- Dickens & Women ReObserved ed. by Edward Guiliano
Almost forty years ago, Nina Auerbach wrote a scathing review of Michael Slater's Dickens and Women, which proved hugely influential anyway. "Charles Dickens did not understand women," Auerbach emphatically controverted Slater (131). She argued that Slater's approach, shaped by a "concern with believability and naturalism," was wildly inappropriate to Dickens's art (133). This extensive new collection is both an homage to Dickens and Women and seeks to contribute to the lively field of Dickensian gender studies it helped catalyse. Eighteen essays uncover, in Edward Guiliano's words, a "sensitivity and understanding of women [that] was always below the surface" of Dickens's writing (11). The scholarship presented here is however most imaginative and relevant in its departures from the contentious question whether Dickens understood women or not.
Slater's book offered three angles: Dickens's experience of women, Dickens's female characters, and Dickens's conception of femininity. With the exception of Michael Hollington's thought-provoking survey of Dickens's influence on women modernist writers, especially Elizabeth Bowen and Christina Stead, the essays in Dickens & Women ReObserved revisit roughly the same aspects. Four papers zoom in on the social constructions that shaped Dickens's experience of women. Adrienne Munich and Anthony Teets's riveting essay explores Dickens's knotty relationship with "Reginamania." Cheap prints of images of the young and evidently sexually active Queen Victoria proliferated, spearheading a racialised image of British beauty – labelled as Aryan later in the century – that stood at the centre of a national identity "based upon the spectacularization of women" (46). Whilst Dickens himself couldn't resist "r[iding] the waves of this national hysteria," Munich and Teets's reading of Bleak House suggests that he was aware and, at least to an extent, suspicious of these images' power (41). The link to ethnographic theory feels thin (Arthur de Gobineau's foundational essay on a pure Aryan master race appeared just after Bleak House), but I'd like to stress that this image of British beauty was nevertheless racialised: it was unmistakably white.
Lydia Craig identifies Grace Darling as inspiration for Our Mutual Friend's controversial "female waterman," Lizzie Hexam. The lighthouse keeper's daughter who took a physically active part in rescuing the survivors of the 1838 Forfarshire wreck went on to become a national celebrity and the subject of a public discussion about what befitted a young workingclass woman. Craig argues that Our Mutual Friend's vehement defence of Lizzie's marriage to her rescuee pleads for social lenience towards (virtuous) working-class women moving up the social ladder. Stanley Friedman suggests [End Page 443] that Dickens derived further inspiration for Lizzie from Susan in Thomas Morton's 1798 melodrama Speed the Plough, whom Ellen Ternan portrayed on several occasions between 1857 and 1859. Susan, like Lizzie, presents her upper-class lover with a difficult choice between social propriety and love. Friedman lists a number of plays in which Ternan acted, outlining a promising area for further research.
Margaret Flanders Darby offers a compelling reading of Dickens's 1867 story "George Silverman's Explanation" in light of the windowpanes and mirrors that enlivened Dickens's summer study at Gad's Hill. Darby reads Silverman's narrative as a kaleidoscope of shame and self-hatred, rooted in the poverty and squalor of the Preston slum home of the narrator's earliest years. Deep-seated fear of social rejection surfaces in a paralysing "anxiety in relation to genteel women" – a feeling, Darby suggests, which Dickens, the boy from the blacking factory, knew only too well (302).
Francesca Orestano's shrewd reading of A Holiday Romance, Dickens's widely neglected 1868 novella for children, stands out among the essays on Dickens's fictional women. Orestano calls our attention to the innovative and highly influential discursive strategy Dickens developed for A Holiday Romance – the strict generic confines of Victorian literature for children narrated from the point of view of the child protagonist. Whereas their male co-narrators are...