fredag 30 juli 2010

That pill Florence

It's high time for a Dickens-related entry. I have taken my blog name from one of his characters after all, as well as my blog picture. Maybe I should feel a bit guilty about the latter part, as although I support Georgiana wholeheartedly, I cannot say the same for Florence Dombey. The reason I pinched a picture of her is that I imagine she and Georgiana look quite alike - the same dark, timid, corkscrew-haired, slightly droopy look. There are other similarities as well: they are both shy girls, dominated by a pompous father, who have a great deal of growing-up to do. However, there are differences as well, and in my opinion they are not in Florence's favour.

Dickens's heroines are often a lot more appealing than their reputation as tiresome goody-goodys suggest. Esther Summerson's insecurity, due to a loveless childhood, explains why she is so jubilantly grateful for every kind word and deed, and she is no ninny: her summing-up of characters like Skimpole and Mr Turveydrop can be quite caustic. Amy Dorrit may take her self-sacrifice on behalf of her father too far (giving up her lunch for him! No wonder her height gets stunted), but her love for Mr Clennam, hopeless as it seems for the most part of the book, is both warm and touching. Little Nell is hardly my favourite character in "The Old Curiosity Shop" - I think she only barely makes it to the top ten, after Kit's pony - but she is surprisingly plucky, and no, you do not feel any desire at to laugh when she cops it. Please read the book before you feel tempted to quote Wilde's quip. Hopeless Dora Spenlow knows she's hopeless, which is rather poignant, and Agnes Wickfield, though suffering from an excess of good judgement, does have strength of character. Remember, she tries more than once to correct David's slushy "good angel" picture of her, with indifferent success. Generally, Dickens's heroines have a great deal more spine than they are given credit for, which is needed as they more or less have to drag the hapless heroes to the altar. Dickens often spins out his plots for a few additional chapters by making the heroes convince themselves in some tortous way that they are unworthy of the heroine's affection and cannot possibly propose to her. What's a poor girl to do, except confess her love and risk the rejection her swain shies away from?

Having said all that, there are Dickens heroines who really are as wet as they seem, and Florence Dombey in "Dombey and Son" is one of them. She is usually criticised for not standing up to her father. What surprised me, on the other hand, is that she doesn't stand up for her father. She is supposed to be the perfect devoted daugther, yet everything she does - or does not do - only brings the already sorely tried Mr Dombey more grief, that is, until their final reconciliation, after which she can finally become his Amy Dorrit. That she should cling first to her mother, then to her little brother, in such a desperate way is not difficult to understand, although I understood Mr Dombey's feeling of being shut out, especially in the case of little Paul. The siblings hardly seem to spare him a thought when they are together. What is harder to grasp from the devoted daughter perspective is why Florence leeches on to Edith Granger, née Skewton, later mrs Dombey - or vile Edith, as I call her. Not once during the deeply unhappy marriage between Dombey and vile Edith does Florence try to use her influence with her stepmother to bring about a reconciliation. Instead, she makes things worse by indirectly accusing her father of sending Walter Gay to his death (as she thinks) and confessing, wobbly-lipped, that she is "not a favourite child". She does more to blacken her father in vile Edith's eyes than Carker. I'm sure this is not deliberate, but one could be forgiven for thinking that Florence in a passive-aggressive way makes sure that her dad will not get the love he needs from anyone else, as he does not want any love from her. After all, she is happy enough to take her stepmother to task once Mr Dombey has finally capitulated in her arms.

I think a way of understanding Florence is to remember how young she is - she is practically a child and shows no signs of wanting to enter the adult world. That would also explain her strong reaction when meeting James Carker: she "recoil[s] as if she had been stung". Now, Carker is Dickens's sexiest villain. To some, that might not be saying a lot - no more than if you commended a frog for being the sexiest in the swamp. But coming from me, this is high praise indeed. I will cut my gushing short this time: suffice to say that he is both incredibly brainy and handsome. But he is also, undoubtedly, a representative of the adult world, and his insinuating ways would probably seem disquieting to a girl who does not want to grow up.

Nevertheless, Florence will never be a favourite heroine of mine. In one of the Jeeves and Wooster novels, a character congratulates himself for having escaped an engagement to "that pill Florence" (not Miss Dombey, naturally). I'm afraid it is as "that pill Florence" that I will always regard Florence Dombey.