Dickens is often criticised for his weak female characters. But his great-great-great-granddaughter Lucinda Dickens Hawksley says he is a product of the strong women in his life and the Victorian ideals of his times
To a modern reader, many of Dickenss heroines can seem weak, foolish figures of fun. Dickenss novels date from the 1830s to 1870, when women were legally the property of their husbands, fathers or whichever male relative called themselves head of the family. His heroines, including Flora Finching, Dora Spenlow and Rosa Budd described in The Mystery of Edwin Drood as wonderfully pretty, wonderfully childish are often infuriating to read now. At the time of their creation, however, Dickens was emulating a popular impression of what a well-brought up young lady should be like.
Many Victorian girls and even adult women were forbidden by their families to read novels if the heroines were considered too controversial (including Anne Bronts The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Charlotte Bronts Jane Eyre). Instead they were recommended to read improving books, often written by religious writers, about how girls and women should behave: think Jessicas First Prayer by Hesba Stretton and Coventry Patmores narrative poem The Angel in the House. Queen Victoria famously sacked her daughters governess after discovering one of the princesses reading a novel.
The real women in Dickenss life were very different from his domesticated and compliant creations, including three remarkable women in his family. Charless paternal grandmother, Elizabeth Dickens, was a servant in the household of Lord Crewe. She began as a housemaid and, after being widowed and left a single mother, worked her way up to the role of housekeeper. Her grandson retained vivid memories of her warm personality and storytelling.