' heroes.'

    'Not at all: women read men more truly than men read women. I'll prove that in a magazine paper some day when I've time; only it will never be inserted: it will be “declined with thanks,” and left for me at the publisher's'.

    Only two of Dickens's heroines that I can think of belong to the doll/angel category - Agnes Wakefield and Lucy Mannette. Dora Spenlow escapes because she remains an angel even after she marries, and never moves on to the domestic goddess role expected of her. Dora remains true to herself, and is in her way a beautiful character. Anyway, Charlotte would not yet have read David Copperfield or A tale of Two Cities at the time she was writing Shirley. And as she could not possibly have been thinking of Shakespeare, or Fielding or Sterne or Thackerey, or anyone else that we now think of as great, I guess she was talking about the lesser writers of her time, those whom we no longer read.

    I do not agree with Shirley's opinion that women read men more truly than men read women, but Charlotte herself was pretty good at male characters (except for one of the characters in Shirley, who I won't name in case Kev has not finished yet), and her The Professor even has a convincing first person male narrator.

    Charlotte and Thackerey did not exactly become friends. He was her literary hero, and he loved Jane Eyre, but when they were introduced to each other they never really hit it off. I think they made each other nervous and there was no sparkling conversation as might have been expected. Also, there was the gaffe you mention when he introduced her to his mother as Jane Eyre. According to their publisher George Smith -
    when I entered the drawing-room [I] found a scene in full progress. Only these two were in the room. Thackeray was standing on the hearthrug, looking anything but happy. Charlotte Bronte stood close to him, with head thrown back and face white with anger. The first words I heard were, “No, sir! If you had come to our part of the country in Yorkshire, what would you have thought of me if I had introduced you to my father, before a mixed company of strangers, as ‘Mr Warrington’? Thackeray replied, “No, my dear, you mean, ‘Arthur Pendennis’.” “No, I don’t mean Arthur Pendennis!” retorted Miss Bronte; “I mean Mr. Warrington, and Mr. Warrington was a gentleman, and he would not have behaved as you behaved yesterday.” The spectacle of this little woman, [who] hardly reached to Thackeray’s elbow, but, somehow, looking stronger and fiercer than himself, and casting her incisive words at his head, resembled the dropping of shells into a fortress.
    Exit, pursued by a bear.

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    Amy Dorrit and Esther Summerson may not have been dolls exactly, but I'm not sure Arthur Clennam and Dr Allan Woodcourt found anatomically correct females on their wedding nights. But at least the women knew who they wanted to marry, which is more than a doll does. And your point about the chronology is an excellent one.

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    Registered User kev67's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by mona amon View Post
    Only two of Dickens's heroines that I can think of belong to the doll/angel category - Agnes Wakefield and Lucy Mannette. Dora Spenlow escapes because she remains an angel even after she marries, and never moves on to the domestic goddess role expected of her. Dora remains true to herself, and is in her way a beautiful character. Anyway, Charlotte would not yet have read David Copperfield or A tale of Two Cities at the time she was writing Shirley. And as she could not possibly have been thinking of Shakespeare, or Fielding or Sterne or Thackerey, or anyone else that we now think of as great, I guess she was talking about the lesser writers of her time, those whom we no longer read.

    I do not agree with Shirley's opinion that women read men more truly than men read women, but Charlotte herself was pretty good at male characters (except for one of the characters in Shirley, who I won't name in case Kev has not finished yet), and her The Professor even has a convincing first person male narrator.

    Charlotte and Thackerey did not exactly become friends. He was her literary hero, and he loved Jane Eyre, but when they were introduced to each other they never really hit it off. I think they made each other nervous and there was no sparkling conversation as might have been expected. Also, there was the gaffe you mention when he introduced her to his mother as Jane Eyre. According to their publisher George Smith -
    You would not want to get on the wrong side of Charlotte Bronte, but it sounds like that was quite easy to do. I suppose Thackerey's facetious wit did not always go down well.

    Could Charlotte Bronte have been having a dig at Sir Walter Scott? I have not read any of his books.

    I think I read somewhere Charlotte Bronte describe Dickens' writing styles as like an old woman's, which seems an odd thing for her to say. I can't find the quote so maybe she didn't.

    I have heard from several different sources that Dickens had a blind spot when it came to depicting young women realistically. There was a young heroine in the middle part of Oliver Twist who was so bland I can't remember her name. He seems to have got over it by the time he wrote Bleak House.

    Speaking of Bleak House, Charlotte Bronte did not like Esther Summerson (link)

    Esther, at first blush is just too good to be true. Everyone adores her – and she adores them in turn, especially if they are less fortunate than her and she can bend over backwards to help them. She is also painfully self-deprecating, right from the word go: "I have a great deal of difficulty in beginning to write my portion of these pages, for I know I am not clever." In short, Esther is prissy and meek; hardly an up-to-date feminist role model. She is also a pain. But don't take it from me, take it from Charlotte Brontë – who said she intensely disliked Esther for being so consistently "the cheerful woman and nobly forgetful of self".

    ...

    Furthermore, as Charlotte Brontë (who knew a thing or two about unreliable narrators) must have understood, there's more to Esther than simple good nature. As the book progresses she reveals a dark, angry wit. A wit that can still strike a chord today: "I said it was not the custom in England to confer titles on men distinguished by peaceful services, however good and great; unless occasionally, when they consisted of the accumulation of some very large amount of money."

    Esther, it also becomes clear, bears powerful loathings. She is merciless in her satire of the "telescopic philanthropist" Mrs Jellyby and the deportment-obsessed Old Mr Turverydrop. Her self-deprecation also starts to seem more than a little evasive. Why doesn't she tell us more about her relationship with Allan Woodcourt? I don't like her much more as I come to know her better – but I do admire the way she has been created. Her faults belong to her rather than Charles Dickens …
    According to Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence once said that Balzac was 'a gigantic dwarf', and in a sense the same is true of Dickens.
    Charles Dickens, by George Orwell

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