When it comes to women, Charles Dickens could only present the eccentric, the imbecile or the shrew, said the Victorian writer George Gissing, a trifle tartly, though with perhaps a modicum of accuracy.
But there is more to Dickens’ challenging, smart, and yes, deranged women, who suffer in various ways.
They know they are victims of other people’s actions, of society’s expectations or of their own desires, but cannot find a way of dealing with this knowledge other than becoming trapped in a pattern of destructive behaviour.
A Gothic icon
What do you do when your fiancé calls off the wedding just as you are getting ready for the ceremony? If you’re Miss Havisham, you stay in your bridal array for ever, never leave your house again, swear to get revenge on men and become a Gothic icon of craziness.
Miss Havisham, the jilted bride for whom life stopped on her wedding day, is one of literature’s most enduring images of eccentricity and madness.
The embittered woman seeing out her days in her yellowing, decaying wedding dress, guarding the mouldy wedding cake which is like a black fungus swarming with blotchy spiders, has become a symbol of disappointed love and the vengeful power of a woman scorned.
The imaginative creation is so powerful that any attempts to consider her character with 21st Century sensibility only dilute our response to the grotesque nature of her existence.
We can talk about hysteria, and distortion, and trauma and the rest, but actually we don’t want to understand, we want to be sucked in and gasp at the spectacle.
What do you do if you’re the girl who Miss Havisham adopts and trains to be a breaker of men’s hearts?
If you’re Estella, you perfect a cold, icy persona, you hone your ability to manipulate, demean and insult, and you torment the decent men who fall under your spell. Job done.
Not quite, though. Estella behaves like an obedient puppet, but she is painfully aware of the destructive influence that has shaped her.
The sad thing is, in spite of her in-your-face arrogance, she doesn’t have the confidence to cut the puppet strings, and she lives with a heart of ice, unable to experience or understand real emotion. In a surge of self-destruction, she marries a brute who is only after her money, and is violent towards her.
The passions of Mrs Joe
What do you do if you you’re a 20-year-old girl who has buried both of your parents and five brothers, and are the sole carer of the one surviving child?
If you’re Mrs Joe, you marry a kind, non-assertive man who has a steady job and is more than happy to take on the child, and you then proceed to make the lives of your husband and son a misery.
The black humour with which Mrs Joe’s liberal use of the stick is conveyed does not blind us to the cruelty of her actions.
Joe and Pip, the youngster, live in fear of her temper. She is a cauldron of seething resentment, and an early player of the martyr card, visualised in the apron, bristling with pins and needles, which she wears all the time.
Mrs Joe is attacked by their workman and becomes a brain-damaged invalid, a punishment, it seems, for her uncontrolled violence. But there are intriguing hints about the other passions beating beneath her apron.
She provokes the fight between her husband and the workman which precipitates the attack on her, and goads Joe to beat up the fellow. Watching the fight seems to excite her, and afterwards she is strangely gentle and conciliatory with the man who laid her low.
The depictions of these fascinating women are strong and vibrant enough to withstand our psychological probing, but modern understanding of mental states enhances our understanding and leads us to regard the characters with compassion rather than horror and disgust.
If only someone had said, ‘Come on, Miss H, plenty more fish in the sea and you know what, he wasn’t worth it,’ who knows what might have happened? (Actually, someone did, but she didn’t listen. Well, we all know that one.)
And Estella might have been encouraged to get in touch with her feelings on a nice retreat in Skyros or somewhere similar.
As for Mrs Joe, she might have been encouraged to ditch the apron in favour of something a little slinkier and sexier…now there’s a whole other story.