Summer 1986 • Vol. VIII No. 3 Nonfiction |

Alluring Vacancies in the Victorian Character

"I have a great deal of difficulty in beginning to write my portion of these pages, for I know I am not clever."1 Even hardened critics refuse to believe Dickens's Esther Summerson: our livelihood depends on there being more to her than she says. We may dislike her, we may even find her "disastrously unsuccessful, irritating, and repelling" (as Robert Garis does),2 but we are repelled—if we are—because we think she is hiding herself to win our love. In nineteenth-century novels and in Victorian life as well, women were supposed to embody an integrity of being that offered ballast to the excruciating complexities of men and the painful falsifications of the society they made. Female identities, in art and in life, were squeezed into one-dimensional stock roles: daughter, ingenue, wife, fallen woman, mother, aunt, old maid, widow, even Queen. These roles assured those who loved women that they were what they said they were—Esther Summerson jingling her keys was Dame Durden to

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