They were not quite feminists, but they played with fire, defied their men and stood up for sisterhood
If Charles Dickens had lived to a biblical age, he would be 200 years old this week. His books are all still in print, but do people read them? Do young girls read them, unless they are dutifully bettering themselves? Maybe, maybe not. Dickens drew some immortal young characters, but the ones who were most popular back in his day seem a bit pink-blooded for our taste. It's not just that they are so very good, but they seem to belong in a Tamil movie, squeaking their dialogue at a pitch of eight and a half, panting for a hero to rescue them. All those rich guardians appearing out of the woodwork, all that fainting. When we're not watching Tamil movies, we expect our heroines to show more initiative than Dickens's girl-women. We expect them to fight their oppressors, or at least outsmart them, and to delight in something more than a tidy house and jingling keys at the end of it all.
Dickens himself seemed to set up these good girls as cut-outs. Behind those cut-outs he created his other women, much to our relief and possibly his own — Edith Dombey in Dombey and Son, Honoria Dedlock in Bleak House, Lou Bounderby in Hard Times.
They are the haughty, disdainful, furious women, the women with a past. They haven't sinned, only been sold by their parents in a high-end market. They are tall, they are regal, they glow in silk and jewels under their chandeliers. Take away all that bling and they would still be regal. To a modern reader, the most satisfying thing about Dickens's other women is the way they roast the overstuffed, vain men who have acquired them in a perpetual flame of silent scorn. They never smile, they would not dream of laying love at the feet of their buyers, and certainly they do not succumb to the cads salivating out in the hallway. They have handed over their bodies, but their souls are untouchable.
There is fierce nobility in those women. They are not the sainted mothers of Victorian sentiment. (How could they be, when their own mothers have let them down?) But to protect their younger sisters, step-daughters and even their maids, they play with fire, they sacrifice their reputations, and sometimes they sacrifice their lives. For those stout acts of sisterhood we could call them proto-feminists, if they had only won a small slice of victory for themselves. But in giving up for the good of others they are as sincere as Esther Summerson, Agnes Wickham and the other “good girls”. The future, in Victorian novels and in Tamil movies, can never belong to the woman with a past.
And then there's Great Expectations, in which Dickens broke all his own rules. Estella Havisham is his golden heroine here, but she is not good, and she is not even a girl. She is born a woman, moulded by the bitter Miss Havisham into a scornful and proud tease just to break men's hearts, and ultimately sold in marriage to a brute. Dickens wrote two endings for that novel, and in one of them he hinted that Estella is reunited with the man who is devoted to her. So Estella, bought, sold, soiled as she is, still may have a future.
Is that why Great Expectations has been adapted for film in modern dress, when so few other Dickens novels have? Though there is a South African version of Oliver Twist, and Hollywood has played atrociously with A Christmas Carol, most film adaptations of Dickens stick to their stagecoaches and bonnets. The modern-dress Great Expectations stars Gwyneth Paltrow as the glossy, emotionally stunted Estella, brought up by a faded celebrity in New Orleans, and Ethan Hawke as the gawky object of her sexual taunts. They must grow up and find out where they belong, all while being manipulated by the inscrutable lawyer, their benefactress, that poor convict, and predatory men. In a Victorian novel, we wouldn't quite know where to put Estella, but in our time she fits right in, and most certainly she has a future.