“Dickens and the Despised Mother: A Critical reading of Three Autobiographical Novels” by Shale Preston

Published by North Carolina: McFarland & Company Inc – Reviewed by Jennifer Gribble.

Preston takes as her point of departure the childhood trauma recorded in Dickens’s autobiographical fragment, in which his mother, endowed with enduring power to dispose of him, is ‘warm’ for his being sent back to the infamous blacking warehouse, after circumstances might have enabled release from its humiliating bondage: ‘I never afterwards forgot, I never shall forget, I never can forget, that my mother was warm for my being sent back.’ She concludes with reflection on why he hastened the end of his life by compulsively performing Bill Sikes’s murder of Nancy, from his 1837 novel, Oliver Twist.

The depiction of mothers as primary objects of disgust is traced in three ‘autobiographical’ novels: David Copperfield, Bleak House, and Great Expectations. In this enjoyable and cogently argued book, the reader is immersed in a series of well-researched debates, while accompanied by a lively, engaged, personal voice, sorting and sifting a variety of points of view in pursuit of fresh textual readings. The figure Jung called ‘the Terrible Mother ‘(die schreckliche Mutter) has received a certain amount of attention from Dickens critics. What distinguishes Shale Preston’s study is its grounding in the etiology of disgust: assorted ideas of mess, pollution, revulsion, impurity, abjection, and ontological displacement. The work of David Trotter and Mary Douglas sheds light on Dickens’s obsessive concern with pollution, and his extreme aversion towards those who ‘slip out of their expected place’, and helps identify the ways in which he ‘rhetorically constructs his mother as the foremost polluting, and, by inference, disgusting person in his life.’ Kristeva’s theorizing of abjection provides a useful way of characterizing not-always-explicit disgust in relation to mother figures in the novels of Dickens. Lyn Cain (2008) who perhaps deserves Preston’s consideration, also makes use of Kristeva, among others, especially for the idea of the archaic mother and the associated allure and horror of re-engulfment. Cain, however, casts her net more widely to consider family dynamics and patterns of kinship in Dickens’s authoring. Preston’s treatment of the biological mothers (Clara Copperfield, Lady Dedlock, and Georgiana Pirrip), and those who stand in loco parentis (Betsey Trotwood, Miss Barbary, and Mrs Joe), provides a closely-focussed discussion of authorial compulsions that yield, for the put-upon hero, a developing awareness that ‘bad’ mothers are not, themselves, always totally to blame.

Preston’s reading of David Copperfield advances a persuasive view that the novel draws on the discourse of the Romantic Sublime to construct a ‘Feminine Sublime’, exemplified in the ‘relentlessly virtuous’ Agnes Wickfield, who enables a ‘self-making’, if not a genuine transcendence, in David. The creation of David’s mother, ‘warm’ for his being sent away to school, and the maternal ineptitudes of the otherwise admirable Aunt Betsey, suggest the complex psychological forces at work in this most overtly autobiographical of the three focal novels.

Esther Summerson’s ‘internalized revulsion’ for her adoptive and her biological mothers is situated within the thread of disgust that pervades all aspects of Bleak House. Not every reader will agree with Preston’s speculation that Esther fells her oppressive aunt by deliberately choosing to read a biblical passage that implicitly judges and finds Miss Barbary wanting, though it is an acute perception that Esther’s motives, so minutely dramatized throughout her self-construction, are elided here, in this polemical crux in Dickens’s case against evangelicalism. Nor will the contention that Esther subconsciously seeks out her disfiguring disease as a way of punishing her mother for abandoning her, find unequivocal agreement. Yet it must certainly be conceded that the often puzzling and irritating blend of self-effacement and attention-seeking behaviours in Esther, deftly charted by Preston, has its source in the wound dealt by both ‘mothers’.

In contrast to the prevailing view that the dominant theme in Great Expectations is the hero’s guilt, Preston argues that disgust (albeit veiled) is the hero’s, and the novel’s, chief drive, directed not only at the woman who raised Pip, but also at the woman who bore him. Georgiana Pirrip has not received much critical attention, and it is refreshing to see her, through Pip’s eyes, as the ‘agent of contagion’ in the deaths of the husband and children who surround her in the churchyard. Mrs Joe’s punitive bringing up ‘by hand’ is suggestively related to the child’s flight from the grasping hands of the dead, and to fear of the maternal power to nullify the male sex. Preston elaborates ways in which Pip can in fact be seen to be ‘naterally wicious’ in exacting reprisal. Through the agency of Magwitch, he is incited to rob Mrs Joe, and the convict’s sawn-off leg iron, enabled by Pip, deals her the blow that begins her slow decline. Miss Havisham provides a further opportunity to punish Mrs Joe, (her polar opposite in the matter of mess and filth). The passive-aggression of Joe is seen, interestingly, as modelling for Pip an implicit disgust towards women.

The ‘prevailing self-disgust’ of Dickens’s final hero, in the ‘strange haunting little story’ George Silverman’s Explanation, leads into a discussion of what Foucault has called ‘limit experience’, a state of ‘concomitant self-destruction and self-fulfilment; a turbulent experience of untamed exteriority and suffering-pleasure.’ Limit experience aptly characterizes what Dickens jokingly referred to as his ‘murderous instincts’, given free rein in his choice, against all medical and friendly advice, to continue his acclaimed public readings, with the murder of Nancy as high-light. Preston sees these readings as expressing displaced violence against the ‘horrible’ women in his life, his mother and his wife, and his guilt about the relationship with Ellen Ternan. ‘I shall tear myself to pieces’, he declared, making himself, Preston suggests, at once the perpetrator and the victim, a conflation of male and female, working out his abjection in the only way possible to overcome his self-disgust. Her exploratory study demonstrates how psychological compulsions come to generate some of Dickens’s most remarkable writing.

Support this website and buy your copy through our partner bookstore. 

Abbey's Bookshop

This entry was posted in Book Reviews etc and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s