Tuesday 9 August 2011

The mysterious Edith Granger

This, my second quotation-heavy post on Dickens's Dombey and Son, does give some plot details away, so be warned. I simply can't stop writing and thinking about this book—indeed, there's already a third post in rough draft, and as I still have approximately 350 pages left in the novel, I suspect it won't be the last. I should have become a Dickens scholar, if my enthusiasm is any indication; the worth of my posts makes my not becoming one much less of a loss, I'm sure.


The loss of his son doesn't either chasten or soften Paul Dombey. After the funeral, he leaves young Florence alone with the servants in their gigantic, dreary house and takes to travelling about England with his charming new acquaintance, Major Bagstock. Major Bagstock is gruff, honest, straightforward, out-going, entirely devoted to Mr. Dombey—and on the make. In particular, he handily sets and springs a trap for the saddened but no less prideful and self-absorbed Dombey, which culminates in the latter's marriage to a beautiful young widow who boasts not a penny to her name. Bagstock and Edith Granger's mother, Mrs. Skewton, gleefully discuss the ease with which their mark has been lassoed: 
'Shall we marry him to Edith Granger, Ma'am?' chuckled the Major, hoarsely.

'Mysterious creature!' returned Cleopatra, bringing her fan to bear upon the Major's nose. 'How can we marry him?'

'Shall we marry him to Edith Granger, Ma'am, I say?' chuckled the Major again.

Mrs Skewton returned no answer in words, but smiled upon the Major with so much archness and vivacity, that that gallant officer considering himself challenged, would have imprinted a kiss on her exceedingly red lips, but for her interposing the fan with a very winning and juvenile dexterity. It might have been in modesty; it might have been in apprehension of some danger to their bloom.

'Dombey, Ma'am,' said the Major, 'is a great catch.'

'Oh, mercenary wretch!' cried Cleopatra, with a little shriek, 'I am shocked.'

'And Dombey, Ma'am,' pursued the Major, thrusting forward his head, and distending his eyes, 'is in earnest. Joseph says it; Bagstock knows it; J. B. keeps him to the mark. Leave Dombey to himself, Ma'am. Dombey is safe, Ma'am. Do as you have done; do no more; and trust to J. B. for the end.'

'You really think so, my dear Major?' returned Cleopatra, who had eyed him very cautiously, and very searchingly, in spite of her listless bearing.

'Sure of it, Ma'am,' rejoined the Major. 'Cleopatra the peerless, and her Antony Bagstock, will often speak of this, triumphantly, when sharing the elegance and wealth of Edith Dombey's establishment. Dombey's right-hand man, Ma'am,' said the Major, stopping abruptly in a chuckle, and becoming serious, 'has arrived.' (pp. 392-93)
That these elderly former lovers do not scruple to take advantage of Dombey's weaknesses (which comprise primarily his unbending pride and confidence in his own worth, not to mention a desire to make another attempt at establishing the company under the banner of Dombey and Son) is not something shared by the fair face of their scheme, however. Edith chafes under the compulsion to marry a man whom she scorns, and shows more humanity in spite of her shockingly cold and proud demeanour than either Bagstock or Mrs. Skewton are capable of imagining. The predatory Mr. Carker the Manager comes across Edith in a private moment and observes her thus:
It was that of a lady, elegantly dressed and very handsome, whose dark proud eyes were fixed upon the ground, and in whom some passion or struggle was raging. For as she sat looking down, she held a corner of her under lip within her mouth, her bosom heaved, her nostril quivered, her head trembled, indignant tears were on her cheek, and her foot was set upon the moss as though she would have crushed it into nothing. And yet almost the self-same glance that showed him this, showed him the self-same lady rising with a scornful air of weariness and lassitude, and turning away with nothing expressed in face or figure but careless beauty and imperious disdain.(p. 403 bottom)
Her self-protective mask of aggressive disinterest in everything going on around her is so strong that it reasserts itself even in moments when she imagines herself to be alone. Yet, Edith bridles painfully under the necessity of her purchase at the hands of a man who is thus far shown himself to be incapable of thinking of human relations in anything other than transactional terms. She will marry Mr. Dombey and all his money but she never claims to relish the prospect; indeed, she never pretends to have even the tiniest interest in it, not even to Dombey. She sees herself as chattel, as does everyone else around her: 
'Look at me,' she said, 'who have never known what it is to have an honest heart, and love. Look at me, taught to scheme and plot when children play; and married in my youth—an old age of design—to one for whom I had no feeling but indifference. Look at me, whom he left a widow, dying before his inheritance descended to him—a judgment on you! well deserved!—and tell me what has been my life for ten years since.'

'We have been making every effort to endeavour to secure to you a good establishment,' rejoined her mother. 'That has been your life. And now you have got it.'

'There is no slave in a market: there is no horse in a fair: so shown and offered and examined and paraded, Mother, as I have been, for ten shameful years,' cried Edith, with a burning brow, and the same bitter emphasis on the one word. 'Is it not so? Have I been made the bye-word of all kinds of men? Have fools, have profligates, have boys, have dotards, dangled after me, and one by one rejected me, and fallen off, because you were too plain with all your cunning: yes, and too true, with all those false pretences: until we have almost come to be notorious? The licence of look and touch,' she said, with flashing eyes, 'have I submitted to it, in half the places of resort upon the map of England? Have I been hawked and vended here and there, until the last grain of self-respect is dead within me, and I loathe myself? Has been my late childhood? I had none before. Do not tell me that I had, tonight of all nights in my life!' (pp. 417-18)
Edith is both trapped by circumstances and the means by which Dombey is trapped, though she never actively tries to further Major Bagstock's and Mrs. Skewton's plans. She coldly acquiesces because she is without options, she chafes against the untenable situation in which she finds herself, but never displays human kindness or tenderness; she seems as hardened as the prostitute she aligns herself with above. Yet, her first meeting with Florence Dombey shows that there is more to her than even she reckons herself: 
'Edith,' said Mr Dombey, 'this is my daughter Florence. Florence, this lady will soon be your Mama.'

Florence started, and looked up at the beautiful face in a conflict of emotions, among which the tears that name awakened, struggled for a moment with surprise, interest, admiration, and an indefinable sort of fear. Then she cried out, 'Oh, Papa, may you be happy! may you be very, very happy all your life!' and then fell weeping on the lady's bosom.

There was a short silence. The beautiful lady, who at first had seemed to hesitate whether or no she should advance to Florence, held her to her breast, and pressed the hand with which she clasped her, close about her waist, as if to reassure her and comfort her. Not one word passed the lady's lips. She bent her head down over Florence, and she kissed her on the cheek, but she said no word.

'Shall we go on through the rooms,' said Mr Dombey, 'and see how our workmen are doing? Pray allow me, my dear madam.'

He said this in offering his arm to Mrs Skewton, who had been looking at Florence through her glass, as though picturing to herself what she might be made, by the infusion—from her own copious storehouse, no doubt—of a little more Heart and Nature. Florence was still sobbing on the lady's breast, and holding to her, when Mr Dombey was heard to say from the Conservatory:

'Let us ask Edith. Dear me, where is she?'

'Edith, my dear!' cried Mrs Skewton, 'where are you? Looking for Mr Dombey somewhere, I know. We are here, my love.'

The beautiful lady released her hold of Florence, and pressing her lips once more upon her face, withdrew hurriedly, and joined them. Florence remained standing In the same place: happy, sorry, joyful, and in tears, she knew not how, or how long, but all at once: when her new Mama came back, and took her in her arms again.

'Florence,' said the lady, hurriedly, and looking into her face with great earnestness. 'You will not begin by hating me?'

'By hating you, Mama?' cried Florence, winding her arm round her neck, and returning the look.

'Hush! Begin by thinking well of me,' said the beautiful lady. 'Begin by believing that I will try to make you happy, and that I am prepared to love you, Florence. Good-bye. We shall meet again soon. Good-bye! Don't stay here, now.' (pp. 428-31)
Florence hasn't been shown such regard and kindness since dear Walter sailed away on the ill-fated Son and Heir, since she last visited Sol Gills at The Wooden Midshipman, since her dear brother Paul died. She is so young, so kind, so gentle that she begins to revive her almost entirely deadened hopes of inspiring her father to love her, and of being happy within and part of a family, the moment Edith embraces her for the first time. And Edith is sincere. She truly empathizes with and cares for the neglected girl, and asks pointed and observant questions about her relationship with her father, questions which no one has ever before had the guts, wherewithal, or interest to put to Florence before.

Indeed, Edith is so strangely interested in and committed to caring for and protecting Florence that she threatens not to marry Dombey if her scheming and relentless mother doesn't promise to allow Florence to stay home alone while the new Dombeys honeymoon: 
'Listen to me, mother,' .... 'You must remain alone here until I return.'

'Must remain alone here, Edith, until you return!' repeated her mother.

'Or in that name upon which I shall call to-morrow to witness what I do, so falsely: and so shamefully, I swear I will refuse the hand of this man in the church. If I do not, may I fall dead upon the pavement!'

The mother answered with a look of quick alarm, in no degree diminished by the look she met.

'It is enough,' said Edith, steadily, 'that we are what we are. I will have no youth and truth dragged down to my level. I will have no guileless nature undermined, corrupted, and perverted, to amuse the leisure of a world of mothers. You know my meaning. Florence must go home.'

'You are an idiot, Edith,' cried her angry mother. 'Do you expect there can ever be peace for you in that house, till she is married, and away?'

'Ask me, or ask yourself, if I ever expect peace in that house,' said her daughter, 'and you know the answer.

'And am I to be told to-night, after all my pains and labour, and when you are going, through me, to be rendered independent,' her mother almost shrieked in her passion, while her palsied head shook like a leaf, 'that there is corruption and contagion in me, and that I am not fit company for a girl! What are you, pray? What are you?'

'I have put the question to myself,' said Edith, ashy pale, and pointing to the window, 'more than once when I have been sitting there, and something in the faded likeness of my sex has wandered past outside; and God knows I have met with my reply. Oh mother, mother, if you had but left me to my natural heart when I too was a girl—a younger girl than Florence—how different I might have been!' (pp. 458-59)
Edith is hardened and resigned to her fate and doesn't give either her mother or her new husband any quarter, for she sees them as entirely complicit in her degradation; but her devotion to Florence is instantaneous and entire. Edith is, clearly, not as lost a soul as she imagines she is; she cannot see that she is a desperately needed good angel to Florence, who could perhaps serve the same function for her. Both are surrounded by the cruel, the corrupt, and the fatally selfish and somehow forge a bond based on something higher than mere transaction, something both more human and more humane. Which, of course, Dombey finds terribly threatening.

Early in Dombey and Son, on a page I foolishly failed to make a note of, our narrator asserts that at some point the thunder will strike and Dombey will be cast down. But it hasn't happened yet. And the dark looks he wears while secretly watching the women in his life (during which he correctly notes that Edith cares only for Florence) suggest that others will suffer for his small and hard, but incredibly powerful, selfishness before he does.

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