Why do I feel a niggling sense of guilt about my feelings towards Bleak House? In my state of cognitive dissonance I both love and admire it as a masterful work of literature and conversely want to chuck it across the room. Why? Because of Esther Summerson. Because her voice is meek when it could have been self-assured. Because she is pure white when she could have been a deep shade of grey (not in that sense). Because she is not a real woman.
You might say, of course she isn’t. She’s a fictional character. And why should she have to be believable to me anyway? It might just be that her world-view doesn’t match up with mine. Or you could argue that our modern world’s contaminated darkness does not negate her Victorian pure whiteness.
But this Victorian white woman never existed. She is as intangible as the melting snow. And any Victorian writer worth their salt knows that. Jane Eyre may “do the right thing” by the standards of Victorian society, but her intelligent thinking leads her to understand that her supposed freedom in becoming Mr Rochester’s mistress would lead to a dark enslavement of her as an autonomous woman. Margaret Hale, heroine of North and South, even in her piety, understands that to truly be a human being – and more importantly here, a female human being – you have to hold complex truths in your heart, some of which do not conform to what your society would want you to believe. These other, apparently white, characters share a rich darkness between them that shows they have the experience of the often visceral nature of being a woman. They understand the bleakness of having their voices stifled, their complexities smoothed out by the society they inhabit. And most importantly, of keeping the darkness of rage and anarchy locked deep away inside of them. To the outside world they are often silent, even when they speak. Their words are meaningless. So white as to be transparent, unheard.
This is ironic of course, considering Esther is the only woman Dickens ever gives his pen too. But the sardonic and scornful narrative voice of the rest of the novel, which inhabits a world both literally and morally black, is the voice that comes through as strong, multifaceted and true. It is, unfortunately, what we remember having read the book, because it is believable. It is the tone of the novel, whereas Esther’s narrative voice is flimsy and one-dimensional. She is the “ideal” woman – unsophisticated, modest and unfailingly good. From the get-go she describes herself as ‘not clever’. Her saccharine descriptions of those around her, ‘my dear old doll!, ‘darling Ada’ are only made the more sickly by the sardonic descriptions we get from the other narrator. Her strangest relationship is with Ada Clare and is unlike any real relationship between two women (or even girls) I have come across. These two good women mirror each other, bouncing their modesty, piety and wholesomeness off each other. They never argue, except out of unfailing righteousness towards the other. They seem to be platonically enraptured with each other, the perfect symbols of female friendship and fidelity.
I also do not believe that Dickens wrote Esther as what he considered a real Victorian woman. Yes, there was a great strain of thought running through Victorian discourse about the importance of the pure white woman. The obliging, virginal daughter, the gentle and maternal mother. The woman who needed protecting, too stupid to think, read novels, or vote.
But Dickens knew that this was a sham. He created Miss Haversham, one of the darkest and most complex female characters of Victorian literature.
So why is Esther, to use Charlotte Brontë’s phrase, such a “weak and twaddling” character? Because, to put it bluntly, Dickens had a problem with women, especially young women. He simply cannot give a voice to a young, yet sexually and emotionally mature woman. He will not go near the darkness. The darkness of the sexual frustrations of the reined-in young woman. The visceral reality and dark shame of maturing into a world that will rarely, if ever, speak of menstruation, sex and childbirth. A world that denies that a woman can even enjoy sex.
He perhaps considered the experience of literally being a woman to be grotesque. The astuteness and murkiness he must have seen in the minds’ of the young women around him as a husband and father to three girls simply do not touch his psyche. He denies his young fictional women anything but innocence and virtue. He loved his pure-of-heart sister-in-law Mary, who died at seventeen. He wrote of wanting to be buried next to her, “I cannot bear the thought of being excluded from her dust.” He valued youth and simplicity in women.
Esther simply doesn’t have the experience of being a woman. Dickens fails to find the human in his divine.