|Florence Dombey in ‘Captain Cuttle’s Parlour’ by , 1888|
This is a later painted portrait of the much neglected daughter in the story, Florence Dombey, who Dickens writes as the heroine of his first proper novel, who endures her father's near hatred and resentment of her, if he acknowledges her existence at all, as he has eyes and heart only for his son and heir and then, when that son dies, along with his mother, he lives in the hope of producing another son with the woman he next marries chiefly for that purpose, without any love or even affection for her.
But then his second wife, who knows she has been effectively bought by the rich Dombey for this purpose and considers herself no better than a commodity or slave (a challenging notion for the times with possible echoes of John Stuart Mill's Subjection that came out earlier in the same decade), refuses to submit to his will -- in bed or out of it. She is a proud, highly intelligent woman who has no time for Dombey's arrogant self-importance and assumed authority, nor his immense wealth; she married him largely to satisfy her mother and put to an end her relentless quest to marry her off.
The two-year marriage produces a final confrontation between husband and wife where she stands up to Dombey and tells him how much she loathes him, how appalling he is in his treatment of his daughter (who loves him despite his woeful neglect) and that she would rather die than remain his wife.
It is a very satisfying and dramatic scene, but one that must have been quite challenging for Dickens fans in the 1840s. As a Dickens fan myself, my appreciation of his work is in some degree despite his lack of feminist themes or even sympathies, though his range of secondary female characters has always impressed me as extraordinary and includes a number of daughters misused and taken-for-granted by their fathers.
But I didn't expect overt feminism from Dickens -- certainly Dickens is not reviewed or advertised in these terms. Indeed I hardly expect it (and almost never find it) from modern male writers. And considering Darwin wrote his deeply sexist Descent of Man detailing his theory about how men have evolved to a higher level of intelligence and ability than women more than thirty years after Dombey and Son was published, it would seem that Dickens was a man well ahead of his time and a much braver (smarter and more honest) man than his famous countryman and fellow writer whose name also happens to start with the letter D.
And if Dombey and Son had been promoted and embraced as a feminist text at the time it was published in 1848, perhaps it might have had more cultural influence and curbed Darwin's readiness to put his sweepingly stupid and culturally ignorant sexist claims in print, claims that have provided the basis for countless sexist theories committed to print ever since.
But it remains reassuring to know that Dickens knew the dangers of male arrogance and sense of entitled superiority over women, their wives as well as daughters, even when hardly anyone else did -- or at least hardly anyone else braved the topic in print.
So I strongly recommend everyone read it and for those that can, especially the men, write a modern day Dombey. Heaven knows there are enough real-life examples around still to inspire one.
Just btw, it's my father's birthday today. He would have been 96; almost as old as Dickens, and almost as cool. Happy birthday, Dad; we came right in the end, just like Dombey and daughter.