Dickens and Austen people their books with memorable characters. Dickens creates his usual legion of orphans and outcasts and the obligatory oppressive figures of wealth through very specific methods of characterization, emphasizing idiosyncracies of appearance. He connects each character to some queer mannerism of action or speech and he places each in a particular setting. But most importantly, he uses physical descriptions to show moral and spiritual qualities. In his characterization of Miss Havisham, Dickens portrays a spurned lover whose festering hatred of men and the society that they dominate has rotted her down to the sun-less prune that she is. "I saw that the bride within the bridal dress had withered like the dress, and like the flowers, and had no brightness left but the brightness of her sunken eyes. I saw that the dress had been put upon the rounded figure of a young woman, and that the figure upon which it now hung loose, had shrunk to skin and bone" (page 87). Dickens means to convey in Miss Havisham that beauty is only skin deep but ugliness goes right down to the bone.
Austen uses many of the same basic techniques as Dickens, physical descriptions emphasizing mannerisms, short, descriptive representations, except that she relies on conversation rather than physical description as her main device of characterization. For example, Austen uses Mrs. Bennet's complaints to show us her weak, self-pitying egoism. "I have no pleasure in talking to undutiful children. Not that I have much pleasure, indeed, in talking to any body. People who suffer as much as I do from nervous complaints can have no great inclination for talking. Nobody can tell what I suffer! But it is always so. Those who do not complain are never pitied!" Austen's emphasis on conversation as the basis of characterization and of human relationships in civilized society betrays her Neoclassical sympathies.
Although the techniques used to create Miss Havisham and Mrs. Bennet differ, the two characters share several traits. Both are more or less what E. M. Forster termed flat characters used to incarnate and criticize a social condition. Mrs. Bennet is clearly not an exemplary female role model. Because of her station in the leisure class, she is preoccupied with money, marriage, and all other factors in climbing an ostensibly stable social ladder that has actually been made rather rickety by changing sexual politics in post French-Revolution England. Her machinations are made all the more difficult and frantic by the notions of feminine propriety that Elizabeth so unbecomingly holds. Faced with all these stimuli, Mrs. Bennet becomes very distressed and confused that a simple social phenomenon like marriage could become so compolicated by love and politics and what not. In Mrs. Bennet, Austen draws up the most obvious caricature of traditional values and the quiet turbulence of the world of Pride and Prejudice.
Miss Havisham is the unhappy casualty of a male-dominated society. Her emotional dependence on male figures crippled her personal development. She was terribly spoiled as the only child of a wealthy, doting, widower father. Then she was abandoned by her fiance on her wedding day for monetary reasons, which sent her into an emotional reel from which she never recovered. She anoints herself High Priestess of a male-hating religion whose shrine is an untouched wedding cake, whose sacrifice is the young protegee Estella, to whom she imparts her desire to crush penises. Miss Havisham is not so much a fully rounded character as a set of circumstances that Dickens uses to convey his views of a male dominated society.
Incorporated in the Victorian Web July 2000