Tuesday, December 13, 2011
Dickens' Women - Miriam Margolyes & Sonia Fraser
It is a life worth studying in detail because of its great contrasts, its secrets and because of the genius of the subject. He is our greatest prose writer, he stands with Shakespeare as a master, his creations are etched in our consciousness. The life started in obscurity, and then rose to the heights of wealth and celebrity. It is a romantic story of rags to riches; these always appeal to the Public. But it is also a story of committed application, focused energy and occasionally ruthless exploitation.
Margolyes believes that the women in his life – his mother, his wife, his sister in law, his first love & his mistress – influenced the creation of the women in his books. This is not a new theory but it’s a compelling one. Knowing about Dickens’s life is an excellent way in to the novels. Dickens’ Women is a survey of some of the most theatrical of Dickens’s creations. It opens with Mrs Gamp, the midwife from Martin Chuzzlewit, cheerily talking about laying out the dead with her eye on a bottle on the mantelpiece. Dickens’s heroines are next & the curious fact that they’re all around 17 years old. This was the age at which Mary Hogarth, Dickens’s much-loved sister-in-law, died suddenly in Dickens’s arms after a night at the theatre. Dickens was distraught & wanted to be buried with Mary when his time came. He was most upset when her brother, George, died first & took his place in her grave.
His sinister or uncaring older women, like Mrs Pipchin in Dombey & Son, are based on the miserable landlady, Mrs Roylance, who he was sent to board with during his time at the blacking factory. It’s well-known that the period Dickens spent working in the factory at the age of 12 blighted his life. He blamed his mother, Elizabeth, for sending him back to the factory even after his father was released from prison. Nobody seemed to think that he should have been released from his servitude & sent to school. Although he cared for his mother financially in later years there doesn’t seem to be much warmth in their relationship.
Dickens fell in love with Maria Beadnell, a pretty but rather heartless young woman who rejected him. He romanticised her as Dora in David Copperfield & then, when they met in later life, caricatured her cruelly as Flora Finching in Little Dorrit. Other characters in Dickens’ Women include Edith Dombey’s dreadful mother, Mrs Skewton, the tiny chiropodist Miss Mowcher in David Copperfield (another portrait from life that led to hurt feelings & a quick rewriting of the character from sinister to kind) & a startling portrait of a lesbian, Miss Wade in Little Dorrit. The wonder is that he can write so movingly of a tormented woman like Miss Wade yet his prostitutes & fallen women are stereotypes. Nancy in Oliver Twist, Little Em’ly, Edith Dombey & Lady Dedlock have come straight from melodrama. Yet Dickens knew many young women through his charitable work who could have lent realism to his portrayals.
The play ends with monstrous Miss Havisham from Great Expectations & pathetic Miss Flite from Bleak House. Miss Flite has gone mad waiting for a judgement in her case before the Court of Chancery. She keeps birds & names them after the stages of her journey through the Court & the people she has met there – “Hope, Joy, Youth, Peace, Rest, Life, Dust, Ashes, Waste, Want, Ruin, Despair, Madness, Death, Cunning, Folly, Words, Wigs, Rags, Sheepskin, Plunder, Precedent, Jargon, Gammon and Spinach!”
This Hesperus Press edition of Dickens’ Women also includes The Women in the Boxes, all the women who had to be left out of the stage show for lack of space. They include Betsey Trotwood from David Copperfield, the philanthropic Mrs Jellyby from Bleak House & Mrs Bardell from The Pickwick Papers. Miriam Margolyes writes with such enthusiasm for Dickens that if you haven’t read the novels you will be inspired to do so immediately. This is a wonderful introduction to Dickens the man & the writer & to some of his most fascinating creations. Miriam Margolyes will be touring Dickens’ Women next year for the Dickens Bicentenary. I’m sure it will be one of the highlights.
I’ve also enjoyed browsing through a lovely book by Hilary Macaskill, Charles Dickens at Home. The original photographs are by Graham Salter.
There are going to be so many books about Dickens published next year & I may be all Dickensed out by April, but I think I’ve made a good start already with these two books & Claire Tomalin’s magnificent biography. My online reading group is planning to read Martin Chuzzlewit early next year & I’m looking forward to Jenny Hartley’s edition of the Selected Letters. The full Pilgrim edition of the Letters is now mostly out of print & very expensive secondhand so a Selected edition full of footnotes will do very nicely.