Books That Beat Their Iconic Sibling-Books: Great Expectations vs. Dombey and Son

by Carrie Hill Wilner

HAIIRPINNNNN!!! (Imagine arena-rock-style shout.) Did everyone finish VILLETTE?!?! DO YOU WANT SOME MORE?!?!

(Now I get real quiet, and a roadie brings out a stool and I sit down and get confessional before the acoustic ballad.) Hairpin, I thought a lot about what girl-book to talk about next. I was going to go with Mansfield Park > Pride and Prejudice, but … do I really believe that? Then I was thinking something by Edith Wharton, but her two most famous books are also her best books, and are basically equally famous (House of Mirth > Age of Innocence, fwiw). Girl, what I’m trying to tell you is, I’m taking this weirdly seriously. So you have to believe it when I say: you have to read Dombey and Son exactly right now.

Dickens generally isn’t a big enough part of the lady-canon. I’m genuinely certain that I could walk up to any one of you on the street and whisper “any single man in posession of a good fortune …” and you’d whisper “… must be in want of a wife,” we’d make the handoff, and Minsk would be plunged into darkness. Dickens, meanwhile, well, yeah, you’ve read some, but how am I supposed to know what? In fact, if anything, I’d guess you’ve read Great Expectations, which somehow got a reputation as Dickens for Girls, probably because Miss Havisham = Carrie Bradshaw. This is a terrible state of affairs, I hate that book, and because of it I thought I hated Dickens until two years ago. False, I do not, and you don’t either.

But what Dickens should we all flash mob on? If you go around just asking any fool, they will (if they know better than to send you to Great Expectationzzzzz) probably send you to one of his Serious Books while telling you how mature and complex they are, which is how manly men justify reading anything by the same goonshoe who wrote A Christmas Carol (these people also probably hate Hard Times, unto which I say it’s about circus people, what is even your problem?). The Very Serious Books are Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend, and then a rotating third, either A Tale of Two Cities or David Copperfield. Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend are both amazing and ridiculous and I highly recommend them. Also, the Bleak House miniseries is really good (and so is Little Dorrit, if we’re talking miniseries). But it is far, far more urgent that you read Dombey and Son, which has somhow gotten a reputation as sort of second-string Dickens. It’s the goofy little sister who travels around with Our Mutual Friend and Bleak House and everyone’s all, “well, she would be as pretty and charming as them, if she took better care of her nails and maybe went for some accent coaching.” Fuck that, let’s go be her cool aunt and go out to the back porch where she’s unsneakily sneaking a cigarette and tell her don’t be down, someday someone’s going to see how special she is, also too-nice nails make you look like a robot anyway.

Of course I wouldn’t even bother to comment if Dombey ONLY had the basics of an excellent book for ladies who love lady books: terrible adults, death-in-childbirth, meddling spinsters, moor-wandering, surprise prostitutes who are, yes, fucked up, but not condescended to. It has all this, of course. But it’s not just a good snowed-in read, it will make you think so hard about yourself in the most delish way. Here, in no real order, are seven reasons why it is better than all the other books except, obviously, Villette.

(1) Fantastic inter-lady dynamics all around. I don’t know whether Dickens was just totally empathetic, a master of mimicry or if, you know, ladies are basically just humans, but I think he creates more exquisite and real relationships between his female characters than any other apparantly male English writer of that century, and probably a bunch of other centuries too. In fact, than anyone but Jane Austen? Hmmm. Floy Dombey herself is a bit of a cipher, but earns flesh through her interactions with Toodles, Nipper, and Edith Dombey nee Skewton (ugghhh that one is so heartbreaking) in a way that somehow seems a lot real-er, to me, than starting from her personality and working outwards.

(2) Edith Dombey nee Skewton, generally. Beautiful ice queen whose heart warms to her stepdaughter. For you Bleak House readers, she was like, Lady Dedlock’s thesis advisor at Bitch School. Plus, because she is, to her husband Paul Dombey Sr., basically a display case, we get some both excellent jewelry descriptions AND some Dallas-quality ripping-off-jewelry descriptions.

She had better have turned hideous and dropped dead, than have stood up with such a smile upon her face, in such a fallen spirit’s majesty of scorn and beauty. She lifted her hand to the tiara of bright jewels radiant on her head, and, plucking it off with a force that dragged and strained her rich black hair with heedless cruelty, and brought it tumbling wildly on her shoulders, cast the gems upon the ground. From each arm, she unclasped a diamond bracelet, flung it down, and trod upon the glittering heap.

Marry: the jewelry, Fuck: Edith Dombey, Kill: Paul Dombey, Sr.

(4) The Edith-Paul Sr. marriage generally, argh. I don’t even know how to describe it as anything but the most upsetting marriage in all of human history except for Dorothea and Mr. Causabon in Middlemarch, but I don’t want to make you read another book before you read this book, but you should read Middlemarch anyway so I’m just going to go with that.

You know, in general, you don’t get a lot of Victorian era Bad Marriages right up in your face, either it’s a happily ever after, or they quietly go off to separate mansions and deal with it that way. Pretty bracing to watch the Dombeys just crumble in front of you.

(5) Well if it’s a bad idea why does she marry him? Because Dickens is very astute about love as a learned behavior, and abuse perpetuating abuse, and alcoholic parents fucking you up, etc. Even the worst baddies in this book are sympathetic because damaged, and damaged in ways that resonate generally, not damaged like, AHEM, “I’m just so saaaaaad that I have to keep a crazy person locked in my attic.” My No. 2 pet peeve (after No. 1, people not just getting that Dickens is a lady/lady writer) is criticism that treats Dickens like a Social Novelist, writing about times and patterns and injustices and not about psychology, like those are totally not connected at all. Anyway, that distinction is (a) bullshit and (b) totally elided in this book, more than in any other Dickens.

(6) Meanwhile, the other main pairing, between Floy and Will, should be totally creepy since groomed from childhood etc. (Second confidential to Bleak House readers: ugh John Jarndyce ugh, ugh.) But it actually is shockingly moving, maybe because it’s clear he, whatever kind of other ish he has, has a chance at living a life without much cruelty in it, and giving poor Floy the same?

(7) Economics: Ocean v. Trains

People also say this is a book about Dickens just hating trains because he was in a train accident, but I think he hates trains like he hates Edith Dombey. Like her, they are created by man, but now have the capacity to overpower him, they are speedy, shimmering, sickening. Yes, they rip up the countryside and bankrupt … I think they’re called merchant marines? Is that what those are? But they also sometimes run over bad people totally out of nowhere and enrich the worthy Toodles family. The sea, meanwhile, permits cozy customs-houses and is beautiful, and then seafaring, we’ve been doing that forever, it’s gotta be good right? Never so simple in Dickens: the sea is good but also cruel and chaotic and killing nice guys and lapping at the edges of the whole novel calmingly/ominously/there are giant squids down there you guys, how can a train be worse than that, their eyes are as big as serving plates.

Previously: Jane Eyre vs. Villette.

Carrie Hill Wilner loves to read.