07 February 2012

Forever Seventeen At Two Hundred

Seventeen and two hundred.

All right, you ask, what is the connection between those two numbers?

Well, I'll tell you:  It's Charles Dickens.

Yes, the famed British writer is two hundred years old today.

So what about seventeen?  Think about Dora of David Copperfield, Estella of Great Expectations and Rosa Budd of The Mystery of Edwin Drood.  Thanks to Dickens, they will be forever seventeen.

You see, as progressive (for his time, anyway) he seems to be in describing life in London in the middle of the 19th Century, his attitudes about women were fairly retrograde, even by the standards of that time.  Take a look at the portrait of perfect womanhood he paints in his description of Mrs. Chirrup, in Sketches for Young Couples:

‘...the prettiest of all little women... the prettiest little figure conceivable...the neatest little foot, and the softest little voice, and the pleasantest little smile, and the tidiest little curls, and the brightest little eyes, and the quietest little manner... a condensation of all the domestic virtues – a pocket edition of the Young Man’s Best Companion...’

More than one critic has pointed out that were he not considered such a great writer, Dickens would be considered a terrible misogynist.  There's a lot of truth to that, I think, as the quote above is not merely an isolated example.  As we say in the old country, "There's more where that came from."

There are a number of explanations as to why Dickens seemed to have what amounts to a fetish for women who were young, small, weak and submissive--and virgins.  One is that he was in love with his wife's younger sister, who died in his arms when she was seventeen years old.  That may well explain, at least partially, his infatuation with young girls who, basically, were china dolls.  But it doesn't explain the other side of that obsession:  the cruelty he could express in his depictions of older women, or those who were sick or disabled in some way.  I'm thinking, for example, of Flora Flinching of Little Dorrit, who wants to rekindle a romance with the young lover but, in Dickens' descriptions, is beyond any hope of sexual allure, and is therefore worthy only of contempt. 

His portrayal of Flora Flinching is hardly the most misogynistic thing you'll find in his writing.  There's also the wheelchair-bound Mrs. Skewton, whom we meet in Domby and Son:

‘Cleopatra was arrayed in full dress, with the diamonds, short sleeves, rouge, curls, teeth, and other juvenility all complete, but Paralysis was not to be deceived, had known her for the object of its errand, and had struck her at her glass, where she lay like a horrible doll that had tumbled down.’

Some have said that this description, being from one of his later works, is a reflection of how he viewed his by-then-aging wife.  People who knew him--including one of his daughters--said that he didn't treat her well, and that he could be as cruel to some as he was generous to others.  And, she said, "My father does not understand women."

I suppose that such complexity is what made him a keen observer of the economic and social uphevals of his time--but not of women. 

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