Sunday, March 16, 2008


I am something of a feminist. You've been warned.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008


Bradley Headstone and Eugene Wrayburn, characters in “Our Mutual Friend,” are rivals for the affections of Lizzie Hexham. They come from the opposite ends of the social scale: one is described as born a “pauper lad,” and the other is the son of an improvident upper-class landowner. The first has repressed half his nature under the pressure of striving towards a goal, education. He has paid a heavy toll. The second has no goal. Birth has brought him social position without effort or merit on his part; he has no ambition and is involved with no-one but himself. He too is only half alive.

These two men are natural antagonists.

Bradley Headstone

When we look at Bradley Headstone, we see more than just a twisted, driven man, we see a man shaped (or rather misshaped) by a social system: the British class system. Under this system at its most rigid, a man was what he was born; the aristocracy (or upper class) were privileged in perpetuity; the lower class were there to serve the upper class, and “to know their place.”

I came across an apposite quote recently, in a charming fantasy named “The War for the Oaks,” by Emma Bull. A character says:

“. . . . where there are those who think themselves noble folk, there must
be some poor sod to play the commoner.”

In other words, it is no fun being an “upper,” if there are no “lowers” for you to look down on.

In this instance, Bradley Headstone is the “poor sod.”

The class system was strongly supported by organized religion, which claimed that God has designated the class into which a person was born and that it was blasphemous to interfere with God’s design (a very convenient rationalization for the rich). There were many evil consequences of this system (some of which continue to this day in Britain), but one of the worst was the undermining of confidence in the lower classes. They had to struggle for even basic education, and inferiority was pounded into them, no matter their ability or intelligence. A ceiling was placed on their endeavors.

Bradley Headstone is a pauper child, an orphan, raised presumably in the workhouse that Betty Higden dreads and Dickens describes so vividly in “Oliver Twist.” He has had to battle not only with poverty, lack of family and the support that a family gives, lack of an educated background (and he undoubtedly had a lower class accent, that most visible of class distinctions), but the fact of class prejudice itself. He is a man whose shoulders are deep in chips. He has started with the engrained knowledge that he is inferior, solely because of the accident of birth. Everything he achieves must deal with that.

His opponent, Eugene Wrayburn, on the other hand, starts with the huge advantage that however little he makes of his life, he is still a ‘superior’ being, a gentleman.

When we meet Headstone, we are told that although he ‘looked a thoroughly decent young man of six-and-twenty,’ he is awkward in his neat uniform of black coat and checked pantaloons, as if he is not at home in even such ordinary formal wear as this. We have the impression of a man who is not comfortable in his body. His face is troubled, and is the face belonging to ‘a naturally slow or inattentive intellect that had toiled hard to get what it had won.’ His name, Headstone, presumably implies he is a ‘blockhead.’ (I think Dickens made a mistake here; Headstone the intelligent thwarted man is much more interesting and believable than Headstone the dullard, though not necessarily more deserving.) Headstone’s learning has come hard to him, as well it might; it has taken much labor and persistence for him to achieve it. And if he has had to struggle to overcome a ‘low’ accent, it is no wonder he is not glib in his speech.

The education that he has won so hardly is mainly the learning of facts. He is crammed with information. He knows Latin. But he has not been helped to think, nor has he been exposed to the writings of men who are themselves thinkers. It is scarcely what we today think of as a good education at all.

Putting this much effort into the learning process has entailed, we are told, ‘suppression of so much to make room for so much.’ Early victims of such a life and effort must have been his emotions (though whom had he to love?) and certainly his sexual nature. Yet he is not a naturally cold or detached man. Dickens tells us ‘there was enough of what was animal, and of what was fiery (though smouldering)’still visible in him to suggest that ‘if young Bradley Headstone, when a pauper lad, chanced to be told off for the sea, he would not have been the last man in a ship’s crew.’ In other words, given the opportunity, he might have been a man of action, a leader, though probably a good first mate rather than a captain.

It is highly likely that Bradley Headstone has reached the age of twenty-six without sexual experience. The normal outlet for a working-class man would have been to visit a prostitute, if he could not afford to make an early marriage. But Headstone would not dare to risk his hard-won respectability, the labor he has put into achieving his small success, in such a way. If he were seen he would lose his job and all chance of another. (His early questioning of Charlie Hexham about Lizzie betrays his fear of Charlie entangling him with a woman of the wrong sort, perhaps a loose woman, who would drag him down.) And until he climbed to his present job level, it is unlikely he could have afforded to marry, even if he had the time and opportunity to do so. (He is still poorly paid, a point to remember later when we see Eugene Wrayburn forcing him to take a cab (Wrayburn boasts of this to Mortimer), or Rogue Riderhood extorting money from him.) It may even have been that he was actively discouraged, or forbidden, from marrying young. As late as the 1930s, London bank clerks risked losing their jobs if they were discovered to have married before the age of 30, the reasoning being that, since they were so poorly paid, marriage, children and the demands of a family would tempt them to extravagance and perhaps to dishonesty. (It was, of course, more economical, ‘better business,’ to forbid young men to marry rather than to raise their wages.) And of course such a clerk would have been dismissed if he had been seen in questionable company.

It is no wonder that by the time he meets Lizzie Hexham, Bradley Headstone is a latent volcano, emotions suppressed, instincts battened down, ready to erupt. Lizzie’s beauty is the final touch. For the first time he feels overwhelming physical passion. And Lizzie must seem to him available; she is the sister of his pupil, poor, untutored, not someone who could despise him for his faults of origin. He can teach her, raise her to his level. Of course he could not have married her while she was illiterate.

But with his background, it is hardly to be expected that Headstone would be anything but awkward and clumsy in his approach. And it is doubtful whether he could ever have won Lizzie, with her innate intelligence and romantic imagination, even if there had been no rival for her affections. But there is such a rival.

Eugene Wrayburn

Eugene Wrayburn is a member of the privileged classes. He has had the education of his class, which means attendance at a ‘public’ school, where he would be taught Latin and Greek, but would not necessarily have exposure to literature, philosophy or science, unless his father requested it. His basic education, in fact, is not much better by today’s standards than Headstone’s, but his social experience is far wider. He has no trouble conversing. He is at home in his world. Wrayburn may also have attended a university, but such attendance was often purely a social experience for a member of the upper classes with no particular ambition or talent. He can, of course, take it for granted that his companions are literate. Wrayburn has studied law and is a barrister because his authoritarian father ‘prearranged’ it, not because law interested him. He has no clients. He has little money. Although his father is a member of the landed gentry, the estate is badly encumbered through bad management and profligacy in the past. Even the eldest son, Eugene’s elder brother, the heir, will inherit little; Eugene is expected to make his fortune by marrying money (the fate of the younger son, as told by Colonel Fitzwilliam to Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice). Despite this, he lives as if he has money, and mixes with monied people, and he has the manners and assurance that come from being born to a privileged class and background. There is more to ‘education’ than mere book learning. Eugene has been waited on from childhood, has been addressed as ‘Master Eugene’ by domestics, has been in a position to give orders, and it has been instilled into him that he is a ‘superior’ being.

Eugene seems to have little affection for his family, but that family is there; he knows where he belongs. He does at one time state that he would like to please his father but he resents his father’s wish to marry him to a wealthy wife not of his own choosing. But this is a commonplace. He seems to have few desire of his own. He is doubtless experienced with women. They would be, of course, lower class women, though not necessarily prostitutes. They might have been servants or village girls. Young Master Eugene would have his opportunities. But though his sexual nature has not been repressed, his emotional nature has. He affects an air of disdain, of detachment; in today’s parlance, he would be described as ‘cool.’ He is lazy, selfish, unambitious, careless, arrogant, aimless. And, as we later learn, he has a streak of cruelty.

This is Eugene Wrayburn when he first sees Lizzie Hexham in her bare room, the richness of her hair and complexion glowing in the firelight, her beauty enhanced by the poverty of her surroundings. Perhaps for the first time, Eugene is moved not just by sexual desire, but by emotion. He is touched by Lizzie, by the sadness of her circumstances. When her father is drowned, he makes sure that there is a kindly woman with her when she hears the news. Although his words are careless and he strives to appear indifferent, his actions show that he is affected by her. And he gazes at her with sufficient intensity to make Lizzie aware of him. But he wants her with all the arrogance of his class― he cannot bear to be thwarted. She chooses to disappear from London, hiding from both him and Bradley Headstone, because having glimpsed Headstone in his passion and rage against Wrayburn, she fears Headstone will injure Wrayburn. Thereafter, Wrayburn will do anything, however underhand, to find her. But his intent, however unformulated, is still to make her his mistress. She is a working-class woman; she is not his social equal, Mortimer Lightwood tries to make Eugene admit he can only do her harm. But he continues on his selfish way.

Bradley and Eugene

And so the two men meet. They could never have met on equal terms. Eugene seems hardly to regard Headstone as a fellow human being. He condescends to him, goads him, shows his contempt for him openly before Lizzie and Charlie, her brother, and Mortimer Lightwood. And Headstone, that volcano ready to erupt, is goaded into murderous rage.

Eugene galls Headstone in all his most vulnerable places; as a man of education; as an authority figure; and as a male animal. Eugene makes a fool of him in front of Charlie Hexham whose mentor he is.

Headstone knows that Charlie Hexham looks up to him. To Charlie, he is a model of what Charlie too can become by working and studying. Charlie turns to him for advice. Moreover, Headstone is a young adult male, a suitable consort for Lizzie. Charlie encourages his suit. But Eugene Wrayburn’s casual insolence, his assumption of influence over Lizzie, Lizzie’s obvious preference for him, glamorous figure that he is, downgrade Headstone before his pupil.

When Lizzie, recognizing the emotions she has aroused and the danger Eugene is in, chooses to leave London in secret, she hopes to ameliorate the danger and disarm the two men by removing the cause. But Headstone is no longer reasonable. He persuades himself that Wrayburn must know where Lizzie is and he starts to watch him at night and follow him whenever he leaves his lodgings. Whether Wrayburn admits it or not (he tells Lightwood that he ‘is indifferent as to what they want’), he sees Headstone as a rival for Lizzie’s favors and is as jealous of him as Headstone is of Wrayburn; you do not go out of your way to taunt and provoke someone of total unimportance to you.

There is no indolence about Eugene here. ‘Don’t care’ has been ‘made to care.’ His nature is such that when he discovers that Headstone is watching him, he deliberately chooses to make matters worse. Eugene takes nightly walks through the streets of London in all directions, making poor bedeviled Bradley Headstone tramp for miles before he turns on himself and returns home, delighting in meeting Headstone face to face, only to ignore him contemptuously. In describing these walks to Lightwood, he uses the language of the hunt, treating Headstone as an animal that can be ‘run’ or ‘breathed.’ ‘Come!’ he says to Lightwood. ‘Be a British sportsman, and enjoy the pleasures of the chase . . .’ And, ‘When you are ready, I am ― need I say with a Hey Ho Chivy, and likewise a Hark Forward, Hark Forward, Tantivy!’ And, finally, ‘I am a little excited by the glorious fact that a southerly wind and a cloudy sky proclaim a hunting evening.’

These expressions come from fox hunting. It is the upper classes that hunt in this way; they call what they do ‘sport.’ Wrayburn has deadly sport with Headstone.

After such a night, Wrayburn has plenty of time to catch up with his sleep. But even if Headstone were capable of rest in his inflamed mental state, he is a working man, and must teach school in the daytime. A poor man must also worry about shoe repair, never cheap. It is no wonder he is soon provoked into murderous rage against Wrayburn,, acerbated by lack of sleep and food, but he cannot stop following him.

When reading this book with a group, another member described Headstone as a bad man, ‘the worst in the book,’ but I feel that Wrayburn is far worse. I find nothing bad about Headstone. He is a sick man. He is a man denied manhood; a man goaded beyond his bearing. Wrayburn, the privileged, with his wanton disregard of the rights of other human beings, is much more deserving of the word ‘bad.’ But Dickens makes Wrayburn a much more attractive figure than he does Headstone, along the lines of the careless hero, the ‘rake’ or charming ‘ne’er-do-well’ of Gothic novels. I think it is a pity that Dickens’ own snobbery prevented him from presenting a more balanced pair of rivals.

I speak here of Dickens’ own snobbery, or class prejudice, because that is what I think he displays. I know he is regarded as the spokesman for the poor, a crusader for social justice, etc. But his heroes and heroines are drawn from the middle and upper classes in the best British tradition, while lower class figures are usually comic, eccentric or villainous. This literary tradition, of which Shakespeare is an earlier example, continued in England well into the 20th century. In itself it represents class prejudice (lower class people are naturally coarse or comic; they do not think and feel as upper class people do, who are so much more refined, and therefore do not deserve the same consideration. They are used in many plays or books as comic relief.) And this tradition helps to denigrate the lower classes who may be shown as shrewd, but rarely as intelligent, and therefore helps to preserve class distinctions, and legal discrimination. (‘How could you give the vote to such clowns?’ And, from Punch, ‘What would they do with a bathroom. Keep coal in it?’) This is similar to the way movies used to denigrate African-Americans, by showing fat housemaids and comic railway conductors with rolling eyes.

Interestingly enough, the semi-literate American cowboy, who may have a vocabulary of a hundred words, is perfectly acceptable as a romantic hero.

Dickens does have some exceptions to the rule and Lizzie Hexham is one. However, although she is illiterate, she speaks good basic English with no working class accent, unlikely though this seems under the circumstances. I don’t think Dickens would have had the courage to break with tradition and marry Lizzie off to Eugene Wrayburn if she had dropped her aitches as Pleasant Riderhood does. But a heroine is one thing, a hero is another. Convention allows men to ‘marry down,’ but women are supposed to ‘marry up.’ (Can anyone think of a working-class hero in Dickens? There is Pip, of course, but he is educated (or gentrified) for his change in class. Moreover, the woman he loves is found to have criminal class origins, so cannot be considered ‘above’ him.)

Thomas Hardy and D.H. Lawrence are two British writers who break with the ‘comic’ working-class tradition.

Bradley Headstone is not comic; but Dickens chooses not to show him as Eugene Wrayburn’s equal in intelligence or attractiveness. I see this as an expression of Dickens’ own prejudice.

Final Thoughts: The Position of Women

Neither Headstone nor Wrayburn considers Lizzie an equal. In fact neither of them consider her. She is beautiful and thus is an object of desire. Headstone desires her physically and wants to marry her (his enforced respectability would not allow him to try to seduce her)―but not while she is illiterate. He certainly does not consider that she has a right to choose her own mate. If he had found Wrayburn with her, embracing her, would he have tried to kill them both? And if he had eventually married her, how would he have treated her? Perhaps I am wrong, but think he would have regarded her as a possession, as other authoritarian males do in Dickens’ novels, expecting her obedience, quick to take offence, denying her the rights of an individual, an equal, even while he resents that denial for himself.

This pattern might have been broken if marriage, love, had aroused tenderness in Headstone. He has never been offered any.

Wrayburn also desires Lizzie. He would make her his mistress, a source of pleasure as long as her attraction lasted. Then she would be discarded. He might compensate her as much as his means allowed, but he would not marry her. He does not consider her an equal, but as a source of gratification. It takes his battle with death to change him, to teach him how important she is to him.

While Eugene is still recovering from the injuries Bradley Headstone gave him, he does marry Lizzie. Poor Bradley Headstone gets the satisfaction of beating Wrayburn up, but little more. He is blackmailed by Rogue Riderhood, the lockkeeper, and jumps to his death in the lock pool, taking Riderhood with him.

I am British and working-class by birth. Perhaps that is why I remain on Bradley Headstone’s side. But I am somewhat ashamed of Dickens.

© 1999

Tuesday, March 11, 2008


Like some rough beast making for his lair,
he slouches home across the moors, louche,
lupine, the wind and rain wuthering
round his ears and blustering with him
through the door he slams open. Mud
from his boots mars the fresh scrubbed floor.
He kicks a stool out of his way, tosses
his coat at the pegs on the wall;
it misses and crumples to the ground.

This is no shaggy dog ready to laze before
the fire, wagging its burr-stuck tail:
this is the wolf, his stance a challenge,
brooding, morose, braced for a blow,
ready to return it.

His wife in her parlor looks up from her three-
volume novel at the racket of his arrival.
Her hands tighten on the arms of her chair.
The room is warm and scented with rose petals
and lavender in a porcelain bowl. A log fire
crackles in the grate. The furniture is sparse,
but the cushions in the polished-oak chairs
are blue, the curtains velvet, heavy, made
to shut out the chill blast of the Yorkshire wind.
She is bright and alert as some moorland bird,
soft feathered, but keen of eye. He enters,
disrupting peace, ending tranquility. He shakes
his lank hair, scattering raindrops.
His eyes meet hers.

She propels herself from her chair, arms
strangling his neck-cloth, warm lips meeting
his ice-hard mouth. His arms close round
her, melding her to himself. Wife and husband,
wolf and bird, blur into one.

*Dedicated to Ralph Fiennes

Monday, March 10, 2008

I Have Always Enjoyed Working in an Office

Yes I have. I’m not jiving you. I like desks, and chairs that swivel, stacks of clean white paper, and yellow paper for copies (I’m going back a long way here), and neatly sharpened pencils. Erasers. Crisp black type on bright white paper. Three sizes of envelopes, three sizes of paper—foolscap, quarto, and octavo. Boxes of carbon paper. (Bills of Lading have eight copies, i.e., eight carbons. It took strong fingers. And you couldn’t erase on a Bill of Lading. Don’t think about it.) I love the smell of stationery—inky, papery, erasury. In America, of course, all three sizes of paper are different from the English. Nothing’s easy. And stencils. Remember stencils? No, of course you don’t. There was a key on the typewriter (the manual typewriter) that you used on special waxed paper, and ghostly letters were cut. Then a retired policeman ran the stencil on a special machine, and copies appeared like magic. Stencils were killed by Xerox. I don’t know what happened to the retired policemen. At school, discussing what we’d do when we left, everyone dismissed the idea of a ‘stuffy office.’ Everyone except me. I just said, well, you could always open the window. I hadn’t met air-conditioning then. Correcting mistakes on a typewriter was an art. Good secretaries corrected the carbon(s) as well as the original; bad secretaries did not. What a mess. I, of course, took pride in correcting both letterhead and carbon as neatly as possible! Maybe I’m a prig, but it was a question of artistic satisfaction: crisp black letters on bright
white/yellow paper.

Then came correcting typewriters. In my office they were issued according to seniority. The girl at Reception protested hotly. She was a new employee and she typed very badly, so she said she needed one more then I did. Ha! She didn’t get it. And then wordprocessors. First, the MagCards. Mag I was useless. You could only replace a word with a new word of much the same size. How often did that happen? My boss expected to rewrite the whole darn letter (his revisions were horrendous), so battles broke out. Magcard II did pretty well but there was still no screen. Then I learned the Qyx. Very clever but very complicated. That one reduced me to tears, but I was proud when I mastered it. And after that the Wang, a comfortable dependable word-processor; motherly, I’d call it. Finally came computers, with word-processing just one of the many things you could do. My firm had Word. I don’t know what learning five different word-processors has done to my brain; it must look something like an All-day Sucker, with half the colors sucked off.

I’m out of the Earn-Your-Own-Living rut now, but I have my own private office in a cabin in my garden. Small trees and bushes outside, and birds chirping (I feed them). A pair of jays turn their infant loose in my trees each year. I imagine them saying, “Well, Junior can’t come to much harm in here.” I glory in my own computer with Word and a Hewlett Laser-Jet printer. Boxes of floppy disks. E-mail. And my very own swivelly chair. I have staplers and staple removers. Two-and three-hole punches. Post-Its.

A Jane Austen cartoon on the wall, and a poster of Patrick Stewart holding The Complete Shakespeare. A file cabinet. Book shelves. A Thesaurus of English words and phrases—and the Compact Oxford English Dictionary complete with magnifying glass.

I’ve written three books, about a dozen essays, and over one hundred poems in my office.

My windows are open, of course.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008


And so he’s back, my husband,
and the limbo years are over.
Once more the king sits on the throne
of Ithaca. Now the riffraff
is gone from my house,
the floors swept clean of litter
and the pools of blood are mopped.
The stains remain. That is the way
of blood.

My old life closes over me. No time, now,
for needlework with the man of the house
in place. My days are full—servants
to scold, meals to plan, stores to order—
(Ye gods, how he eats. And drinks!)

I was pleased to see him, yes.
My heart skipped a beat—leapt, in fact,
like a dolphin tumbling in the wine-dark sea—
when he uncloaked himself.
But settled itself quite soon.
Twenty years is a long time.
(I’d forgotten how he snores.
And clears his throat each morning,
hawking and spitting like a galley slave.)

It was so long since I’d been used by a man
that his thrusts hurt me. This pleased
him as a tangible sign of my fidelity.

He’s an enthusiastic lover.
The thing is, he knows new tricks.
I have to wonder who’s had the teaching of him
—Circe, of course. A nymph or three?
Aphrodite I don’t believe—
and what else he might have picked up.

His friends are coming round in droves—
the house is as crowded
as it was with my so-called lovers,
and the wine bill’s even higher.
They acknowledge me as mistress of the house
and then ignore me, as they reminisce,
live it all again,
re-fight each battle, blow by blow
describe each mythic figure encountered
and the cunning tricks
by which my man defeated them.
Great belly laughs they give,
they slap his back, they spit.

Did I say mythic—a slip of the tongue.
Forgive me. I’m sure he doesn’t mean
to exaggerate. But the Hydra? Cyclops?
Sirens singing men to their doom? Men
run quickly enough when women call.
No special songs are needed.

At least while he was gone I had a name.
People came to see me. Let’s see how
Penelope is getting on with her web.
Now I am just his aging wife,
an appendage.

I wish that I could leave, as he did.
It’s my turn, by Hades, to drink life to the lees!
After twenty years confinement
I need my own adventures. My son is grown;
there’ll be no other children.
So why not leave him to his spit-roasted lamb,
stuffed vine leaves, endless skins of wine,
his belches and farts,
his back-slapping boyos?

Would he even notice I had gone?


“She NOTICED me!” said the White Rabbit.
“Me! I’m just a messenger,” he went on,
“of no importance. Just a piece of furniture
to most people. But Alice! She NOTICED me!
And she followed me right down the rabbit hole.
I’ll never forget that day!” said the White Rabbit,
making a note on his cuff. “I shall always love her.”

“Oh, Alice, my Alice,” said the White Knight,
falling off his horse. “She was my first love,”
he said, climbing back in the saddle. “In fact,
she was my only love. It’s hard to meet
a nice girl,” he said sadly, “on horseback.”

“Alice? A real pussy cat!,” said the Cheshire
Cat, grinning and grooming his whiskers.
“The cat’s meow! That long straight hair,
that big blue bow—pretty as a Persian at a cat
show. And she just loves kittens! She can’t
disappear yet, and that’s a drawback,”
said the Cat, disappearing.

“Charming. Quite charming,” said the Mad
Hatter, fiddling with his top hat. “A very well
brought up young lady. But love?” He blushed.
“The affection of an older man for a very young
gel is a very delicate thing! One does one’s
best to keep it under wraps. However,
I must confess I find her pinafore . . . fetching.”

The March Hare smiled, a toothy smile. “Alice?
She had the Hatter all in a tizzy. He was her slave.
Well, me too,” he added bashfully “We all were.”
He scratched his ear with a hind foot. “Come
to think of it, there was some-thing of the tease
about Alice. One day it was the Hatter, next day
Rabbit, and then it was Cat who was the favorite.
Charming, though. But very short ears.”

The Caterpillar raised his head and took
the hookah out of his mouth. “Alice? ‘ow is she?
Nice little kiddie. A bit lumpy round the middle.
Well, she’s still a grub, ain’t she?” said
the Caterpillar indulgently, rising to his full slim
height. “Fancy ‘er? Grrmph. When she’s older,
and ‘as stretched out a bit . . . Yerss,” said
the Caterpillar, his voice gruff but all his toes
curling with excitement, “I’ll keep ‘er in mind.”


An Alternative Ending To

Estella. Since our first meeting, she had been my inspiration, my dearest dream. Through all those days of self-deception when I was sure Miss Haversham intended us for each other, and those later hopeless days after Magwitch’s dread revelations, I carried her in my heart. I dreamed and longed and hoped and feared. Estella’s marriage to Bentley Drummle devastated me but did not obliterate her from my thoughts. When I learned her parentage it seemed she came a little closer, became in some way more accessible, yet those were such dark days, with Magwitch’s fate hanging over us. After his death, and my illness, my longing for her receded a little and seemed part of a dreamlike, innocent past. My departure for Egypt, with that best of all friends, Herbert Pocket, took me as far from her in distance as she already was in life.

I worked overseas for Clarriker Camp Co., first as a clerk, later as a partner. We did well. We were not rich, but we earned a respectable living. Clara, sweet Clara, now married to Herbert, was a frugal little woman. She kept house for us all and made a place in Cairo (exotic, corrupt city), that was for ever England. Her china teapot, painted with rosebuds, symbolized for me all that was good and pure in marriage. Then, after eleven years, I came back to England for a holiday in a more temperate clime. I wished to see Joe and Biddy in their married happiness (forever denied to me, as I thought). They had named their son Pip after me and, when I first saw him, fenced into a corner by the fire by Joe’s leg, it was as if I looked through the wrong end of a telescope to find myself a child again.

It was on this visit that once more I met Estella. I knew she was widowed, freed from her brutal, hard-drinking husband when he was thrown by a horse he was mistreating, and killed. He had gambled away most of her fortune, abused her, and spent his time with other women. When I thought of her, it was with sadness. One late autumnal afternoon, I walked down to the garden that was all that remained of Satis House (it and the brewery long demolished), for a last look at this repository of memories. A cold silvery mist veiled the day and through it I beheld a solitary figure, its long cloak falling in folds to the ground in a manner oddly reminiscent of the robes worn in Egypt. I looked, and looked again. It was Estella.

Estella was changed, softened and made vulnerable, I thought, by those years of hardship. Her face was unutterably weary, but still lovely to my gaze. It seemed to me she reached out hungrily for some glimmer of human warmth, a friendly word, companionship. The silvery mist was touched with the first rays of moonlight, and the same rays touched the tears that shone in her eyes.

And so we met at last, and talked and walked together, and agreed to meet again. I took her hand in mine and led her back to the inn and the mists cleared and, in all the broad expanse of tranquil moonlight, I saw no shadow of another parting from her.

* * * * *

I was right. We did not part. Meeting followed meeting and, after some weeks of courtship, I persuaded Estella to become my wife, my Mrs. Pip. Oh, happy day! Oh, radiant day! Oh, day of all joy!

Estella returned with me to Cairo, that town of white-robed figures, beggars, cruelly-laden donkeys and mosques, where the cries of the muezzin were echoed in the mews of the brown kites flying overhead. We found a white, flat-roofed house, its courtyard shaded by date palms, not far from Herbert and Clara. Clara loved Estella from the start and how could Estella not love Clara, dear little thing that she was? Estella had lived a life of luxury, marred by her husband’s violence. From Clara she would learn housewifery and economy, the woman’s pleasant task of making a home for her husband. I looked forward to hearing her household keys jingling at her slender waist.

I should not wish to dwell on the most private side of marriage, yet something must be said. Estella was reserved, wary, and I was patient and gentle with her. She seemed to me like some beautiful highly-bred mare, spurred and beaten by a ruthless rider. I did not thrust myself on her. I had to teach her to trust. But it was hard to wait, to contain my passion. I loved her so much. I was sure that in time she would turn to me with a warm and open heart and make my life her own, submerging her desires in mine, as a true wife should. I longed for her touch, for a spontaneous burst of affection. Oh, how I longed! It seemed I had waited all my life for this. I thought of my mother, Georgiana, cold in her grave from my birth; her chill fingers had never caressed her infant son. I thought of my sister, Mrs. Joe, so hard and unloving. I thought of Biddy, that true country girl, wifely and tender, lost to me and bound to Joe. Estella, I knew, would one day be my wife in more than name. In her all womanhood would be united.

It was not to be. The months passed. Still Estella lay aloof, rigid, ignoring my presence beside her in the wide white bed beneath the mosquito net. Sometimes, despite the tropic heat, I seemed to see in the net’s shadowy folds the cold and silvery mist arising from the marshes, separating us once more. Estella took to walking through the town, escorted by a small brown boy with a scarlet fez. She showed an un-English, unwomanly, fascination for the dark humid rat-infested alleys of the native bazaars that both caused me anxiety and inflamed my blood. That there was passion in her, I never doubted. The curl of her exquisite mouth, the proud stare of her dark and liquid eyes, the curve of her deep womanly bosom ... At times I would steal from my work and try to follow her, as she picked her way through the camel dung and rubbish of the streets, wondering what she sought in this outlandish, fetid place that she could not find in the tranquil domestication of her home. I neglected my work, and Herbert watched me with anxious eyes, but said nothing.

She brought home silver bracelets for her wrists and ankles, and native robes, both opaque and filmy, garments that covered her from head to toe, with a yashmak veiling her nose and mouth. Above the veil her eyes were haunting in their beauty and despair. She bought a parrot in the bazaar, which she called Pip. She talked to it some evenings as she never talked to me. I asked her why she gave it my name; it seemed a disparaging thing for her to do.

“It is no name for a man,” she said. “Or a wife.”

Something ended for me that night. I called my bearer and had him make up a bed for me in my study.

Next day she was gone. Rumors in the native quarter established her as the mistress of a wealthy Sheik, a man known for his love of horseflesh. He was often to be seen riding the fringes of the desert, where the great pyramids dominated the horizon and the Sphinx stared at nothing. His beautiful spirited horses — usually mares — would be lathered with sweat and foam, their sides marked by his spurs. It was said, later, that she rode at his side.

I left Egypt and returned to England to work in our London office.

Oh, my dead mother, my lost love, my Goddess, my Sphinx. My Estella. My Mrs. Pip.

* * * * *

Numbed by events, caring little where I lived, with Wemmick’s help I found rooms in Bloomsbury in a boarding house for men only. My landlady, Mrs. Pennipinch, was a respectable widow, rigidly corseted, who wore, day after day, a sucession of black satin dresses with an icy sheen. She conversed with me in a small cold parlor, lined with upright, rigid chairs. With some pride, Mrs. Pennipinch showed me the dining-room, where the table was embellished with a lavish display of cut-glass condiment containers as shiny and waisted as she (I noticed a particular likeness in the vinegar bottle), and silver napkin rings. “Relics of former splendors,” said Mrs. Pennipinch, “in the long lost days of Pennipinch.” The plates were ringed with a band of gold, but the portions she served were meager. The whole house was embalmed in a genteel odor of lavender polish and boiled cod.

This spartan establishment suited my mood. I sent my new address to Herbert and Jo; there was no-one else with whom I wished to communicate. I lived a solitary duty-filled life, making my way each day to and from my office, and reading to myself late into the night till my eyes closed from weariness and I tumbled into my bed, hoping not to dream. But often I would wake in the small hours, a well-loved face hovering before my eyes and even my very dressing-gown, hanging shadow-like on my bedroom door, would take a well-remembered shape. Then I would roll over and clench my pillow over my head, burying my face.

I led this plodding, weary life for some weeks or months (I did not count the days). Sunday was the one day I did not set out for my office. When it rained, I sat in my room and read. When it was dry, I took long walks through the London streets. I liked to cross the Thames at one bridge and return on the next. The murky waters, in which so many miserable lives had ended, drew my eyes. I spoke to no-one on these walks.

And then one wet Sunday, as I sat at my window, listening to the church bells tolling for the dead and staring at a gray and rain-washed street where drops depended like tears from the roof and the only sign of life was a bedraggled cat huddled in a doorway, licking itself dry with a wet tongue, a small figure turned the corner and came toward me, half eclipsed by a large black umbrella. The skirts, splashed at the hem and held up with only partial success by a little gloved hand, donated a woman. Little laced boots twinkled in and out from under those skirts. I watched her approach with dull eyes; woman to me meant only one, tall, erect and beautiful. As she neared my abode, she tilted back that great black protector to inspect the street numbers and I saw her face, framed by a plain blue bonnet. It was rosy with rain and exercise. A few tendrils of fine brown hair, mischievously escaping confinement, caressed her forehead. Her chin was pointed, like a china doll, and her eyes were wide. Surely I knew that face, different in feature yet so like in expression to that of my dear friend Herbert? It must be—it was—Jane Pocket.

As the doorbell rang, I started up. Moments later, Mrs. Pennipinch rapped at my door. Her face pregnant with disapproval and curiosity, she announced the arrival of a young person. “I have placed her in the parlor, Mr. Pip,” she said. “Never let it be said that Pennipinch’s widow allowed a person of a certain sex to mount her stairs!”

Energy returned to my languid legs. I ran down those sacred stairs and entered the parlor. Jane stood by the window, a shy smile trembling on her lips. As I looked at her sweet face, so young, so pure and yet so womanly, I felt the weight of my years, my troubles, my disappointments, begin to lift. I remembered her as I first saw her, at the age of six, struggling so hard to play a mother’s role. Now she was grown, not so very high, perhaps, but with all the soft warm promise of womanhood.

“Herbert asked me to come, dear Mr. Pip,” she said. “He thought you might need me.”

I did.



What The Dickens!


Dickens' women do distress me,
Aggravate me and depress me.
Masochistic, self-denying,
bosom-beating, fond of crying:

Dare I say it, Lady Dedlock
Bore a baby out of wedlock.
Through bitter cold, and sleet and slush
She's punished for her girlhood crush.
Blackmailed for this moral crime
(By lawyer Tulkinghorn—that slime!)
She's forced to leave her lord's estate
And ends up at the graveyard gate.
While gazing at her lover's tomb,
She dies. O tragic female womb!

Florence Dombey, gentle Flora—
Daddy dear did not adore her.
He loved his son, his Paul, soon dead—
That small chip off his male blockhead.
But Florence blames herself, alas,
And when at last it comes to pass
He strikes, rejects her, casts her out
She trickles back without a shout
And, kneeling at her father's feet,
Repents and turns the other cheek.

David's Dora, ditzy, sweet,
Could not cook, or mend, or sweep.
Seventeen and silly, silly
David finds that, willy-nilly,
What entranced him when he's single
Drives him nuts when their lives mingle.
(How did she cope with menstruation
Let alone her defloration?)
And soon she dies. It's just as well, we
Can't imagine her at forty.

Edith Dombey, proud and haughty,
Sells herself for money; naughty!.
Dombey is the man she'll wed
Martyr'd by the marriage bed.
He glares at her and says "You must!"
With flashing eye and heaving bust
She runs away—to someone worse.
And tells him so verse after verse.
Her problem is quite simply said.
She has no way to earn her bread.

Esther of the pockmarked face
Was told she was her Ma’s disgrace.
She loves a doctor but her duty
Makes her John Jarndyce’s booty.
Esther, with your bunch of keys,
Dame Durden, Little Woman, please,
Locked into your box of virtue
What is life to do but hurt you?
In the end she finds her lover -
Her name, her birthright, and her mother.

Miss Haversham, whom love rejects,
Desires revenge on all the sex.
She’s raised Estella with that aim,
Cold and heartless (what a shame).
Her beauty’s just a bargaining chip
(She flirts and taunts and teases Pip).
But Estella just compounds the crime.
She spurns the true and weds a swine.
He takes her money, body, mind—
What is there left for Pip to find?

Lizzie Hexham. Now, she's better.
A working girl who rows the river,
Helping Father, as she oughter,
Fish the corpses from the water.
Courted by a rake and also
A pedant with a well-grown torso,
She runs away to stop their fighting
(By George, her life is quite exciting).
The rake's half-murdered but, quiescent,
She weds him when he's convalescent.

Poor Nancy, friend of Olly Twist,
Knows well the feel of Bill Sykes' fist.
She's cheerful, spunky, kind to all—
Bill thinks she's just a punching ball.
To Fagin's boys she's like a mother
But she cannot leave her lover.
Oliver she helps escape, but
She's like Bullseye, Sikes' old mutt.
Bill needs her, so her duty's plain.
She stays. He kills her. Who's to blame?


Dickens, Dickens, they're pathetic,
Sentimental and bathetic.
Masochistic, self-denying,
bosom-beating, fond of crying.


Monday, March 3, 2008



“In vain have I struggled,” he said. “It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you. I offer you my hand, my heart, and a share of all my possessions.”

He gathered me to his breast, pressing his lips on my lips. In my turn I struggled, like a wild frantic bird. My efforts soon set me at liberty.

“Mr. Darcy! Unhand me, Sir!” We were standing in the small parlour, and I moved behind one of the chairs before continuing. “In such cases as this, it is, I believe, the established mode to express a sense of obligation for the sentiments avowed, let alone their physical expression. It is natural that obligation should be felt, and if I could feel gratitude, I would now thank you. But I cannot. I must make it clear that I have desired neither your good opinion nor your caresses.”

Mr. Darcy’s complexion became pale, and the disturbance of his mind was visible in every feature. At last, in a voice of forced calmness, he said,

“Elizabeth, dearest Elizabeth, if I may call you by that sweet name, I ask you to pass through life at my side—to be my second self, and best earthly companion!”

“I regret, Sir, I cannot comply with your request. I am sorry to have occasioned pain to anyone. It has been most unconsciously done, however, and I hope will be of short duration.”

“You, you rare, you most unusual woman, I love as my own flesh. I entreat you to accept me as your husband. I must have you for my own, entirely my own. Say, yes, quickly.”

His well-bred face was very much agitated and by now very much flushed, and there were strong workings in the features and strange gleams in the eyes.

“Mr. Darcy, pray calm yourself. You are too impetuous. It would be better if we parted now, and went our own ways.”

“Entreat me not to leave you, or to refrain from following after you. Whither you go, I will go, and where you live I will live. However, it does seem to me we should be happier at Pemberley than at Longbourne.”

Mr. Darcy’s fervent language could not but affect me. I wished to speak from my heart, as he did, but my words come from my intellect. I am cool and amused by nature. Was passion impossible for me? No, oh no. The vehemence of emotion was claiming mastery, and struggling for full sway, and asserting a right to predominate, to overcome, to live, rise and reign at last!

Outside, a wind had sprung up. I could hear the ivy lashing at the window and, beyond, the chestnut tree writhed and groaned. The sky was overcast.

“Sir, we both need time in which to cool our cheeks,” I said hastily, retreating as he advanced once more toward me. “and to think rationally.”

He bowed assent and held the door for me, and I passed through.

* * * * *

The wind had dropped. A splendid midsummer moon now shone above the horizon and the stars had entered into their shining life up in heaven yonder. I stole through the gardens, quiet as a moth, aware that Mr. Darcy too was abroad. The scent of his cigar made pungent the atmosphere, battling with rose and lavender and honeysuckle. This seemed to me a valid symbol of our relationship. I turned back toward the house, but at a junction in the paths we collided. He made no greeting but, taking my shoulders in his strong hands and looking deeply into my eyes, plunged at once into speech.

“You are too generous, Elizabeth, to trifle with me. If your feelings are still what they were this afternoon, tell me so at once. My affections and wishes are unchanged.”

A soft breeze came sighing down the laurel-walk, and trembled through the boughs of the chestnut. A nightingale sang.

“Elizabeth, do you hear the nightingale singing in the trees? Listen.”

“Are you in earnest, Mr. Darcy? Do you truly love me? Do you sincerely wish me to be your wife?”

“Oh, Elizabeth, you torture me!” he exclaimed, all serenity gone. “With that searching, analytic, yet humorous look, you torture me!”

“How can I do that, Mr. Darcy? If you are true, and your offer real, my only feelings for you must be respect— and—and— perhaps liking— they cannot torture.”

“Respect! Liking!” he exclaimed; and added wildly -- “Elizabeth, accept me quickly. Say, Fitzwilliam—give me my name— Fitzwilliam, I will marry you.”

I forced myself to speak, and gave him to understand that my sentiments had undergone so material a change during our time apart, short though it was (barely two hours), as to make me receive with gratitude and pleasure—even with some exhilaration— his present assurances.

“Dearest, loveliest Elizabeth, the happiness which I now feel is such that I have never felt before!”

I glanced up at him through my lashes and found how well the expression of heart-felt delight became him.

He folded me in his arms. “Come to me, Elizabeth—come to me entirely now,” he said; and added in his deepest tone, speaking in my ear as his cheek was laid on mine, “Make my happiness—I will make yours.”

My heart leapt. My cheeks crimsoned. But he was going too fast. This was unseemly.

“Mr. Darcy!” I exclaimed, taking a step back (but retaining his hands firmly in mine). “Remember who you are!”


With apologies to Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte, and my acknowledgment to the Book of Ruth.