Friday, January 14, 2011


Books That Beat Their Iconic Sibling-Books: Great Expectations vs. Dombey and Son

HAIIRPINNNNN!!! (Imagine arena-rock-style shout.) Did everyone finish VILLETTE?!?! DO YOU WANT SOME MORE?!?!

(Now I get real quiet, and a roadie brings out a stool and I sit down and get confessional before the acoustic ballad.) Hairpin, I thought a lot about what girl-book to talk about next. I was going to go with Mansfield Park > Pride and Prejudice, but ... do I really believe that? Then I was thinking something by Edith Wharton, but her two most famous books are also her best books, and are basically equally famous (House of Mirth > Age of Innocence, fwiw). Girl, what I’m trying to tell you is, I’m taking this weirdly seriously. So you have to believe it when I say: you have to read Dombey and Son exactly right now.

Dickens generally isn’t a big enough part of the lady-canon. I'm genuinely certain that I could walk up to any one of you on the street and whisper “any single man in posession of a good fortune ...” and you’d whisper “... must be in want of a wife,” we’d make the handoff, and Minsk would be plunged into darkness. Dickens, meanwhile, well, yeah, you’ve read some, but how am I supposed to know what? In fact, if anything, I'd guess you’ve read Great Expectations, which somehow got a reputation as Dickens for Girls, probably because Miss Havisham = Carrie Bradshaw. This is a terrible state of affairs, I hate that book, and because of it I thought I hated Dickens until two years ago. False, I do not, and you don't either.

But what Dickens should we all flash mob on? If you go around just asking any fool, they will (if they know better than to send you to Great Expectationzzzzz) probably send you to one of his Serious Books while telling you how mature and complex they are, which is how manly men justify reading anything by the same goonshoe who wrote A Christmas Carol (these people also probably hate Hard Times, unto which I say it’s about circus people, what is even your problem?). The Very Serious Books are Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend, and then a rotating third, either A Tale of Two Cities or David Copperfield. Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend are both amazing and ridiculous and I highly recommend them. Also, the Bleak House miniseries is really good (and so is Little Dorrit, if we're talking miniseries). But it is far, far more urgent that you read Dombey and Son, which has somhow gotten a reputation as sort of second-string Dickens. It’s the goofy little sister who travels around with Our Mutual Friend and Bleak House and everyone’s all, "well, she would be as pretty and charming as them, if she took better care of her nails and maybe went for some accent coaching."  Fuck that, let’s go be her cool aunt and go out to the back porch where she’s unsneakily sneaking a cigarette and tell her don’t be down, someday someone’s going to see how special she is, also too-nice nails make you look like a robot anyway.

Of course I wouldn’t even bother to comment if Dombey ONLY had the basics of an excellent book for ladies who love lady books: terrible adults, death-in-childbirth, meddling spinsters, moor-wandering, surprise prostitutes who are, yes, fucked up, but not condescended to. It has all this, of course. But it’s not just a good snowed-in read, it will make you think so hard about yourself in the most delish way. Here, in no real order, are seven reasons why it is better than all the other books except, obviously, Villette.

(1) Fantastic inter-lady dynamics all around. I don’t know whether Dickens was just totally empathetic, a master of mimicry or if, you know, ladies are basically just humans, but I think he creates more exquisite and real relationships between his female characters than any other apparantly male English writer of that century, and probably a bunch of other centuries too. In fact, than anyone but Jane Austen? Hmmm. Floy Dombey herself is a bit of a cipher, but earns flesh through her interactions with Toodles, Nipper, and Edith Dombey nee Skewton (ugghhh that one is so heartbreaking) in a way that somehow seems a lot real-er, to me, than starting from her personality and working outwards.

(2) Edith Dombey nee Skewton, generally. Beautiful ice queen whose heart warms to her stepdaughter. For you Bleak House readers, she was like, Lady Dedlock’s thesis advisor at Bitch School. Plus, because she is, to her husband Paul Dombey Sr., basically a display case, we get some both excellent jewelry descriptions AND some Dallas-quality ripping-off-jewelry descriptions.

She had better have turned hideous and dropped dead, than have stood up with such a smile upon her face, in such a fallen spirit’s majesty of scorn and beauty. She lifted her hand to the tiara of bright jewels radiant on her head, and, plucking it off with a force that dragged and strained her rich black hair with heedless cruelty, and brought it tumbling wildly on her shoulders, cast the gems upon the ground. From each arm, she unclasped a diamond bracelet, flung it down, and trod upon the glittering heap.

Marry: the jewelry, Fuck: Edith Dombey, Kill: Paul Dombey, Sr.

(4) The Edith-Paul Sr. marriage generally, argh. I don’t even know how to describe it as anything but the most upsetting marriage in all of human history except for Dorothea and Mr. Causabon in Middlemarch, but I don’t want to make you read another book before you read this book, but you should read Middlemarch anyway so I’m just going to go with that.

You know, in general, you don't get a lot of Victorian era Bad Marriages right up in your face, either it's a happily ever after, or they quietly go off to separate mansions and deal with it that way. Pretty bracing to watch the Dombeys just crumble in front of you.

(5) Well if it’s a bad idea why does she marry him? Because Dickens is very astute about love as a learned behavior, and abuse perpetuating abuse, and alcoholic parents fucking you up, etc. Even the worst baddies in this book are sympathetic because damaged, and damaged in ways that resonate generally, not damaged like, AHEM, “I’m just so saaaaaad that I have to keep a crazy person locked in my attic.” My No. 2 pet peeve (after No. 1, people not just getting that Dickens is a lady/lady writer) is criticism that treats Dickens like a Social Novelist, writing about times and patterns and injustices and not about psychology, like those are totally not connected at all. Anyway, that distinction is (a) bullshit and (b) totally elided in this book, more than in any other Dickens.

(6) Meanwhile, the other main pairing, between Floy and Will, should be totally creepy since groomed from childhood etc. (Second confidential to Bleak House readers: ugh John Jarndyce ugh, ugh.) But it actually is shockingly moving, maybe because it’s clear he, whatever kind of other ish he has, has a chance at living a life without much cruelty in it, and giving poor Floy the same?

(7) Economics: Ocean v. Trains

People also say this is a book about Dickens just hating trains because he was in a train accident, but I think he hates trains like he hates Edith Dombey. Like her, they are created by man, but now have the capacity to overpower him, they are speedy, shimmering, sickening. Yes, they rip up the countryside and bankrupt ... I think they’re called merchant marines? Is that what those are? But they also sometimes run over bad people totally out of nowhere and enrich the worthy Toodles family. The sea, meanwhile, permits cozy customs-houses and is beautiful, and then seafaring, we’ve been doing that forever, it’s gotta be good right? Never so simple in Dickens: the sea is good but also cruel and chaotic and killing nice guys and lapping at the edges of the whole novel calmingly/ominously/there are giant squids down there you guys, how can a train be worse than that, their eyes are as big as serving plates.

Previously: Jane Eyre vs. Villette.

Carrie Hill Wilner loves to read.

40 Comments / Post A Comment


Love this. More please!


Please don't ever stop writing this feature.

Jenn K.


If you can get me to read Dickens, you are really somethin', m'dear.


Dickens?!? oooh god. Ok. I was waiting for your next rec (am loving Villette!-- although: way too much french) so I will trust you. But with difficulty because Dickens is a chore.


I mentioned this on the other Villette thread. So much French! I gave up halfway through about a year ago. Maybe I will try again, after hearing all the raves.
But really, how are people reading it? Do you all just know French (and thus I should be ashamed of my poor choice of Spanish in high school)? Do you skip over the French dialogue and figure it doesn't matter? Do you have a version that translates it into English?
Inquiring minds, etc.


my strategy has been the 'skipping over and hoping for the best' method. and also context clues! she actually does sorta recap the french bits a lot of the time. anyway, give it another go! i am really enjoying all the non-french parts!

Carrie Hill Wilner

(1)I don't think they are saying anything that important in French, like, it mostly just establishes when things are wierdforeign and when righteousenglish BUT (2)I just gave someone the book and noticed the Modern Library edition (I think, it has a lady on the cover looking all hmmmmm and a little dancing guy)has all the passages translated.


You have almost convinced me to read this. ALMOST. I've read my fair share of Dickens (Great Expectations, Hard Times, Bleak House, Little Dorritt, Christmas Carol, David Copperfield, Our Mutual Friend, Oliver Twist) and he never fails to make me want to beat my face in at least a little.

If they made this into a BBC mini-series I would probably watch it though…

Carrie Hill Wilner

Look, just read it, and if you hate it, I will personally give you those hours of your life back.


Love this column, as an former Victorian English major. In college I had to read Great Expectations, Little Dorrit, Bleak House and Daniel Deronda over the course of a few months. My boyfriend hates Great Expectations, but I loved it, primarily because at 500 some pages, it took around 2 days to read, not a week and a half like the others (though my favorite was Little Dorrit). So does this mean I am in a small minority of women who've read Dickens?

Please write something about "Mill on the Floss." While Middlemarch is of course a masterpiece, Mill on the Floss remains the favorite.


Wow I wish I could delete my comment above. Daniel Deronda is, of course, by George Elliot. Ugh.

Carrie Hill Wilner

BUT is it better than Middlemarch? Because someone was trying to tell me it was and I was like, IMPOSSIBLE, but if it were, hm, I wonder where I could write about that.


Mill on the Floss is just different, it is strangely more memorable because parts of it are emotionally unresolved (I guess, does this make sense?). The heroine really is fantastic, she is so aware of her life's constraints and the effect it has on her education and life choices. I really loved Middlemarch, I remember thinking that it was basically perfect, but The Mill on the Floss has stayed with me longer (like Villete has--I always found the St. John part of Jane Eyre grating and it dragged the whole thing for me), and I have re-read it a couple times--it's more resonant.

Carrie Hill Wilner

ah wait I typed confusingly I mean is Daniel Deronda better than Middlemarch? Am entirely willing to believe Mill on The Floss is better than anything, based on the title alone.


I didn't really like Daniel Deronda. It is good technically, but is very harrowing. There is a really terrible marriage that is compelling, as Eliot's bad marriage depictions are--I dunno. I would say Middlemarch is better than Daniel Deronda.


Team A Tale of Two Cities, right here.

Seriously. The last 100 pages make the previous 350 you've slogged through SO TOTALLY WORTH IT.

Also, may I suggest a Bronte-off? Namely, one in which The Tenant of Wildfell Hall trounces all other Brontes?
And yes, I am umlat-less.


I can thank Bleak House for both proving my chops as an English major (had to finish it in less than a week--misread the syllabus!) and making sure that I never, ever went to law school. How can something be both such a masterpiece and such a drag at the same time?

tardi to the party

i too love this feature. currently reading and loving villette on gutenburg.org; as for the french--copy and paste into google translate does the trick, tho i would prefer the translation in a nice footnote.

Carrie Hill Wilner

Can I just say how hard it is making like, my life that anyone is reading either Villette or Dombey because of me running my mouth? Serious warmfuzzies, and it is hard to have warmfuzzies bc I just got off a 5 hour flight with an angry, angry baby sitting on my lap the whole way I LOVE YOU, THE INTERNET.


If anyone wants to see an awesome Dickensian-esque british adaptation, I highly recommend "Fingersmith" (based on a book by Sara Waters) It's Dickens' London with lesbians thrown in for good measure. LINK: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0423651/

Ginger Jane

More items on the reading list! Le sigh.


First of all, I love this column truly, madly, and deeply. Second, have you read?? These are the two (besides Villette!!!) that I foist on everybody I know:

1) The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Another Brontë--Anne! Gothic, erotic, feminist, there's a book within a book, gentleman farmers, cruelty, shocking revelations: it has EVERYTHING.

2) Can You Forgive Her? Trollope, who, like Hardy, has the hearthfire AND the Parliament! Men and ladies and jewels and scandal--I can't do it justice now, but as I'm sure you already know, it's racy, exhilarating, kick-ass writing with an antiheroine who makes Scarlett O'Hara look demure and self-denying.

Both of these books will solve all the world's problems if read repeatedly.


For the record, those were em dashes before they got mysteriously foreshortened.

Carrie Hill Wilner

I literally refuse to do anything > anything by Charlotte Bronte. But might consider Wildfell Hall > Wuthering Heights, but then would Kate Bush be mad at me? Will not abide that. Also I feel babd making sisters fight after they are dead! Every time I try to start Trollope I have to stop because it's inevitably exactly about whatever disaster is going on in my life. It seems improbable that my mom will try to steal my husband, see Castle Richmond below, but if I started reading Trollope about this, who knows. So I just need other people to read him, and then whisper the stories to me veryyyy softly so the demons don't hear. Does he have a book about someone who responds to comments on her blog posts about Victorian literature obsessively because she really really really cares about it? Probably.


Trollope would write that book if he were here, or maybe will write that book through one of us in our sleep (cf. Down a Dark Hall). I really think you'll love The Eustace Diamonds. Which is, by the way, the book I meant here, although "Can You Forgive Her?" has a great title that sounds like it should be the title of The Eustace Diamonds. Unfortunately, the supposedly unforgivable act in "Can You?" is a major bait-and-switch, but still, there's a lot of Swiss lakes and engagement angst.

I would LOVE a Wildfell Hall > Wuthering Heights. It would boost the readership of TWH from its current level of zero, which would thrill me.

(And as you can see, I'm coming back to this discussion months later! But these books/thoughts are timeless, right?)


It's been a while since I read Dombey and Son, but isn't Paul Jr. one of the most annoying overly-articulate angel-children Dickens ever created (second only to Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop)? I want to defend Great Expectations as a microcosm of Dickensian themes and characters--shot through with Balzac's appreciation of young delusions and a whole bunch of crazy.

Oh, and... best kept secret of Victorian fiction: Trollope's Castle Richmond. A rich Irish mommy-dearest tries to steal her daughter's do-good-er boyfriend. It's more psychologically astute than most Trollope (and maybe most Victorian fiction minus Eliot, Hardy, and some others). "Psychologically astute" might sound boring to some (it does to me, usually), but this book is so great!

Elisa Jean

Here's the thing: I don't see Dickens as any kind of early feminist with his writing or his personal actions. True, he helped create several houses for "wayward women," places where women who were pregnant out of wedlock could have their children in private and make a decision about what they wanted to do with the child once it was born. But the women who stayed at those places were not just allowed to be. They were given etiquette lessons, religion, and had to dress a certain way. They were basically told that if they didn't conform to Dickens' strict house rules and "improve themselves," they wouldn't be allowed to stay at the house and would be thrown back on the mercy of society to make their way in the world.

Dickens also pushed aside his wife Catherine after she bore him 10 children, claiming she was "too fat" and a bad example of wifely duties, spending as much time with his mistress, 19 year old stage actress Ellen Ternan, as he could. Based on everything I've read about Dickens, I do believe he loved Ellen Ternan, but I think it was a love based on his obsession with 'virginal,' 'ladylike' women. I believe Dickens had an ideal vision of women as pure, untouched, 'ladylike' beings ('ladylike,' in his mind, including having a small waistline, wearing 'proper' clothing that covered most of the body, and having a pleasing demeanor around men - in other words, always being pleasant and not disagreeable).

So while he may have written some interesting women characters in some of his books, the guy definitely had a twisted belief system about women, and treated most of the women in his life as lesser beings, positioning himself as the "great teacher" and "great saver" of their 'lesser intelligence' and 'frail composition.' Any guy who believes he "knows better" than women, that they need his "guidance" in order to flourish, and that they're a "bad example of womanly virtues" if they don't comport themselves in adherence with his strict set of rules and beliefs is not a guy who I believe has anything of value to say about the women characters he creates.

Carrie Hill Wilner

I'm not sure we have any substantive disagreement here. I don't think it's any secret that Dickens was a Victorian Philanthropist 2themax, a set overlapping almost entirely with the kind-of-a-douchebag set. But I also think his own affection for his characters gets the better of these douchebag tendencies in his best books (and NOT in the worst ones, which is why they're the worst). That said, Hard Times was a major catalyst for labor reform, but yes in general personal behavior/politics sketchy. But I don't think I'm suggesting that he's an early feminist for any common value of feminist here. At the most, I'm suggesting that his characterizations can be surprisingly useful and enjoyable for contemporary feminists/teenage girls/people interested in nuanced depictions of femininity to encounter and dwell upon.


"...she was like, Lady Dedlock’s thesis advisor at Bitch School."

I can haz brain transplant please? Bleak House is too AMA to be Very Serious. Also, Dombey and Sons was one of the writing examples on my AP English test a decade ago, and I still remember reading the passage and being like, "Booyah suckers, I've totally read it!"


First, I have to say thanks for your essay on Villette, because it got me to read Villette. I still prefer Jane Eyre, but it was so good to branch outside of the usual classics, and now I'm reading The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

But this is not entirely off topic, because I wanted to respond to a statement in the first part of this essay re: Edith Wharton. Have you read The Custom of the Country or The Mother's Recompense? I won't go into plot summary except to say that the first features a totally venal social climber named...Undine Spragg (yep) who is despicable and un-put-downable. The second is about a louche mother who abandons her upper-class family for, essentially, great sex. She winds up being Eurotrash only to get called back to the states for her daughter's wedding to one of her former lovers. Judith Krantz wishes she could write as juicily as Wharton. Then there's also The Reef and Summer...none of these books are better than the two big guns you mention, but they are AWFULLY good.

Love the essays, by the way. Your eye for detail and unbridled enthusiasm makes me want to pick up every book you recommend. Can't wait for the next installment!


What about Pickwick Papers? It's pretty funny and features some great descriptions of food, if you're into that kind of thing. Which I am.

Carrie Hill Wilner

Pickwick! I picked it up what must be almost exactly 16 months ago then literally went into labor that second so never finished? Now I'm scared if I pick it up again I'll have another surprisebaby. Very Special Episode of I Didn't Know I Was Pregnant. Am ON the Edith Wharton rec, as soon as finish my current Forster (Italian novels, not Indian) kick. On it on it on it.

Carrie Hill Wilner

That makes it sound like my first baby was a surprise baby, which was not the case, except insofar as all babies are kind of a huge surprise.


Surprisebaby --> Hah! Let me know what you think of the Whartons. I would love to read an essay from you on any of them.

Speaking of Forster novels, a few weeks ago Julian Sands was in my yoga class. George! Still handsome as all get out, and I'm not even into blonds.

Sara Keeth@twitter

OK, this "Books that Beat" business is the best feature I've ever read, in the history of ever. "...Lady Dedlock’s thesis advisor at Bitch School"? Wa hahahaha! Awesome. Thank you for making my day.


Yay! So glad that Dickens is featured here. Bleak House pretty much changed my view on ol' Charles, as I became heavily invested in it (also, as you say, the mini-series is le shit, and Gillian Anderson is amazeballs). Also, Middlemarch is next on my list, AFTER Dombey, because it seems so great from the way you describe it.

And also, I have a big crush on Edith Wharton. You want to do yourself a favor? Pick up Twilight Sleep, Wharton's take on the Fitzgeraldy Jazz Age. It's got a Birth Control League! Lots of critics think it's kind of crappy and all over the place, but that quality only adds to the desperation of characters trying so hard to grasp an ever-changing and quickly-modernizing world.


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