Even in Dickens’ own lifetime, critics and readers were complaining that he didn’t understand women. Yes, he could create magnificent grotesque caricatures such as Mrs Gamp in Martin Chuzzlewit or meekly simpering virgins (invariably described as ‘dear’ and ‘little’) such as Esther Summerson in Bleak House. But for anything beyond monsters or paragons, for the grey areas of ordinary female psychology, explored in all their subtle shades by his contemporaries George Eliot and Anthony Trollope, Dickens had no feeling. Or so it has often been said.
Such a view needs qualifiying. Dickens is not a novelist to whom one looks for ‘realistic’ representations of any sort of ‘ordinary’ human behaviour, male or female, but alongside his black grotesques and white virginals one can also point to some very acute characterisations of women painted in other strong colours: Nicholas Nickleby’s dippy mother, for example, or the bitter and frustrated Rosa Dartle in David Copperfield, or the blinkered philanthropist Mrs Jellyby in Bleak House. Dickens may never have succeeded in portraying any woman with a depth equal to George Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke or Trollope’s Glencora Palliser, let alone Flaubert’s Emma Bovary or Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina,. But who else could have imagined Flora Finching (Little Dorrit) or Miss Flite (Bleak House)?
Great Expectations contains several such powerfully vivid female figures who transcend caricature to take on a distinctively Dickensian form of life. Outstanding among them is Miss Havisham: like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, her name has passed into the common currency of our culture, causally referred to whenever people want to describe someone living in seclusion, imprisoned by the past.
Nobody who reads the novel ever forgets her first appearance in Chapter 8, in which her decrepitude is so richly and evocatively described. To Pip’s childish eyes, she at first seems like a fairy-tale witch - half-waxwork, half-skeleton, garlanded with jewels but surrounded by stopped clocks, dust and mould:
I saw that everything within my view which ought to be white, had been white long ago, and lost its lustre, and was faded and yellow. I saw that the bride within the bridal dress had withered like the dress, and like the flowers, and had no brightness left but the brightness of her sunken eyes. I saw that the dress had been put upon the rounded figure of a young woman, and that the figure upon which it now hung loose, had shrunk to skin and bone.
Yet as the novel progresses she becomes more pitiable than sinister, as her plan to wreak revenge on the man who betrayed her explodes in her face and twists the novel’s moral perspective. She has reared Estella to be la belle dame sans merci of Keats’ poem, the woman whose beauty seduces men and then breaks their hearts. ‘Beggar him,’ Miss Havisham instructs Estella, when Pip plays cards with her for the first time, and she gets her wish inasmuch as Pip goes on to become hopelessly and miserably infatuated with someone who is emotionally cauterised and incapable of loving him back.
But Miss Havisham isn’t the ruthless creature that she has vowed to be, and as which Dickens perhaps at first conceived her. Ironically, at the same time as she gloats over Pip’s futile passion for Estella, she becomes fond of the boy and volunteers to pay the indentures for his apprenticeship (as well as agreeing later in the novel to Pip’s request for help for Herbert Pocket). Even more ironically, what destroys her is the realisation that Estella’s loveless nature will crush not only Pip and the girl’s other suitors but herself as well. Estella’s coldness breaks Miss Havisham’s heart a second time.
‘So proud, so proud,’ moaned Miss Havisham, pushing away her grey hair with both her hands.
‘Who taught me to be proud?’ returned Estella. ‘Who praised me when I learnt my lesson?’
‘But to be proud and hard to me!’ Miss Havisham quite shrieked, as she stretched out her arms. ‘Estella, Estella, Estella, to be proud and hard to me!’ (Chapter 38 )
(This episode, incidentally, is very similar in tone and temperature to passages in Chapters 30 and 37 of Dombey and Son, written twelve years before Great Expectations, in which Mrs Skewton rails at her daughter Edith, whose cynical marriage to the wealthy widower Paul Dombey she has herself connived at. Comparison of the scenes suggests Dickens’ readiness to exploit the standard formulas of melodrama.
In Chapter 49, Miss Havisham achieves the redemption of self-knowledge. She falls on her knees before Pip in an agony of remorse for the way she ‘stole [Estella’s] heart away and put ice in its place’. The compassion Pip now learns to feel for her has a parallel in the compassion he learns to feel for Magwitch. At this point Dickens could have let her live on as a kindly old lady in a rosy cottage – and in his early novels, he would probably have done so – but in his artistic maturity, he must have seen that this would have struck a falsely sentimental note, and instead flames consume her in an accident that has an element of suicide as well as divine justice.
Estella is a more conventional figure, a version of the type of unattainable maiden common in Renaissance poetry (as in As You Like It where Orlando calls Rosalind ‘the fair, the chaste, and unexpressive she’). She inspires in Pip a frenzy of one–sided emotion which has no hope of growing into real and fertile love: it is, as Barbara Hardy puts it, ‘without tenderness, without illusion; it reveals no desire to confer happiness upon the beloved; it is all self-absorbed need.’ Pip knows this too. ‘I knew to my sorrow, often and often, if not always, that I loved her against reason, against promise, against peace, against hope, against happiness, against all discouragement that could be ‘(Chapter 29). Such love is doomed.
It has often been noted that Estella’s name is one which Dickens coined out of the Latin Stella (meaning ‘star’) and the French Estelle, and that it could also be regarded as a partial, encoded anagram of Ellen Ternan, the young woman with whom Dickens had fallen in love and who at the time of his writing Great Expectations may well have been resisting his advances.
But Pip’s relationship to Estella could also have been inspired by Dickens’ memory of his three-year, unconsummated infatuation with the banker’s daughter Maria Beadnell - a period when, like Pip, he was in his early 20s nervous of his social status, but full of expectations of gentlemanliness and dreams of worldly success. The courtship terminated in 1833 following Maria’s ‘displays of heartless indifference’; Dickens returned her letters, and they lost touch. However, twenty-two years later, in 1855, they began corresponding again and Dickens admitted to her that ‘whatever of fancy, romance, energy, passion, aspiration and determination belong to me, I have never separated and never shall separate from the hard-hearted little woman – you.’ But their reunion was a disaster – Maria Beadnell has become a plump garrulous bourgeois housewife, and Dickens was terribly disillusioned.
Estella is not someone who is frigid because she has never known love: Miss Havisham has doted on her, but in doing so has turned her into an instrument of her will. As Estella says to Pip in Chapter 33, “We have no choice, you and I, but to obey our instructions. We are not free to follow our own devices, you and I.’ She has been left not so much dammed up as frozen. ‘ “Oh! I have a heart to be stabbed in or shot in, I have no doubt” ’ she says in Chapter 29. ‘ “But I have no softness there, no – sympathy - sentiment - nonsense.” ’ Her only mode of feeling is a sort of sado-masochism which leads her to taunt Pip and then punish herself by marrying the appalling Bentley Drummle, who duly abuses her. To what extent her suffering has humanised her is left unclear in both of the novel’s endings. Dickens does not sentimentalise the result of what she has learnt: one cannot imagine Estella becoming like David Copperfield’s Agnes or Arthur Clennam’s Little Dorrit, affectionate gentle wives who become affectionate, gentle mothers. Estella remains sterile.
In finely judged contrast, Dickens presents as the other potential candidate for Pip’s hand in marriage the charmless and priggish Biddy, who also serves as the book’s firm compass of righteousness. Dickens was not a reader of Jane Austen, but Biddy has something of Fanny Price in Mansfield Park about her. She is ungenerous and even chippy in her tart, tight-lipped response to Pip’s understandable desire to improve his lot and better himself, and Pip is not wrong when in Chapter 19 he accuses her of being ‘envious’ and ‘grudging’ in her attitude to his good fortune. It’s clear that her tart tone reflects her disappointment that Pip’s amorous interests don’t lie in her direction. But in a book which preaches sticking to your station and making the most of what you have got rather than wasting your life in dreams, she is rewarded with a kind, respectable husband in Joe, a son and a daughter and low-level happiness and fulfilment.
In further contrast to both Biddy and Estella is Pip’s elder sister, Joe’s first wife. It would be easy to write Mrs Joe off as the prose to Miss Havisham’s poetry - a farcical termagant, thwacking her menfolk until she herself gets thwacked, like something out of a Bugs Bunny cartoon. But Dickens sees more in her than that. A desperate housewife, she cooks, scrubs and maintains firm domestic order, while being troubled with a nervous anxiety and expectation of disaster which entirely bypasses her serenely good-natured but naïve and dim-witted husband. Lumbered with responsibility for her orphaned baby brother Pip but denied her own children, she has a hard lot, and even as one laughs at her needless aggression, one can guess at her suppressed misery and frustration. In Chapter 2, Dickens brilliantly illustrates her edge of hysteria in his depiction of the violence with which she butters a piece of bread and doses Pip with tar water.
The transformation of her personality after the attack in Chapter 16 is not only medically plausible - Dickens was often an extraordinarily astute clinician in his observation of psychological disorders - but very moving too, especially in Biddy’s unelaborated account of her final moments in Chapter 35. Mrs Joe is as much a victim of circumstance as Estella.
Other women who appear more peripherally in the novel are throwbacks to Dickens’ gallery of female types, and they are kept in the background: we hear scarcely a word, for example, from Wemmick’s prim amour Miss Skiffins or Herbert Pocket’s dear little Clara Barley, but from what little we see of them, neither would be out of place in Dickens’ earliest work. Jaggers’ housekeeper (and perhaps his mistress?) Molly provides one of the great dramatic frissons of the novel, when Jaggers forces her in Chapter 26 to show her scarred wrist to the boys at the Finches’ dinner party, foreshadowing the revelations in Chapter 50. But she never enters the novel’s mainstream or gets to meet her daughter.
So what role do women play in Great Expectations? This is not a novel about greed or avarice: Pip is careless about money, not grasping of it. What motivates his desire to be a gentleman isn’t a lust for riches or possessions, but the hope that elegant manners and status will allow him to win the beautiful and alluring love-object he craves: Estella is Pip’s inspiration, as he explains in Chapter 29, ‘the clue by which I am to be followed into my poor labyrinth’, and he adores her ‘against reason, against promise, against peace, against hope, against, happiness, against all discouragement that could be.’ Women in Great Expectations can represent the grimmer of life’s daily realities – that is the part entrusted to Biddy and Mrs Joe - but in Estella (and Miss Havisham), they also represent its romantic dream. Without Estella, Pip would never have left the forge. Remember what Dickens wrote to Maria Beadnell: ‘whatever of fancy, romance, energy, passion, aspiration and determination belong to me, I have never separated and never shall separate from the hard-hearted little woman – you.’ Pip echoes this in Chapter 45, when he tells Estella: ‘You are part of my existence, part of myself … you have been in every line I have ever read … you have been in every prospect I have ever seen … the embodiment of every graceful fancy that my mind has ever been acquainted with.”
Estella may at one level destroy Pip (who can love no other woman, not even Biddy); but at another level, she makes him what he is.