Archive for the ‘Victorian Lit’ Category

Tien from Tien’s Blurb weighed in on my prior post about Les Miserables to mention that she hadn’t liked Cosette much in the book, which surprised her. Her comment – rather perceptively – referred to how much Cosette was “cossetted” and, honestly, I hadn’t made the connection between her name and the word cosset, although I have to surmise that this wasn’t a coincidence on the part of Hugo. Cosset is a verb that means “to pamper or treat as a pet,” the origin of which may be the “mid 16th century (as a noun denoting a lamb brought up by hand, later a spoiled child): probably from Anglo-Norman French coscet ‘cottager’, from Old English cotsǣta ‘cottar’.” (See: Oxford Dictionaries online).

This made me start thinking about the various depictions of Victorian womanhood in novels. This pampered girl is a common archetype of the period, and not just in Les Miserables, where it is exemplified by Cosette:

Les Misérables

“To have continually at your side a woman, a girl, a sister, a charming being, who is there because you need her, and because she cannot do without you, to know you are indispensable to someone necessary to you, to be able at all times to measure her affection by the degree of the presence that she gives you, and to say to yourself: She dedicates all her time to me, because I possess her whole love; to see the thought if not the face; to be sure of the fidelity of one being in a total eclipse of the world; to imagine the rustling of her dress as the rustling of wings; to hear her moving to and fro, going out, coming in, talking, singing, to think that you are the cause of those steps, those words, that song; to show your personal attraction at every moment; to feel even more powerful as your infirmity increases; to become in darkness, and by reason of darkness, the star around which this angel gravitates; few joys can equal that. “

And then we have the English version, Dora Spenlow from David Copperfield


“All was over in a moment. I had fulfilled my destiny. I was a captive and a slave. I loved Dora Spenlow to distraction! She was more than human to me. She was a Fairy, a Sylph, I don’t know what she was – anything that no one ever saw, and everything that everybody ever wanted. I was swallowed up in an abyss of love in an instant. There was no pausing on the brink; no looking down, or looking back; I was gone, headlong, before I had sense to say a word to her.”

And, pampered girl a la Russe, Kitty Shcherbatskaya from Anna Karenina:

“But Levin was in love, and so it seemed to him that Kitty was so perfect in every respect that she was a creature far above everything earthly; and that he was a creature so low and so earthly that it could not even be conceived that other people and she herself could regard him as worthy of her.”

There are similarities between all three of these characters. They are all three extraordinarily pretty, but somewhat dimwitted, young women who exist and who are spoken about primarily as foils to the male hero. David Copperfield and Anna Karenina both, to some degree, have characters that function as stand-ins for the male author (David Copperfield is frankly biographical, and Konstantin Levin, in Anna Karenina is often considered to be a semi-autobiographical portrayal of Tolstoy’s own beliefs, struggles and life events).

Dora Spenlow is, in my opinion, one of the absolutely most boring characters ever created in literature. She is incapable of so much as holding a broom and sweeping the kitchen, and her defining traits are that she marries the hero and plays with her dog. Cosette isn’t much better – she is pampered by Jean Valjean to the point that she lacks even the tiniest bit of independence, and she essentially goes from his home to the home of Marius without the slightest hiccup, never engaging in even the mildest rebellion. Even as she is being separated from the man that she loves, she doesn’t speak an unkind word. Neither of these characters exhibit any emotional growth during the course of their novels (Dora is so miserably static that Dickens kills her off to open the door to David Copperfield having a relationship with the multi-dimensional Agnes).

As I have mentioned before, I am also listening to one of the Great Courses on the Victorian era. I doubt seriously that this character would have or could have existed in real form. Girls – even upper-class teen girls – are not so lacking in dimension that, even during the Victorian era, they would have been successfully pampered into lapdogs. So this abomination of a living, breathing, woman may have been the ideal, but what a tragic freaking commentary that is on the society that admired these characters – that an ideal young woman was young, pretty, brainless, and useless.

The reality was likely – hopefully – far more interesting than the fictional.

I am not slamming Dickens, Tolstoy and Hugo. All three of these authors created other female characters that were multi-dimensional and interesting – sometimes even in the same book. Anna Karenina, herself, is a whiny pain in the hind-end, but she is a great character. Flawed (oh, so flawed), interesting, petulant, but with depth and the ability to make absolutely terrible choices for herself. I’ve already mentioned Agnes from David Copperfield – David’s second and so much better choice – but we also have David’s Aunt Betsy, who is an amazing character, full of life, acerbic and hard-working. Fantine, in Les Miserables, is melodramatic and idealized, but still had individual agency, and Eponine, tragically, does rebel against her family and society by taking to the barricades and she dies because of it (is it a coincidence that Hugo’s female characters who step outside of this idealized role all end up tragically dying? Probably not).

This archetypal character – Dora/Cosette/Kitty – provides insight into a society that frankly oppressed women, by taking the ultimate expression of what that oppression wrought (a woman utterly bereft of usefulness, a decorative non-person, with about as much substance as a blow-up doll) and idealizing it, and that is enlightening.


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2/2014 and the first book of the Bronte Project.

agnes grey Agnes Grey was published in 1847. This was an exceptionally good year for the Brontes – 1847 saw the publication of Agnes Grey, Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, which combined to form a trifecta of Bronte awesomeness, and includes the two most well-known books by the Brontes.

Anne Bronte was the youngest Bronte, and remains the least well-known of the three sisters. She died extraordinarily young, at 29 years of age. Her only other published work is The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which was out of publication for many years at the behest (as I understand it) of the eldest and most prolific sister, Charlotte. Agnes Grey was published under the pseudonym Acton Bell.

Agnes Grey is a bildungsroman, or a coming of age story, in this case, of the titular character, Agnes. The book begins with Agnes and her sister living at home with her parson father and their mother. Father unwisely invests money with a merchant who ends up dying, and the family loses all their savings. Agnes, in a bid for independence, decides to go to work as a governess. She ultimately obtains a position as a governess for a wealthy family, and leaves the family homes and goes out in the world.

I really liked this book. I was not a fan of Wuthering Heights when I read it many years ago (I am rereading it this year), although I did love Jane Eyre. Agnes Grey is, in my mind, less sophisticated than Jane Eyre, but has many of the same themes. Anne Bronte used the book as a vehicle to explore oppression of women, animal cruelty, love, marriage and religion.

I have been listening to one of the Great Courses on the Victorian era as well as reading books that were written in and during the Victorian era. There are two lectures, so far, that dealt directly with women – one about upper class women and one about working class women. The circumstances for working class girls/women were fairly dire, actually, and Agnes Grey does a good job of illustrating that direness. Agnes finds herself working for a family that is clearly inferior to her in most domains – she has more common sense, more integrity, she is better educated, she has a greater work ethic, she is more useful. The only area that they exceed her is in that of wealth. They are rich, she is poor.

Each of the families, nonetheless, considers themselves and is considered by society, to be her superior. The Bloomfield family – the first family where she is a governess – has raised their eldest son to be an overtly cruel human being. He is abusive – both verbally and at times physically – to Agnes, and he casually tortures small animals. His education is a total loss because no one exerts even the slightest degree of control over him to force him to learn, and being the eldest son of a wealthy family, there is no incentive for him to be anything other than what he desires to be. Agnes is dismissed when she fails to educate him.

The second family, the Murray family, is less casually abusive but concomitantly more frivolous. Agnes is governess to their two youngest daughters. The eldest, Rosalie, is a pretty ornament who thinks only of flirtations and marriage. Matilda, the youngest, is a foul-mouthed tomboy who is also a liar (I confess a bit of partiality to poor Matilda. She’s so screwed in that era). The appearance is the reality for this family, and nothing matters but what is on the surface.

Agnes Grey is based on Anne Bronte’s experience as a governess. One of the things that I found interesting was how little actual learning was going on in the schoolroom. I am sure that not every Victorian wealthy family was the same, but Agnes was given no authority at all, and was therefore ignored at best and abused at worst. I cannot think of few worse jobs than being charged with the education of spoiled, entitled, in some cases quite possibly sociopathic, children who have total power over your life. It’s a nightmarish prospect.

It is easy to wax nostalgic for the past, and for eras like the Victorian era. Reading a book like Agnes Grey is a useful exercise to remind us that we should not idealize the past.

I will have more to say about Agnes Grey, and the other Bronte sisters, and probably the Victorians in general, over the course of the rest of the year. I would probably call Agnes Grey a minor masterpiece, but a masterpiece nonetheless. I have heard that Anne’s second book, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is even better.

I have started Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte, for a read-along with Maggie, over at Maggie’s blog, An American in France.

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The end of Book IV is the midpoint of Middlemarch. We begin Book III, entitled “Waiting for Death,” pretending much waiting for death. Specifically, one death: that of the not-at-all-likely-to-be-missed Featherstone. The ones waiting for his death are, primarily, Fred Vincy (who hopes to profit) and, secondarily, Mary Garth (who works for him), and the rest of his family, who are equally hoping to inherit.

Middlemarch is not a novel of suspense, nor is it known for it’s great twists. However, the next three posts will all contain spoilers, so be warned.

Eliot’s Middlemarch deconstructs three pairings: Dorothea/Casaubon, Lydgate/Rosamunde, and Fred Vincy/Mary Garth. Of the three, the one that is projected to be the least successful, ends up the most successful. However, in Books III & IV, her deconstruction is just beginning.

Fred Vincy behaves remarkably badly in Book III, borrowing money from Caleb Garth in a desperate effort to recover some of his own financial losses. He, naturally, loses the money, causing great distress to the entire Garth family. This really relates to the whole issue of entitlement, which seems to be one of the subthemes of Book III. There are certain social conventions of this era that produce a sense of entitlement in some of the characters. It never occurred to Fred Vincy that borrowing money from a relatively poor man with many mouths to feed because it would have been INCONVENIENT and UNCOMFORTABLE to borrow it from his own father, (or more admirably to forgo it altogether) was wrong. In his mind, he “needs” the money (although purchasing horses hardly constitutes an actual need) and therefore getting it in whatever manner he can is perfectly reasonable.

I will say this for Fred, though. His sense of entitlement did seem to be shaken a bit when he realized that his inability to repay didn’t merely inconvenience the Garths. Rather, it was a devastating blow to them – and to their son, who has lost out on the ability to be apprenticed, which may well destroy his entire life. It’s like that old phrase: for want of a nail, a shoe was lost, for want of a shoe, a horse was lost, for want of a horse, a knight was lost, for want of a knight, a kingdom was lost. Loaning money to Fred Vincy = financial devastation for the Garth family.

However, he does show some actual character by being the one to go and tell the girl that he loves that he is, in fact, the loser whose spendthrift nature has potentially cost her brother his future. We’ll see if he continues on this way, or if he falls back into his same patterns.

Also in this section, Rosamund finally manages to manipulate Tertius Lydgate into offering for her. Somehow I suspect that this particular pairing will be no more successful than that of Dorothea/Casaubon.

If there is a gun on the mantle at the beginning of the book, then by the end of the following book, someone will have shot someone. And so, we have the long-awaited demise of Featherstone, which caused discredit to pretty much everyone EXCEPT Mary Garth. Fred ended up with nothing, of course, which may be the making of him in the end. Certainly becoming a gentleman of leisure wouldn’t have done anything for his character. We will see what Eliot has in store for her characters in the later books. Right now, she seems to be pretty much brutalizing everyone.

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Dorothea Brooke is a genuine creation, and a most remarkable one when we consider the delicate material in which she is wrought. George Eliot’s men are generally so much better than the usual trousered offspring of the female fancy, that their merits have perhaps overshadowed those of her women. Yet her heroines have always been of an exquisite beauty, and Dorothea is only that perfect flower of conception of which her predecessors were the less unfolded blossoms. An indefinable moral elevation is the sign of these admirable creatures; and of the representation of this quality in its superior degrees the author seems to have in English fiction a monopoly. To render the expression of a soul requires a cunning hand; but we seem to look straight into the unfathomable eyes of the beautiful spirit of Dorothea Brooke. She exhales a sort of aroma of spiritual sweetness, and we believe in her as in a woman we might providentially meet some fine day when we should find ourselves doubting of the immortality of the soul.

Originally published in Galaxy, March 1873.

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My goodreads group is reading Middlemarch for our May/June monthly read, and I am moderating the discussion, which officially began on May 6. George Eliot divided Middlemarch into 8 books – this post will discusses Book I: Miss Brooke and Book II: Old and Young.

Like many big Victorian novels, Middlemarch is character driven rather than plot driven. In Book I, we are introduced to much of the genteel Middlemarch society – from Dorothea Brooke, who is, at least at this point, one of the novel’s main characters, to Rosamunde Vincy. The bulk of Book I is taken up with Dorothea and her blossoming infatuation with the intellectual and ascetic Mr. Casaubon. By the end of Book I, Dorothea and Mr. Casaubon are married.

As I read about the engagement of the stubborn and intelligent Dorothea to Mr. Casaubon a feeling of foreboding developed. I can’t help but think that this decision is going to turn out badly for, at least, Dorothea, if not both of them. Dorothea is looking for something in Mr. Casaubon that he has no idea how to provide – she seeks an intellectual partner. Casaubon, on the other hand, seems to be looking for a worshipful, unpaid servant. Certainly he doesn’t seem capable of the kind of relationship that Dorothea is desires, and it seems highly unlikely that he will be satisfied with what Dorothea has to offer.

Book II brings us out into wider Middlemarch society, and focuses on the political and economic machinations of the men. Dr. Lydgate’s desire to improve medical science and the delivery of medicine is discussed, Fred Vincy behaves like a wastrel, Mr. Bulstrode bullies everyone with his money, and we catch up with Will Ladislaw in Italy toward the end of Book II, where he is spending someone else’s money on aesthetic idleness. By the end of Book II, the cracks in the brand-new marriage between Dorothea and Mr. Casaubon have widened into a full-fledged chasm, and it appears unlikely that they will be able to bridge the gap.

Eliot develops Middlemarch slowly. So slowwwwwwly that sometimes it seems like nothing is happening at all, while Eliot slyly shows us the character of every person in town with her well-chosen words.

One of the components of our discussion relates to the differences between plot-driven and character-driven books. Many of my co-readers have enjoyment issues because of the slow pace. I find myself rather enjoying the leisurely pacing of Middlemarch, although I can understand why other readers would find it boring. I do tend to chip away at classics, and read modern (i.e., books with a faster pace) fiction simultaneously. This probably helps.

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David Copperfield So, I finally finished David Copperfield.

I want to focus this first post on the girls and women of David Copperfield: Clara Copperfield,, Agnes Wickfield, Dora Spendlow, and Aunt Betsy Trotwood.

Let me start by just admitting that I absolutely despised both Clara Copperfield and Dora Spendlow. They are very similar characters – both extremely childlike and, to my mind, incredibly annoying. Their childishness exceeded all possible bounds of reality, and, certainly, Clara Copperfield’s inability to stand up to Mr. Murdstone and his horrible sister caused great pain to David.

After having such an utterly useless mother, one would have expected that David would avoid marrying someone with the same deficiencies, and yet, nonetheless, he marries a girl who is so utterly incompetent that all she really seems to do is play with her dog. Dora is the most extreme result of a culture in which women are valued only for their appearance. She is pure decoration, without use. I kept wanting someone to hand her a broom and tell her to make herself useful. I am well aware that it is uncharitable, but I was rooting for her to kick the bucket so that David could find a wife who was a woman and not a child.

Spoiler alert: she did.

As much as I disliked Clara and Dora, though, I loved Aunt Betsey and Agnes Wickfield. Aunt Betsey is eccentric and good-hearted, and she becomes David’s guardian after he flees from Mr. Murdstone’s warehouse where he has essentially been enslaved. Aunt Betsey is no fan of men, having been ill-used and abandoned by a worthless husband as a young wife. In fact, the reader first meets Aunt Betsey in the very first chapter, when she arrives at the birth of David and leaves in disgust when he is born a boy and not a girl. Nonetheless, when David arrives on her doorstep, abused and unloved, she takes him in, educates him, and becomes a true friend and advocate to him. Her character is complex and interesting.

Agnes Wickfield is a bit too good to be true, but is likeable nonetheless. She is the daughter of one of David’s schoolmasters, and is a friend of his youth. She is everything that Dora is not: competent, capable and housewifely. She is also a good friend to Dora, though, and is such a kind person that she is careful never to make Dora feel inferior.

Spoiler alert: she marries David after Dora’s death, they have children, and live happily ever after.

In my next Dickens post, I’ll talk about the four villains of David Copperfield: Edward & Jane Murdstone, James Steerforth, and Uriah Heep.

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Lucky Number 14

Lucky Number 14

Fortunately, I am nearly done with David Copperfield. I guess Barnaby Rudge is my next “Daily Dickens” book.

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