Back in October, 2019 I wrote a post that was extremely critical about the way Charles Dickens treated his wife. It was entitled Done with Dickens, and if you read it, it’ll curl your toes. The man was horrible, despicable, as bad as some of his worst fictional characters. His behavior has really put me off his stories, and that’s a shame because I’ve always loved his work.
After recently re-reading this post, Jennifer, a dear friend of mine, felt compelled to respond. She has been listening to a lot of Dickens audiobooks lately. Her response was so well thought out and compelling that I asked her if I could post it here, and she agreed.
Be sure to read it all the way through, because some of her book reviews at the bottom are making me reconsider my Dickens boycott. I don’t have to love the man to love his work. At least that’s what I’m trying to tell myself. Especially since I’d never even heard of Dombey and Sons until today.
So what follows is by my friend Jennifer. Thanks, Jen!
As you know, I’ve spent my night-time get-to-sleep time listening to Charles Dickens’s later works, thanks to the pandemic keeping me away from the library and to Librivox for making the books available online. I am still impressed with his work, but I have taken to heart what you pointed out–that he was a dreadful person who blamed his wife for the many children he engendered, and that he took up with an actress after all those years his wife bore him children.
Yes, he was a cad. And he probably knew better than to blame his wife for getting pregnant. But he did live and die shortly before scientists finally demonstrated that egg and sperm were both needed to create new humans. I had to do a little googling to sort that out. What is really scary is how long it took to prove it: 1900 (when my grandmother was 6 years old; that boggles my mind). That’s when Gregor Mendel’s work on peas and genetics, which he published in 1866, was replicated and published by two scientists who managed to publicize their outcomes. Scientists before then had finally determined that women had eggs and men had sperm, but they weren’t clear on what, exactly, those contributions were supposed to do. The idea held on for a long time that eggs or sperm were tiny little human beings waiting for food or sparks of life or something from their corresponding sperm or eggs before they started growing in the uterus. The idea that egg and sperm were both contributing somehow to make a human being was out there, but not yet understood. Darwin, who with Mendel tied it all together, published Origin of Species in 1869, the year before Dickens died. So Dickens probably had some idea that blaming Catherine wasn’t right, but it was an in-vogue excuse, and he needed one to justify his behavior. He died too early to face the music on his own sexual contributions to his children (although his kids looked like him, right?).
So, yes, he was a brilliant asshole. There have been far too many of them. I’m glad I didn’t know about this until after I had listened to several books, otherwise I might have been put off. Because I am still glad I have listened to them. And I am really glad you said something to me about his real-life rejection of his wife and screwing around with his actress paramour, because you gave me a way to think about what I had been seeing in Dickens’s works. Motifs recur. The treatment of women especially.
I do want to say something about the Dickens/Woody Allen comparison (in the comment section of the original post). They’re not comparable. Dickens was a predictable louse, but not of the degree Woody Allen is, and he drew on his own bad behavior to create men of poor character in his books. I think he channeled his bad behavior, sometimes trying to justify it, and sometimes trying to correct it, in his stories. He killed off some of his men characters, and although some of them got to see the error of their ways, most didn’t. One bully falls into the Thames and drowns and good riddance. Another is so guilt-ridden he runs away from the people he harmed and stumbles in front of that new-fangled contraption in Victorian England, a moving train. Adios, bad guy.
Dickens certainly used his books to portray long-suffering noble women who put up with men’s bad behavior (unlike Catherine), and he even, eventually, allowed a few of his women characters to get mad when they were mistreated. Mostly, those characters did not survive the experience, because God knows women aren’t allowed to get mad, not in Victorian England (and not even here in 21st-century America). Voluntary long sufferance is supposed to be a female virtue. His books are full of them. But then Dickens has one remarkable woman character, angry like a long-simmering pot and looking for revenge, get her revenge. She enjoys her revenge. But then she dies of a lingering disease (a favorite Dickensian trope, usually the fate of angelic children and other innocents), and comes to forgiveness and repentance and love for all on her deathbed. Just in time.
Woody Allen is an exponential degree of bad in comparison to Dickens. His mid-career personal misbehavior is a betrayal of trust that transcends Dickens, who was pretty ordinary in his transgression. Woody Allen violated the father-child relationship he had when he initiated a sexual relationship with his adopted daughter. There is no justification. Soon-Yi is 50 years old now. She is half-sister to her two now-grown daughters with Woody Allen. Those daughters are also adopted. Is he screwing around with them, too? Having them pose naked? Maybe Soon-Yi is at peace with her father’s infidelity to her mother Mia Farrow, and maybe Soon-Yi is fine with having a sexual relationship with her father. It’s still wrong. It doesn’t matter that this father-child relationship was based on her adoption and not on genetics. It is a betrayal. Woody Allen defaulted on his responsibility as a father and turned his underage daughter into a sexual object for his uses. I don’t see Dickens coming anywhere close to this.
Allen’s transgressions are enough that I will not engage with his works anymore. Did I ever tell you that I took a film class on Woody Allen? (I probably did.) 1985, with Roger Ebert as the teacher. It was a great class! And it was before all this happened. It’s easy to see that Woody Allen was working out his neurotic impulses on screen, and he was revolutionary and brilliant and funny at the time. The humor is gone now. He has wrecked his contribution to art. He is beyond the pale.
So, back to Dickens. Before the pandemic, I had checked out a British tv series on CD called “Dickensian.” If you have access to it, I recommend it. The series took a bunch of Dickens characters from different books and mixed them together in a new Dickens-like story. It got pretty dark, but that’s the Victorians for you. I knew some of the characters (like Miss Haversham from Great Expectations–but as a young woman), but I didn’t know most. I knew some by name but not from reading the books. So I went to Dickens when I needed access to audiobooks, looking for the stories I hadn’t read so I could place them from the series. It was a good move.
So here’s what I have, and have not, read/listened to. I didn’t go back to Great Expectations, which we had to read in the seventh grade. Honestly, I don’t understand why Great Expectations was part of the curriculum, even now. Just what did the grownups think they were teaching tender pre-teen minds? The man-hating of Miss Haversham and and her tutelage of Estella to be the same? That jilted brides go up in flames if they don’t behave themselves? That upper-class education comes from lower-class beneficence, so watch the sands of certainty shift under your buckled feet? That beautiful women are to be hungered for even when they mistreat men? No, thank you. Confused me then, I still don’t want to reread it now.
And not David Copperfield or Oliver Twist. I’m sure they’re great. But when I was younger, I was fed too many stories (books, movies, etc.) about boys/men and their concerns and experiences and not enough about girls/women and their concerns and experiences. And that was supposed to suffice. It doesn’t. The day I discovered Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte was a very good day for me–a mirror and validation of girls and women as central characters in their own stories, not as minor characters in men’s lives. These days, I focus on stories about and by women. But there are always exceptions–I’m listening to Nicholas Nickleby now (mostly because I’ve seen movie snippets on tv, and I’d like to fill in the story).
I have listened to:
The Old Curiosity Shop –This is where Little Nell bites the dust. Dickens has a thing for innocent, neglected, high-functioning moral children enduring all kinds of injustices and mistreatment. Some of them endure, but so often they get sick and die because they are not of this world but of the one to come. It gets irritating after a while, but it’s one of his dependable plot engines. It’s pretty obvious that he’s writing in installments for newspapers that he wants to sell. The plots are convoluted, and he often resolves them in syrupy satisfying ways that don’t reflect the complications he imposes. What gets me is how, after being raised on neglect and evil intent, so many of these characters develop a sense of right and wrong and an understanding of kindness as a virtue. All by themselves, no parenting required. In fact, the parents, if there are any, tend to be morally insufficient, and the children do the parenting of the parents. There’s a sideline story where one of the characters encounters a man who has tended an iron foundry oven since he was an orphaned child, and in the flames the man sees the fire as his parent, which he loves and tends. It’s a remarkable passage.
Dombey and Son –My favorite. You’d think it’s about Dombey and his son, but it’s about Dombey’s daughter, whom he resents and ignores because she’s not the son he wanted to inherit his firm–called Dombey & Son. She grows up moral and steadfast and loving her father no matter how he mistreats her, which he does until she runs away from home. But even then she aches for his love and doesn’t hold him accountable for his behavior. She waits for him to want her as his child. Dombey is a truly limited person–recognizable in his narrow use for people and ignorant of the damage he causes. By the way, Dombey does indeed have a son, in whom he invests all his expectations, even though the boy demonstrates no interest or aptitude in business. He’s also not hardy, and like so many of Dickens’s characters, he dies young and innocent. Dombey despises his daughter even more after his son dies. This book has the woman character who is angry and remains angry and gets to have her revenge. Quite the surprise. Dickens usually crams his characters back into stereotypical Victorian boxes after letting them out to breathe for a while–so she doesn’t survive the story. There is a touching death scene instead.
Bleak House –Most interesting because the plot engine is an interminable legal case that has fed lawyers for generations, Jarndyce v. Jarndyce. One of the most irritating and worthless human beings ever portrayed takes up space in this book: Harold Skimpole.
Little Dorrit –My second favorite. Little Dorrit is born in a poorhouse, and again, she is the moral center of the story. Certainly not her father. Great character studies.
Our Mutual Friend –A mess of a book. I couldn’t get my mind on it. But I listened to all of it!
I’ll stop now, and I bet you’re saying “Whew!” –Jennifer
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