Victorian mystery

Dickens wrote simple female characters, despite a life surrounded by complex women

(L) Elizabeth Gaskell, who was encouraged by Dickens to continue writing. (R) Charles Dickens (Wikimedia)

Charles Dickens’ female characters are often criticized by modern readers, as for the most part they are either childishly simple-minded and beautiful, or intelligent but sexually unattractive. Dickens’ simplistic rendering of women is in accord with the ideals of the Victorian era in which he lived — Queen Victoria herself once wrote that women were a “poor feeble sex” in a letter advocating a suffragist be whipped — but at odds with the complexity of the women Dickens encountered in his own life.

Dickens’ beloved grandmother was a housemaid who, after being widowed and left a single mother, worked her way up to the role of housekeeper. His mother Elizabeth taught her children mathematics, literacy, and Latin. In 1848, Dickens tracked down author Elizabeth Gaskell, who had been writing anonymously, and encouraged her to continue writing on unladylike topics such as prostitution and illegitimacy. Banking heiress Angela Burdett-Coutts was a close friend of Dickens, and together they ran a rehabilitation home for so-called “fallen women” so they could learn basic literacy.

That venture, and his friendship with Burdett-Coutts, would deteriorate due to Dickens’ treatment of his wife, Catherine. Early in her marriage, Catherine acted in a series of theatricals at home and abroad and wrote a book. But after she went through years of marriage, childbearing, and postnatal depression, Dickens left her to take up with young actress Ellen Ternan. Whether Dickens’ female characters were a product of his keen sense for what would sell, a reflection of his own ideals, or just the times, the women in his life stand in stark contrast to the women in his stories.

Read the full story at The Guardian.

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