Challenging figures: Three of Charles Dickens' Marginal Women
Valerie Kennedy
Dr. Kennedy currently teaches in the Faculty of Humanities and Letters, Bilkent University, Ankara, Turkey. She has also taught in Morocco.

Rosa Dartle
Miss Wade
Works Cited


Among the multitude of characters who people Dickens’ novels, it has often been remarked, there are few mature adult women who are portrayed in any convincing way as sexual beings, although critics such as Michael Slater, and, more recently, David Holbrook, Rita Lubitz, and Patricia Ingham have all explored Dickens’ presentation of women in his novels .1 Yet little attention has been given to such marginal but significant characters as Rosa Dartle in David Copperfield, Miss Wade in Little Dorrit, and Lady Dedlock’s French maid, Hortense, in Bleak House.2 I shall argue that such women all challenge the moral schemes and values, the resolutions, and sometimes, the linguistic norms and conventions of the novels. They are rarely, if ever, seen sympathetically by the novels’ narrators, or by their other characters, or, presumably, by Dickens himself. But they force their way into the novels nonetheless, and, like other marginal characters in Dickens’ fiction,3 they articulate criticisms of the some of the most basic tenets of his philosophy, like the value and validity of Christian charity, the necessity of knowing and keeping to one's place in the social hierarchy, and the ultimate defensibility of the sexual double standard. These criticisms may be seen to be undermined to a certain extent by the nature of the women and men who utter them, but they are made nonetheless, and to examine the characters who make them is, in a certain sense, to read Dickens against himself.4

Rosa, Miss Wade, and Hortense are all described, like many of Dickens’ characters, through their outward appearance which acts as a transparent sign or set of signs of their internal nature. As Ingham notes, in the pseudo-sciences of physiognomy (and, it might be added, phrenology), Dickens, like other nineteenth-century novelists, found a ready-made code of signification (1992: 24, 26). As befits women who all in some way or other challenge social norms and conventions in Dickens’ novels, and indeed, in nineteenth-century novels generally5, all are dark, proud, passionate, unhappy, and repressed, although all of them overcome the usual repression of their feelings at certain points in the novels, in various ways and in varying degrees. Hortense, Lady Dedlock’s French maid, rebels by murdering Tulkinghorn, Sir Leicester Dedlock’s lawyer, and a bastion of the British legal system at the end of Bleak House; Rosa and Miss Wade express their repressed anger and desire only through verbal violence, although in certain scenes, for example when Rosa tells David the story of what has happened to Emily and when she confronts Emily towards the end of the novel, that verbal violence is extreme. In all three cases, the women's anger is provoked at least partly by feelings of a perceived inferiority of class and gender (and race, in Hortense’s case), and in two cases out of three, with Rosa and Miss Wade, it is also partly a product of jealousy. In their cases, their anger against the men who play with their feelings and then abandon them is displaced and transformed into jealousy of the women who have supplanted them (who are then either abandoned or mistreated in their turn), and into anger against the other women who embody the social hierarchy which condemns them as inferior. In the case of Hortense, jealousy of a younger woman is part of the pattern, but her animosity is more explicitly and logically directed at the man who has exploited her and dominated her. Since I shall not have time here today to examine all three cases in detail, I will focus on Rosa and, to a lesser extent on Miss Wade, although I shall discuss the significance of Hortense’s murder of Tulkinghorn briefly before concluding.

Rosa Dartle (David Copperfield)

Rosa Dartle is the female companion to Mrs. Steerforth, James Steerforth’s mother in David Copperfield. We first meet Rosa when David visits the Steerforth home on his way to visit Mr. Peggotty and his family in Yarmouth. It is through David's innocent and idealistic yet also casually callous and sexist hermeneutic categories that she is first seen and ‘placed’ for us. Fascinated by her, but not sure why, David describes her in some detail, with a mixture of attraction and repulsion and with an insistence upon one particular physical feature, a scar.6 From the start, there is a contradiction both in how David sees Rosa and in his response to what he sees. She is ‘of a slight short figure, dark, and not agreeable to look at, but with some appearance of good looks’, the final phrase being repeated later in the same passage. Having mentioned her ‘black hair and eager black eyes’, he focuses on the one unusual aspect of her face, the scar, which he describes in detail: ‘It was an old scar - I should rather call it seam, for it was not discoloured and had healed years ago - which had once cut through her mouth, downward towards the chin, but was now barely visible across the table, except above and on her upper lip, the shape of which it had altered’. He concludes that ‘she was about thirty years of age, and that she wished to be married. She was a little dilapidated - like a house - with having been so long to let’ (350). David's conclusion about Rosa’s desire to be married tells the reader more about his conventional view of women than it does about Rosa, and the comparison of her to a dilapidated house which has been too long to let is both immensely suggestive in its visual clarity and callous and sexist in the way it treats Rosa as a less-than-desirable object. David concludes his initial presentation of her by noting that ‘Her thinness seemed to be the effect of some wasting fire within her, which found a vent in her gaunt eyes’ (350). The ‘wasting fire’ is of course the fire of sexual passion, unnaturally consuming its own substance and forcing itself out through eyes which are all but destroyed by it.7

But it is the scar which most fascinates David, and it is the scar which in fact is an indication of the cause of Rosa’s ‘wasting fire’. An exchange between David and Steerforth explains things. When David comments on the scar, Steerforth is forced to admit: ‘I did that’. He explains: ‘I was a young boy, and she exasperated me, and I threw a hammer at her. A promising young angel I must have been!’ Steerforth then adds his own explanation of Rosa: ‘She has borne the mark ever since, as you see . . . and she'll bear it to her grave, if she ever rests in one - though I can hardly believe she will ever rest anywhere. She was the motherless child of a sort of cousin of my father's. He died one day. My mother, who was then a widow, brought her here to be company to her. She has a couple of thousand pounds of her own, and saves the interest of it every year, to add to the principal. There’s the history of Miss Rosa Dartle for you’. David responds to this with the extraordinarily stupid remark, ‘And I have no doubt she loves you like a brother’, which draws from Steerforth the sardonic reply ‘Humph! ...some brothers are not loved over much; and some love -’ (353). The exchange is remarkable for Steerforth’s characterisation of Rosa as a kind of vampire, whom he doubts will ever rest in a grave, or, indeed, ‘anywhere’, and also for his awareness that Rosa’s love for him is certainly neither brotherly nor innocent. Seduced and subjected to the violence of Steerforth as a girl, Rosa bears and will bear for ever the traces of the conflicting passions she felt for him as a girl and still feels for him as a woman, while Steerforth knows exactly what is at stake, even if David does not.8

It is in Rosa’s language that these conflicting feelings are most notably, if not most directly, expressed. David notes that ‘It appeared to me that she never said anything she wanted to say, outright; but hinted it, and made a great deal more of it by this practice’ (350). The most interesting example of this indirectness occurs during the conversation about Peggotty and his family, when David proposes that Steerforth should accompany him on his visit to them. Steerforth declares that such a journey would be worthwhile ‘“to see that sort of people together, and to make one of ‘em”’. In connection with the phrase, ‘that sort of people’, David says:

Miss Dartle, whose sparkling eyes had been watchful of us, now broke in again.
‘Oh, but, really? Do tell me. Are they, though?’ she said.
‘Are they what? And are who what?’ said Steerforth.
‘That sort of people. - Are they really animals and clods, and beings of another order? I want to know so much.’
‘Why, there's a pretty wide separation between them and us,’ said Steerforth, with indifference. ‘They are not to be expected to be as sensitive as we are. Their delicacy is not to be shocked, or hurt easily. They are wonderfully virtuous, I dare say - some people contend for that at least; and I am sure I don't want to contradict them - but they have not very fine natures, and they may be thankful that, like their coarse rough skins, they are not easily wounded.’
‘Really!’ said Miss Dartle. ‘Well, I don't know, now, when I have been better pleased than to hear that. It's so consoling! It's such a delight to know that, when they suffer, they don't feel! Sometimes I have been quite uneasy for that sort of people; but now I shall just dismiss the idea of them, altogether. Live and learn. I had my doubts, I confess, but now they're cleared up. I didn't know, and now I do know, and that shows the advantage of asking - don't it?’ (352, emphasis in the original)
Steerforth’s words reveal his unreconstructed sense of class superiority, which is later to lead to his seduction of Emily, and all that ensues. Rosa’s challenge to the hierarchy of class and feeling to which Steerforth appeals should not be interpreted primarily as an intervention on behalf of the people being discussed,9 but as an indirect reminder to Steerforth of her own dependent position as the (relatively) poor relation in the family and as a negative and equally indirect questioning of what he says. By reducing Steerforth’s arguments to complete absurdity when she says ‘“It's so consoling! It's such a delight to know that, when they suffer, they don't feel!”’, Rosa both obliquely questions their validity and reminds him of the pain he has inflicted on her. The indirectness of her language in this scene shows that, while she is marked for ever by the conflicting feelings of desire and anger which she feels for Steerforth, she is unable to express those feelings directly, since they would be unacceptable not only to Steerforth himself but, more importantly, to his mother; that is, she cannot offer any overt challenge either to his authority as the man in the house or to the authority of his mother as the older, richer woman. Constrained by her privileged yet also restricted position as companion to Mrs. Steerforth, Rosa, as Steerforth says ‘“[wears] herself away by constant sharpening”’ until she is ‘“all edge”’ (352), since propriety demands that she repress both her desire for Steerforth and her discontent with her subordinate position.

Later in the novel, confronting Emily in London, Rosa is not restrained by any such considerations and, in David's hearing, is allowed to rebuke and revile Emily at length. This can be seen as the first part of the punishment which is later to see Emily exiled to Australia. Rosa’s words represent a particularly uncharitable and cruel version of the traditional double standard of sexual behaviour, and while both David and his creator deplore the cruelty, they do not disclaim the double standard; indeed, they reinforce it. Steerforth is ennobled in death, Emily exiled to Australia.

Miss Wade (Little Dorrit)

Miss Wade in Little Dorrit is another case of suppressed female resentment and anger, although the emotions are caused more by the treatment which she receives because of her illegitimacy and the position of social insecurity and inferiority which derives from it than by any sexual entanglement or feelings. Whereas Rosa’s anger has a primarily sexual cause, Miss Wade’s comes from a sense of hurt pride. Like Rosa, Miss Wade is dark, proud, and angry (Dickens 1991: 19-20). Even more effectively than Rosa, however, she marginalises herself; whereas Rosa is affiliated through a somewhat distant family link to Steerforth and his mother, Miss Wade has no known relations of any kind, and, as she reveals in the document which she gives to Arthur Clennam, she has purposely cut herself off from the company of those who have loved and tried to help her, since she believed that their kindness to her was motivated by a perverse pride and pleasure in their own sense of social superiority, rather than uncomplicated goodness. Dickens entitles this document ‘The History of a Self-Tormentor’, in order to make the narrative perspective on Miss Wade clear, and the narrative descriptions of both her and Tattycoram, the orphan girl she shelters for a time, emphasise the self-destructive nature of both the woman and the younger girl. They are described as ‘two natures . . . constantly tearing the other to pieces’ (553), an image which has already occurred in relation to Tattycoram who threatens on several occasions to ‘“tear [herself] to pieces”’ before consenting to stay with her employers and benefactors, the Meagles (277). Unlike Rosa, Miss Wade is allowed to express herself in her own (written) words, but the text she produces is both placed and undermined by the narrator and the title he gives it, which serves to undercut the criticisms it and its author make.

Yet there is a sense in which Tattycoram (and perhaps Miss Wade too) are right to protest against the way they are treated; the former is taken from the Foundling Hospital to be a maid to the Meagles’ daughter, Pet, and despite all the Meagles’ good intentions, she is both an object of charity and an employee. There is no question of equality; benevolence cannot (and the novel implies should not) include equality: the object of charity is still an object, and an object of an inferior class, at that. In Miss Wade’s case it is harder to judge the issue, since all we have is her, grossly biased, narrative of her experiences, rather than any dramatisation which might allow diverging views. It is clear, however, even from her account, that she is the governess who rebels against the only means by which she could find a way out of her situation of social inferiority, marriage to a socially acceptable man, and consequent emigration to India. Of course her rebellion is self-destructive: she meets Henry Gowan, who understands her as Steerforth understands Rosa, and who seduces and abandons her. Dickens shows himself ready to contemplate a woman who will not follow the accepted and expected channels of action, but, not surprisingly, can find no positive role for her. That this should be so should scarcely surprise us. George Eliot, writing ten years later, can find no other solution than to drown Maggie Tulliver at the end of The Mill on the Floss when Maggie refuses to accept the only way to make her behaviour conventionally acceptable, that is to marry Stephen Guest, while Charlotte Bronte’s solution in Jane Eyre is to have the once-rebellious governess marry her social superior, Rochester, after he has been suitably chastised.10

Hortense (Bleak House)

Finally, there is Hortense. Like Rosa and Miss Wade, she is dark, proud, and angry (Dickens 1985: 209, 372-3). She is initially described as having a ‘feline mouth’ and as being ‘a very neat She-Wolf imperfectly tamed’ (209), and subsequently she is often defined by other animal imagery: to Tulkinghorn she is ‘a vixen’ (643), while the narrator describes her as ‘that feline personage’ (642), with a ‘tigerish expansion’ about the mouth (646, 794) and, on one occasion, as ‘panting, tigress-like’, when she hears how Mrs. Bucket has deceived her.11 Her discontent is manifested in various scenes and in a variety of ways earlier in the novel (209, 311-2), and she is explicitly associated with a potential for violence at several points in the book (209, 312), but it is of course her murder of Tulkinghorn, Sir Leicester Dedlock’s lawyer and the representative of the status quo which expresses her rebellion most concretely. Moreover, in addition to challenging the status quo through the murder, she also explicitly criticises the hypocrisies and suppressions on which the status quo relies. At the very moment when Bucket, the detective, is about to lead her away to prison, she challenges him to tell her that he can reassert the rightness and stability of the old order of things after the murder has forced out the truth that Lady Dedlock had a lover and an illegitimate child before she married Sir Leicester, and that her noble husband has been deceived and betrayed. ‘“Can you restore [Tulkinghorn] back to life?”’ ‘“Can you make a honourable lady of Her?”’, ‘“Or a haughty gentleman of Him?”’ she asks (799, emphasis in the original). Neither Bucket, nor the narrator, nor presumably Dickens, has an answer to any of these questions. All Bucket can do is to say, rather helplessly, ‘“Come, come, why this is worse Parlaying than the other”’ (799), before he leads her away. Hortense may have been found out and arrested, but she has forced out into the open the dirty secrets which Bucket, Tulkinghorn and Sir Leicester would have much preferred to keep silent. Perhaps Dickens can imagine such a crime since Hortense is French, and therefore different or ‘Other’ not only in terms of gender but also in terms of race.12 As a French woman, she is, as it were, double beyond the pale.

What can one conclude from these three marginal women? That they are anomalies, not to be given too much attention in any final evaluation of Dickens’ work? That they are manifestations of Dickens’ own anxieties and fears about women's sexuality as Holbrook suggests (1993: 10, 20, 21, 23, 166, 170)? Neither, I think. I prefer to read them as signs of those immense female energies which cannot be accommodated in the conventional forms of the family and the community in Dickens’ world, but which seem to force their way out of his head and into the novels nonetheless. As they do so, these characters criticise the model of bourgeois benevolence which Dickens cherished, and the class hierarchy which, ultimately, he endorsed; they also show the crudity and injustice of the sexual double standard of which he also approved in ways which his narrators deplore and yet which they seem powerless to oppose. Through them, Dickens is his own best critic.

Bronte, Charlotte (1996 [1847]) Jane Eyre. London: Penguin.

Dickens, Charles. (1984 [1850]) David Copperfield. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

--------------------. (1985 [1853]) Bleak House. London: Penguin.

--------------------. (1985 [1854] Hard Times. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

--------------------. (1991 [1857]) Little Dorrit. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

--------------------. (1986 [1861] Great Expectations. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Eliot, George. (1986 [1860]) The Mill on the Floss. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. (1979) The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Holbrook, David. (1993) Charles Dickens and the Image of Woman. New York and London: New York University Press.

Ingham, Patricia. (1992) Dickens, Women and Language. New York and London: Harvester Wheatsheaf.

Kennedy, Valerie. (1982) ‘Evil and Anarchy in Great Expectations: A Note on Orlick’. Langues et Littratures, II, 63-9.

Lubitz, Rita. (1996) Marital Power in Dickens’ Fiction. New York: Peter Lang.

Nead, Lynda. (1988) Myths of Sexuality: Representations of Women in Victorian Britain. Oxford: Blackwell.

Shires, Linda. (1996) ‘Literary careers, death, and the body politics of David Copperfield’. Dickens Refigured: Bodies, Desires and Other Histories. Ed. John Schad. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, pp. 117-35 .