By Rachel McMillan, guest blogger
Our society is obsessed with appearance.
We all know it, we all read about it, we all rail against it and yet we fall into its trap. We scorn the masses for their embracing of the perfect ideal and yet we stand in front of our mirrors desperate to fit the mold. Largely, we are a society of contradictions: aching to break free of the visual rigidity we have constructed for ourselves and still buying into the ads, the ideal, the pursuit of physical perfection. As many times as we hear that beauty is in the eye of the beholder or that beauty comes from within or that we are perfect in every way (thanks, Mom!), we recognize but do not compute.
In the Victorian era, things on the physically obsessive front were not that different; they just subscribed to a different desired mold. Gentlemen sported broad shoulders and mustached faces and women squeezed themselves betwixt whalebone trappings to acquire the perfect hourglass. Poetry praised those of ivory skin and rosy cheeks. And from a woman’s point of view, attracting a husband and a future was made all the easier with the perfect physiognomy. Women as marriageable commodities assumed great worth with a sizeable dowry and, neglecting that, with the type of beauty that would make suitors momentarily forget the lack of economic claim.
Charles Dickens wrote quite often about appearance -- so careful was he in creating believable, jump-off-the-page characters -- and, largely, he used physical appearance as yet one more way to poke strict fun at the society he refuted. He played with “doubles” (see Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay), outdated fashion (see Miss Havisham), and markings and marrings of physiognomy to further craft flesh-and-blood personages to captivate our imaginations and stir our souls and social convictions.
Bleak House features two resolute heroines whose physical appearances serve a large part of the novel’s thematic resonance. First, we have the gorgeous Lady Dedlock: renowned for her cold beauty and highbrow disposition. Lady Dedlock has a rich and romantic past with a poor lover and a dull present with a much-older man whom we can assume married her partly for love of her appearance, but fails to make her happy.
Esther and Allan’s attraction is largely based on commonality and further tested when Esther contracts an unidentified and disfiguring disease (smallpox?) while nursing a young servant back to health. Woodcourt, who has gone to sea and become a (still penniless) hero, returns to find Esther’s physical appearance altered and the reader learns that his attraction is far more than skin deep. He doesn’t relinquish his suit, he presses further. Esther’s goodness, her kindness, her devout and stalwart nature make her a beautiful, if conventional, heroine.
Contrast Esther and her scarred physiognomy to heroines of the popular love stories of today. Our contemporary visions of classic literature find actresses like the elfin Mia Wasikowska portraying plain heroines (I highly doubt Bronte’s vision of Jane Eyre had such exquisitely delicate features) and our “real life” romances boast the perfect physicality of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Certainly physical appearance is an undercurrent of attraction; but when you strip that away, what is left? Facebook finds us marketing ourselves with carefully selected photos to enhance our best features and angles to show off to our "friends" while online dating sites find users searching for pictures years old in hopes of putting their best, most attractive facet forward.
Esther, on the other hand, is the object of two worthy suitors’ affections (sorry, Guppy) and not because she is blessed with a “face to launch a thousand ships.” She instead straddles two greatly removed social worlds, counterbalancing them as a well-realized hybrid. She is revealed to be the illegitimate daughter of Nemo, the impoverished soldier, and Lady Dedlock, the beautiful ice queen in residence with her ancient husband. She fares better than both of them. She gets her love story. She has a choice and is able to remove herself from verbal contract to the kind-hearted if ill-matched John Jarndyce in order to secure her happiness with the amicable Woodcourt.
Is this the kind of heroine we need to emulate? Yes. Esther is stricken with illness because of a selfless act; she is accepting of her fate because, as she claims, she has never been a vain person; and she is moved greatly by the plight of her mother even thought that mother abandoned her. Furthermore, she is willing to forego the financial security of John Jarndyce in order to settle for a comfortable country living with a lowly, respectable doctor (we believe, as we do of Mr. Bingley and Jane in Pride and Prejudice, that they will immediately give whatever security they have away for the greater good). She receives nothing from the cursed Jarndyce and Jarndyce will; but we know that her happiness never rested on its result. In fact, we believe that Esther is grateful for the confounded case because it strung together a wild and wonderful story knotting her together with people who build a makeshift family and, through it, she becomes a friend, mentor, guide, and lover.
I find it interesting that Esther is the namesake of one of the most beautiful heroines in history: the strong and impassioned queen in the Bible who, not unlike a modern-day reality show contestant, “beat out” numerous women in line to the throne because of her beauty and grace. Our Esther is not blessed with the angelic features of Lucie Manette or Dora Spenlow, but she is blessed with conviction and resolve. To put it plainly, she has a good head on her shoulders and while she’d never grace the front of a magazine or be a contestant on The Bachelorette, she certainly speaks greatly about the superfluous nature of physical obsession.
Rachel McMillan blogs at A Fair Substitute for Heaven.