That's what I call it, because I have a low mind, but I am in fact speaking of classic Victorian literature. Specifically, I am speaking of a fictional trope, a female stereotype, less commonly acknowledged than the Virgin-Whore dichotomy, and yet capable of exerting its force on the imaginations of highly intelligent writers, only some of whom can see the problems therein. A more seemly description than 'two girls, one sap' would the the 'Nursling-Angel dichotomy', for reasons we'll see as we go on. Let us consider three examples: David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, and Middlemarch by George Eliot. The subject of this post is the way unrealistic ideas about female character shaped Victorian novels about marriages, and how male and female authors responded to the problem.
The basic problem, the beginning point, is this: conventional Victorian values considered the attractive woman to be childlike and helpless, a kind of Marilyn Monroe minus the sexual boldness. Such a woman, however, is a burdensome wife unless you're so profoundly wealthy that you can both live a life of leisure. Profound wealth and a leisurely life are the stuff neither of common experience nor of interesting fiction, so occasionally writers took a look at the problem. And what they found seemed to be oddly similar despite their differences in style and gender: that for life to be in any way tolerable with such a wife shackled to your hard-toiling hands, you need something else. You need, in fact, another woman.
Wilkie Collins gives us Walter Hartright, the heroic worshipper of childlike Laura Fairlie. Her virtues are pretty typical: 'a fair, delicate girl' with 'truthful, innocent blue eyes'. 'The woman who first gives life, light and form to our shadowy conceptions of beauty, fills a void in our spiritual nature,' according to Walter, which being a woman who would rather be loved as an actual person than as 'the visionary nursling of our fantasy', makes me feel rather cynical about whether it's really his spirit that she's elevating. But more strikingly, what appeals to Walter about Laura is her 'quaint, childlike earnestness.' She has 'something wanting': she has 'that generous trust in others which, in her nature, grew innocently out of the sense of her own truth.' Which is to say, her virtues are natural rather than chosen: she does not think, but merely is. Seeing a virtue or gift as natural in a subordinated person and cultivated in a dominant one is a common kyriarchical device - I've read, for instance, that critics who praised the acting of the white cast in Casablanca praised only the singing of Dooley Wilson, as if his perfomance on-screen was merely being himself rather than, y'know, delivering a professional performance. (And in fact, while he was a musician, he wasn't actually playing the piano.) It's convenient to see the virtues of the subordinated as instinctive, because if they're unchosen you don't have to consider them capable of reason.
Laura's delicacy is so strong, in fact, that she refuses to report mistreatment and exploitation by her husband. From a practical standpoint this may actually be an explanation for her mental weakness: the plot would break down if Laura was capable of asking for help, so Collins had to contrive some kind of character who could plausibly stay silent rather than blowing the storyline. He does something similar with Rachel Verinder in The Moonstone, but manages to give her less helpless motivations: Rachel refuses to name the person she 'saw' stealing her diamond out of loyalty, an altogether steelier reason. But Laura Fairlie is an endurer, not a champion. She's not very bright, but she's pretty and childlike and pure in spirit, and that's attractive to our Victorian Walter.
But as Walter and Laura go on the run, Walter has a living to earn, and Laura, bless her, is incapable. 'Don't, don't, don't treat me like a child!' she cries, insisting that she needs to help earn a living if she's to keep Walter's regard. Now, this is interesting: Wilkie Collins was, for a man of his era, unusually willing to give humanity to his subordinated characters such as women and servants, and Laura realising that she's not actually fulfilling the role a wife is supposed to is Laura going against the childlike innocence of the type she represents. She's quickly stuffed back into her box, though: Walter, an artist, gives her some sketches to finish 'as nicely and prettily as you can' so they can sell them, but of course they're only 'poor, faint, valueless sketches', which Walter pretends have sold while paying her out of his own income. Laura's attempts at being useful are frustrated: she's only able to play at being useful, rather like the advice given to the husbands of entrapped housewives Betty Friedan cites in The Feminine Mystique: praise her more, and maybe let her do a little charity work.
Poor Walter. How could he possibly cope with flight and poverty with such a burden on his hands?
The answer's pretty simple: they take Laura's sister with them. And Marian Halcombe is a woman perfectly capable of running a household and earning a living.
Now, Marian is not attractive to Walter: it's established in their first meeting that she's 'ugly'. She's also intelligent - and her intelligence is inextricably associated with her ugliness. Walter is 'almost repelled by the masculine form and masculine features' of her face, and Marian herself explicitly associates intelligence with masculinity. Some critics see her as a proto-feminist, but Marian is actually a misogynist, obsessively so: she declares 'We are such fools, we can't entertain each other at table. You see I don't think much of my own sex, Mr Hartright - which will you have, tea or coffee? - no woman does think much of her own sex, though few of them confess it as freely as I do.' Walter doesn't even get a beverage before Marian starts inveighing against women, and her swipes continue throughout the book.
Marian is, in fact, an Uncle Tom: she's perfectly prepared to acknowledge that women are on the whole stupid because it gets her treated as an exception to the rule. Of the two sisters, it's actually Laura in her attempts to be useful who resists the rule more than Marian.
Marian is not an unknown type, nor necessarily an unrealistic one; in an era where female intelligence is degraded, considering oneself an unfeminine woman is one way an intelligent woman can go - not the most intelligent way, but not without its temptations. The novelist Antonia White wrote of the poet Kathleen Raine, for instance, 'She doesn't consider any woman alive her intellectual equal but she has a superstitious respect for men's judgement' - and made the comment out of kinship, recognising that she herself had the same tendency. One might consider this attitude a kind of war wound, an injury to the judgement incurred in times of conflict between the sexes, and it's clear that Collins as a writer found Marian compelling, but Walter is a conventional hero, so despite the sensuous description of Marian's body he gives on first meeting her (before he sees her masculine face) - 'The instant my eyes rested on her, I was struck by the rare beauty of her form, , and by the unaffected grace of her attitude. Her figure was tall, yet not too tall; comely and well developed, yet not fat; her head set on her shoulders with an easy, pliant firmness; her waist, perfection in the eyes of a man, for it occupied its natural place, it filled out its natural circle, it was visibly and delightfully undeformed by stays.' - we are required to accept that his sexual interest is all in Laura, who is more appropriately feminine in her 'child-like' beauty.
Yet the central structure rests upon Marian's relationship with Walter. We hear surprisingly little of what Laura says, but there's a practical reason for that: utter innocence is a difficult quality to maintain in a fictional character because it's not a realistic one. The less Laura says, the easier it is to keep her spotless: have her say too much, and she'd start taking on independent thought - especially with a writer like Wilkie Collins, who had no talent for the insipid and whose characters speak out with eccentric force whenever he turns his attention upon them. Only by keeping Laura quiet could Collins keep her innocent. So it's Marian in whom Walter confides, Marian who speaks for Laura and explains her motivations - Marian, in fact, who makes the relationship possible. Go-between and supporter, earner and organiser, filler of Laura's deficiencies, Marian allows Walter to marry the woman he finds attractive without sacrificing the pleasures of rational conversation and practical assistance.
It goes without saying that Marian will never marry, and that she's content to accept this. She is, in fact, attractive to other men - the villainous Count Fosco, unlike Walter, is unperturbed by her 'masculine' face and falls deeply in love with her, smitten with her mind and character - and as we've seen, even Walter acknowledges enthusiastically that Marian's body is beautiful. But the notion of a man who might combine Fosco's unconventional tastes and Walter's moral probity is out of the question. Marian must live with Laura and Walter to keep their marriage going, an eternal auntie. Serves her right for selling out, say I.
Now Wilkie Collins himself was what a modern reader would probably call polyamorous. He sustained a relationship with two different women, and was unusually tolerant of his lovers leaving him for other men and returning later. In the light of this, our proper Walter starts to look less like a conventional hero and more like a quasi-polygamist (not polyamorous enough to be happy at Laura marrying another man, though): he gets one wife to be the nursling of his fantasy and another wife he can actually talk to. Or rather, he gets one wife, but she occupies two bodies. Sexual attraction and mental compatibility are both needed to make a marriage, but when what's most sexually attractive is a mindless woman, those qualities have to be split.
Hence, two girls, one sap.
Collins's friend and contemporary Charles Dickens had a go at the same idea. Based on their respective books it's hard not to suspect that Collins had a stronger instinctive respect for women: Dickens was, unlike Collins, quite capable of writing the toy-like domestic pet type of woman without irony or protests from the character (or rather, from his own reason leaping into the mouth of the character), and his professional women, unlike Marian, tend to be incompetent at best and evil at worst. But then there's David Copperfield.
David's first wife Dora is a famous literary creation. She is all cute, childlike charm, utterly adorable and innocent. But because she's so childlike, she's also helplessly incompetent at housekeeping: serving meat that appears to have come from 'deformed sheep' and oysters that won't open is about her finest domestic hour, and David considers that his guest eating her cooking would be an 'immolation on the altar of friendship.' Tragi-comedy is Dora's fate, and it rests of the fact that she is, bless her heart, really not very bright.
Worse, she's really not much of a coper. When David tries to explain to her that she will be marrying a poor man and that it would be helpful if she would learn accounts, 'Poor little Dora received this information with something that was half a sob and half a scream,' declares herself 'so frightened!' and begs to be returned to her friend Julia Mills like a child calling for its mother. David 'denounced myself as a remorseless brute and a ruthless beast', but he can't quite shake the idea that a wife who can keep house would be useful, so he marries her hoping to talk her round. Which he can't, of course: her initial 'Oh, please don't be practical! ... Because it frightens me so!' is as far as she can get. David tries to get her to see the virtue of keeping house, but she makes a mess of it and begs him not to be a 'cruel, cross old boy' about it, and eventually tells him that she wants to be seen as a 'child-wife'. As attempt after attempt fails, David finally accepts that he can't change Dora and is only upsetting her by trying, and resignedly settles into looking after his child-wife - until childbirth kills her. Decoratively charming Dora might be, but for a trek through the realities of life, a hardy Memsahib she ain't.
Exactly how stupid Dora really is would be hard to call. She has social intelligence, knowing well enough how to charm David when her failures threaten - during the oyster incident, for instance, 'I could not imagine why Dora had been making tempting little faces at me, as if she wanted to kiss me,' but the answer is that she knows the oysters are faulty and is hoping to avoid criticism. She also has a kind of intelligence that Laura Fairlie lacks: she knows when she's no good at something. Dora is capable of analysing her own condition: while Laura has to be explained by other people, 'child-wife' Dora can describe herself accurately. Even her manipulations show a degree of common sense, or at least a sense of self-preservation, that Laura lacks. Based on behaviour Dora might seem the sharper of the two, even if she's fluffier and less of a trooper. Other characters though, including women, consistently excuse Dora, and her inability to bear children strongly suggests that we are not to see her as an adult. David's final emotion towards her is less adoration than guilt: he should not have married a woman incapable of marriage, certainly not without being able to support her in ease and comfort, and the fact that he cannot love her as a full wife is a burden on his conscience.
This is sharp-eyed and unsentimental, for all Dora's cute little ways. And yet, once again, Dora has a counterpart: Agnes Wickfield, the sister/angel/future wife companion of David's peaceful days.
Agnes is important to David from well before his marriage:
'It's such a lightening of my heart, only to look at you! If I had had a conjurer's cap, there is no one I should have wished for but you!'
'What?' returned Agnes.
'Well, perhaps Dora, first,' I admitted with a blush
'Certainly, Dora first, I hope,' said Agnes, laughing.
'But you next!'
Agnes, we later learn, has been in love with David 'all my life', but like Marian appears content with her sister-mentor role. (Selflessness appears to be essential in women these novels find unattractive.) David sees Agnes as a sister, but in fact she's almost a mother figure, reminding him that 'one good angel (meaning Dora) was enough' when he calls Agnes his good angel, gently steering him away from inappropriate intimacies with her. One might interpret this as a woman who's trying to remind herself not to be too seduced by the outpourings of the unavailable man she loves, but whatever her motivations, Agnes is to Dora as Marian is to Laura: a facilitator of romance. David confides in Agnes his difficulties in getting Dora to understand the value of housekeeping and Agnes advises him (to the effect that he's been too 'sudden' in his persuasions); joining the couple, Agnes replaces Dora's previous friend Julia Mills after overcoming Dora's fear that she's 'too clever'; Agnes eventually attends Dora's deathbed, where Dora confides a secret hope that David will one day marry Agnes.
In which hope, she's not such a dummy as she appears: David does eventually marry Agnes and live a far happier life with her. And Dora sees this coming from their first meeting:
'I have forgotten ... what blood relation Agnes is to you, you dear bad boy.'
'No blood relation,' I replied, but we were brought up together, like brother and sister.'
'I wonder why you ever fell in love with me,' said Dora, beginning on another button of my coat.
'Perhaps because I couldn't see you, and not love you, Dora!'
'Suppose you had never seen me at all,' said Dora, going to another button.
'Suppose we had never been born!' I said gaily.
Dora to David represents heavenly playfulness rather than the give-and-take of an adult relationship, so he fails to hear the serious question Dora is timidly asking: Do you really think you love me more than Agnes? His answer isn't very reassuring either: though he doesn't realise he's doing it, he more or less makes clear that his love for Dora is based on physical attraction rather than anything deeper, while it's Agnes's mind and soul he has been praising in her presence. Walter Hartright at least keeps his feelings in separate boxes, romance in one and companionship in another, but David's overspill because he isn't very good at understanding them. He's even worse at noticing their effects on others: 'He thinks so much of your opinion, that I was quite afraid of it!' say Dora to Agnes, well aware that Agnes, were she less restrained, would be a serious rival for David's affections, while poor Agnes has to endure her beloved David rhapsodising about Dora up hill and down dale. When one can love from a position of masculine superiority, one doesn't need to be too sensitive to the heartache one may cause, because it doesn't have consequences: both women marry him in the end, despite his inability to discern his own 'undisciplined heart.' Perhaps they should just be glad he spares them too many panegyrics on his feelings for Steerforth.
Dickens is well aware that these are faults in David, but in finally giving him Agnes, absolves them. Once the hero has learned better, it is not too late for him to do better: this is not a world where masculine mistakes result in missed chances. At the same time, learning better is a painful business. Collins's hero gets to live in chaste polygamy with his wife and sister-in-law, to enjoy the delights of childlike innocence and rational adulthood at once, but Dickens is not quite so indulgent. David has to learn to move on from his attraction to the childlike: his domestic happiness consists in escaping his earlier tastes rather than getting the best of both worlds.
For all its grief, though, Dora's death is rather comfortable for him, or at least for his long-term happiness. Dora might be darling when she's young, but Dickens had only savage mockery for women who try to keep their girlish charms into middle age, and if death hadn't taken her it's hard to conceive any other direction Dora might have taken, incapable of growth as she is. In the bloom of youth, Dora's cutely forgivable, but an ageing Dora would be, at least in Dickens's terms, grotesque.
The point is, while both writers are acute enough to realise that cherubic women do not make good wives, they also spare their heroes the full consequences of marrying them. Dickens is more prepared to show in stark comic disasters what such a wife is like without help, but plots frequently rescue characters from some situation or other, and both Dickens and Collins find plot in rescuing their heroes from the fallout of their sexual tastes.
When a female writer gets hold of the same situation, that doesn't happen.
Consider the Lydgate marriage in George Eliot's Middlemarch. Ambitious young Doctor Lydgate, whose high ideas of science do not obliterate some 'spots of commonness' in his taste in women, makes the mistake of marrying pretty, proper, finishing-school-polished Rosamund Vincy, largely because he realises she's taken his casual flirtation seriously and can't bear hurting her feelings. In the hands of another writer this might be seen as fatherly indulgence of a child, and indeed, Rosamund is presented as immature, but Eliot has less tender feelings towards dainty young ornaments than Dickens and Collins, and a crisper view of 'what can go on in the elegant leisure of a young lady's mind.' Rosamund is 'proudly calm' in the face of what she considers adversity, but in practice this manifests as what a modern reader would call passive aggression. As a wife, she determinedly fails to economise, goes behind her husband's back, and blocks all his attempts to avoid the bankruptcy that threatens them, but whenever he challenges this, reacts by refusing to understand the need for economy and focusing instead on the fact that he's raising his voice or asking her to live uncomfortably. As David says of Dora, Lydgate finds the practicalities of life 'so difficult of communication to her'.
This is the 'Doady, don't be dreadful!' tactic, but Eliot presents it as entirely willed - and not as charming, childlike wilfulness, but the will that arises from limited understanding. Children are innocent, but even the most generous and altruistic of them don't pull an adult load: it's a mistreated child who can't take parental care for granted. Rosamund, indulged all her life, has never progressed beyond the placid expectation that life should be kept pleasant for her by the efforts of others. In a child this is natural and healthy, but in an adult it becomes an iron willed that ultimately dominates her supposedly more intelligent husband. Rather than being helpless, Rosamund is unhelpful. Her husband begins as David does by 'petting her resignedly', but as circumstances get harder and harder, the resignation begins to crack. Not only beset by money troubles, he is also presented with a wife who - like Dora, but in a way that the narrative views with colder eyes - has her own wishes and asserts them. 'He was prepared to be indulgent towards feminine weakness, but not towards feminine dictation...' but that's the problem: a limited understanding brings with it a limited ability or willingness to grasp that other people may also have a point. Rosamund's feminine 'weakness' becomes an impassable wall of refusal: you cannot make someone act on principles they cannot understand. Dora and Laura might understand the limits of their own understanding, but Rosamund doesn't. We might say that the former two are consciously incompetent and Rosamund unconsciously so - but it might be more accurate to say that a female writer, however unsympathetic to her female character, is less able to deny her the dignity of at least having a mind of her own.
And goodness, does Rosamund have a mind of her own. Where Dora and Laura adore and oblige - or at least, their failures to oblige are failures they can't help, and they feel bad about their inabilities - Rosamund is a human being, and human beings generally place their own wishes ahead of those of others unless they can see a moral reason to do otherwise. Given her education by Miss Lemon's finishing school, Rosamund's morals are less a code of ethics than of etiquette: as long as she never raises her voice, she considers herself above reproach, and Lydgate's less controlled frustration is cause enough for her to consider him in the wrong - and the more so the more frustrated he becomes with her resistance. 'Feeling checkmated', Lydgate wonders 'What place was there in her mind for a remonstrance to lodge in?' The resignation that is the finishing point of David's marriage is, for Lydgate, only a stop along the way, a phase of denial that comes before anger, bargaining and depression.
Because this is what he perceives: Rosamund may have been groomed for childlike indulgence, but she is not, in fact, a child. Collins and Dickens may have believed adult women inescapably childlike in their understanding and yet still attractive and marriageable - though to modern eyes, there is something disturbing about the way their heroes marry and beget children upon women who appear not so much innocent as profoundly psychologically disabled. (Not that psychologically disabled can never marry, of course, but they should probably steer clear of husbands who fetishise their disability). Eliot has her mind on other things. Rosamund is intellectually capable of understanding: she's just temperamentally incapable. Faced with a world that refuses to bail her and her husband out of debt, '...there was but one person in Rosamund's world whom she did not regard as blameworthy, and that was the graceful creature with blond plaits and with little hands crossed before her [ie herself], who had never expressed herself unbecomingly, and who had always acted for the best - the best naturally being what she best liked.'
Eliot is a writer of judgements and criticisms, but her sarcasm is seldom so savage. It is easy to assume personal anger in this characterisation - Eliot, or rather Mary Ann Evans, was a notoriously plain woman in a world where beauty was a woman's chief virtue - but it is interesting to note that her savagery is primarily directed at Rosamund: the recipient of almost no sympathy from a writer famous for her omnisciently compassionate narratives. Lydgate is punished by having to live with Rosamund, but he is consistently presented as in the right when their desires clash. Events penalise him, but the narrative voice does not. Rosamund is less an act of vengeance against men of superficial tastes, and more a warning to them: 'The shallowness of a waternixie's soul may have a charm until she becomes didactic.'
And yet even here, as elsewhere, there is the parallel woman, the woman of spirit and intellect to counterbalance her empty-headed sister whose presence summons her up like a shadow. This is Dorothea, Eliot's saintly heroine. 'Ardent' rather than full of Agnes's 'tranquil brightness' or Marian's internalised misogyny, Dorothea has been dismissed early in the book by Lydgate's sexual tastes as beautiful but overly earnest ('The society of such women was about as relaxing as going from your work to teach the second form, instead of reclining in a paradise with sweet laughs for bird-notes, and blue eyes for a heaven'); only later, when she rescues him from disgrace, does he recognise her qualities. But unlike the loyal Marian and loving Agnes, she helps him for reasons that are not, fundamentally, about him. She barely knows him as an individual and is in love with another man; her hand is extended out of principle, a general passion for justice - for ideas of her own. Where Marian and Agnes support their men out of love and subordinate any selfish feelings of their own with little if any apparent struggle, Dorothea's struggles to subordinate her own heart-burnings - which are not for Lydgate - are passionate and difficult, and her relationship with Lydgate is charitable rather than emotional. Where David and Walter love from the heights of masculine superiority, Dorothea reaches down to Lydgate. Out of moral superiority, the narrative has no doubt, but also out of financial superiority: Lydgate, by this point, is on the edge of bankruptcy, while Dorothea is a wealthy widow who can distribute her funds as she sees fit. Her help is practical, as is Marian's and Agnes's, and she occupies a 'good angel' position in Lydgate's life too, but in the hands of a female writer, this becomes an act of patronage rather than of worship.
Well, we often side with characters of our own sex. But what's particularly interesting is what happens to sexual jealousy in these different hands.
Laura has no resentment of Marian, nor Marian of Laura. In fact, their cohabitation seems like the best thing for both of them: helpless Laura gets spared the full burdens of adult life, while ugly Marian gets gracious accommodation rather than outcast spinsterhood. Laura isn't so stupid that she can't see the threat - or rather, Collins is not so conventional that he can't see the problem. 'You will end in liking Marian better than me - you will, because I am so helpless!' Laura cries as things become more difficult and Marian takes on more and more of the helpmeet role.
Walter's response to this is rather curious: in the narrative, he comments, 'my poor, faded flower! my lost, afflicted sister!' Whose sister is she at this moment? Walter's? It seems oddly unerotic, even 'faded' by affliction as she is. Marian's? Then Laura is right that deep down, Walter does 'like Marian better.' Or have the three of them temporarily melded into a family unit, with Walter playing chaste brother to both?
It's an odd moment, but Collins quickly gets back on track. Under Walter's and Marian's care, Laura recovers her bloom and the marriage takes place, comfortably resulting in a son and a restored fortune. In the final scene, Marian, hearing the news that the estate has passed finally to our heroic family, announces it thus: 'Let me make two eminent personages known to one another: Mr Walter Hartright - the Heir of Limmeridge.' Laura gives Walter his son by flesh, and Marian gives Walter his son by words - and weeps 'bright tears of happiness' at her role. 'Marian was the good angel of our lives - let Marian end our Story,' Walter says in the final line, rather paradoxically grabbing at the last word, but that grab grants Marian status. In fact she and Laura come to announce the news together, but if Laura objects to Marian taking over the announcement - well, Marian ends the story, so whatever Laura has to say about it is lost to us. It's to be assumed that, bound together by fate as they are, the two women act in concert with no jockeying for status between them.
Dora is not quite so selfless. As we've already seen, she's sharp-eyed about David's feelings for Agnes, and the merry insensitivity of David's response, we assume, informs her that there's no point pursuing the issue further. She accepts what's offered and learns to take what advantage she can out of it: David and Agnes's relationship benefits her in that Agnes advises David not to be too 'sudden' in trying to make Dora grow up, and provides her with a new Julia Mills, and even, finally, a successor who will at least honour her memory. Agnes, meanwhile, makes no attempt to distract David's affections. She waits them out, knowing she might have to wait for ever, but feeling no apparent resentment at David's neglect of her sterling qualities for the superficial charms of fluffy little Dora. Sexual jealousy in women is generally seen as rather monstrous in Dickens's world - either a man is upright, in which case the jealousy is unjust, or he's not, in which case it's pretty monstrous to want him in the first place, and passion and ego, both essential components in jealousy, are not generally seen as becoming female qualities. In the real world, intelligent women do generally resent it when otherwise intelligent men reject them in favour of feather-headed rivals, but Dickens is not the writer to sympathise with that problem. He seldom sympathises with unrequited love in men either, or at least, not unless the lover, like Smike or Tom Pinch, knows full well that their love is hopeless and expects no better: unrequited love is, in Dickens's world, a matter of remembering or forgetting your place. (Interestingly, sexless, selfless Tom is rewarded by his sister's marriage to his friend, putting him in a rather Marian-like role. Deviate far enough from strapping masculinity, and you may get a woman's portion.) There are a few exceptions, such as Pip in Great Expectations, but on the whole, Dickens's sympathy is seldom caught by romantic jealousy, and even more seldom caught by feminine ego. Dora accepts her child-like status, Agnes her sweet sister role, and both wait patiently for David to make his choices, laying no blame on each other.
But Rosamund? She is not so resigned. In the epilogue, we hear the final story of the Lydgate marriage:
[Lydgate] once called her his basil plant; and when she asked for an explanation, said that basil was a plant that had flourished wonderfully on a murdered man's brains. Rosamund had a placid but strong answer to such speeches. Why then had he chosen her? It was a pity he had not had Mrs Ladislaw, whom he was always praising and placing above her. And thus the conversation ended with the advantage on Rosamund's side. But it would be unjust not to tell, that she never uttered a word in depreciation of Dorothea, keeping in religious remembrance the generosity which had come to her aid in the sharpest crisis of her life.
Dorothea, like Walter and David, is to some extent protected by her author. But Lydgate does not get off so lightly. Unlike Dora, Rosamund not only notices but is prepared to comment when her husband eulogises another woman. In fact prior to the Dorothea incident (a complicated affair in which she offers different support to both Rosamund and Lydgate) Rosamund has been the less faithful of the two partners, engaging in a flirtation with Lydgate's cousin and then a more serious attempt to attract the affections of Will Ladislaw. Her behaviour in these cases, particularly the latter, is what Mary Wollstonecraft predicts in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: a woman educated only to please men will, once the shine of novelty wears off her marriage, consider herself neglected and purposeless, and most likely look around for some other man to please. Not being one to hold herself accountable, though, Rosamund - a lifelong subscriber of the common human failing known as It's Different When It's Me Doing It - is well able to notice when her husband's respect for another woman's character exceeds his respect for her own.
Which is what happens with Marian and Agnes, fundamentally. Walter may love Laura, but his respect for her abilities or opinions is low, and his main response to her plea not to be treated 'like a child' is pity. David adores Dora, but adoration is not the same as love, and the fact that she's about as rational as her pet spaniel is really the focus of his worship. They don't hold Marian and Agnes over their wives as critical examples - the 'basil plant' comment is not at all kind - but sexual love and respect are almost mutually exclusive to them. Lydgate learns better than this, rather too late ... but rather than tamely accepting the emotional polygamy that his earlier tastes call for, Rosamund bitterly resents him for it. And, having humanity and agency, is perfectly prepared to use it as a weapon if he pushes things too far.
Notice, too, the phrase 'Why, then, had he chosen her?' (Italics mine.) It's a question he can't in honesty answer, because the truthful reply would be that he didn't exactly choose her, he flirted with her casually and then proposed on impulse when he saw her crying over his neglect - which is, in a world where divorce is disgraceful, utterly unsayable. Rosamund may be no genius when it comes to household accounts, but she's a master tactician when it comes to domestic disagreements. The word 'chosen' both holds him to his responsibilities - he could, had he exercised better judgement, have avoided the entire marriage - and refers to the problem in gender roles that had Rosamund crying in the first place.
The movie Easter Parade features a song that's both delightfully tuneful and a bit disquieting:
The girl I love is on a magazine cover
It seems they painted her just for me
I'd fall in love if I could ever discover
A little girl quite as nice as she
If I could meet a girl as sweet
I'd simply claim her and name her my queen
For if she ever came, I would love her the same
As I love her on the cover of a magazine.
There she is, the nursling of our fantasy. What's wrong with all this is fairly obvious: it's the story of a man falling in love with the idea of a woman (David seems to base his on his mother, Walter on vague 'fantasy', and Lydgate on rather conventional notions of 'the innate submissiveness of the goose as beautifully corresponding to the strength of the gander' - he even says 'I claim you as mine'), and believing that a real woman could ever measure up to that idea - and that, should a woman appear who did, she would be available for the taking, rather than having preferences of her own and the ability to reject him. That's the language: 'I'd simply claim her and name her my queen': I'd adore her, worship her, and show no interest at all in - or even be aware there might exist - what George Eliot would describe as 'what another nature felt in opposition to [my] own.' Woman as ideal is woman as toy.
Of course, women aren't toys, and a man who plays with them my find his fingers cut. But at the same time, Rosamund and Lydgate live in a world rather influenced by that idea - which means that actual women are expected to conform to it. They must be pleasing, and if they love a man, they must sit and wait, and hope. By that convention, the polite fiction is that Lydgate 'chose' Rosamund like a customer picking her off the magazine shelf.
And if it's the place of the man to bestow his affections where he chooses and the woman to receive them passively, Rosamund reasons, then logically if the marriage fails it must be the man's fault. Absence of agency implies absence of blame: a magazine cannot be held accountable for its owner's discontent. Rosamund does not, of course, lack agency - she's far the stronger will of the two - but she has been educated to regard herself as ladylike, and takes what limited advantages that role offers, playing them with profound aggression that silences her supposedly dominant husband.
The Victorian nursling is a vacuum, and naturalism abhors her. To fill the spaces she leaves, another woman has to appear as her counter-balance: adult to her child, soulful or intellectual to her unstained innocence, practical to her decorative, useful to her useless. The visionary nursling conjures up the good angel. Without such a counterpart, the poor sap dumb enough to marry her has no chance.
Collins and Dickens bend plot to keep her around for the benefit of their saps, Collins more so than Dickens. Dickens was capable of greater sexism than Collins - many of his more 'pure' heroines are childlike along the Dora model but with much less hard-headedness about their vacuity, while Collins at least tries to give his female characters individual personalities - but it would appear that Collins's masculine privilege and polyamorous instincts got the better of him when it came to Laura and Marian. To Dickens and Eliot, the woman of soul and reflection is the saviour from and counterweight to the woman of bright blue eyes and blonde curls and no use at all. Eliot, on the other hand, employs Dorothea as a reproach to Lydgate - both in the mouth of Rosamund, as a reproach for his inability to stay in love with the woman he married, and as a broader reproach for his poor judgement in failing to recognise the value of female intelligence in time.
It's probably worth considering the chronology. David Copperfield came out in 1850, The Woman in White in 1859, and Middlemarch was published from 1869 t0 1872 (or 1874, when the first one-volume edition appeared) - which is to say, a generation down from its masculine predecessors. Dickens's take on the feather-headed moppet is sharper than Collins's, but despite their friendship Collins went on to create Laura Fairlie anyway, which suggests the strength that the visionary nursling exercised in the contemporary imagination. Eliot may have been responding to literary types as well as to contemporary tastes. But the curious fact remains that despite her just anger at the visionary-nursling phenomenon, her plot more or less required a good angel to sort out the mess the nursling creates. What comes across as male entitlement in the hands of Collins and Dickens in the hands of Eliot comes across as an attempt to justify women. Eliot works to place the blame for Rosamund on her shallow values and poor upbringing rather than her essential nature, but at the same time anger with her pulses through the narrative. Angelic Dorothea is not so much a prop to the masculine hero as a cry that women are also capable of great virtue - although the very beginning of the book declares that it will be a study of how a potential saint can be wasted through limited opportunities. Education is blamed in both cases, in short, but Eliot was too vivid a character writer not to give also a sense of inherent personality.
But Dorothea and Rosamund are, at least, both human beings, and notably, both are equally vivid in their portrayal. Required by plot to be a prize rather than an agent, Laura continually disappears from The Woman in White. Her physical disappearance at the hands of villains is only the most obvious of her vanishing acts; by having Walter speak about her and Marian speak for her, Collins fades Laura in and out throughout the story. In a book whose whole presentation rests on the conceit that different characters narrate different sections of events, Laura - who was, after all, right at the centre of them - has no section written in her own words. Practicality demands it: to have such a section would blow all the suspense of wondering what happened to her in the middle of the book. But while Marian speaks out in her own words, Laura, without a narrative, winds up almost voiceless, a 'fantasy' as much as a character. Her good angel dominates her.
With David Copperfield, matters are reversed. For all her foolishness, Dora's voice, with its cutesy nicknames and resolute girlishness and volatile denials, rings clear and distinctive in every scene, while patient Agnes, hidden by David's relentless characterisation of her as an angel, a stained-glass window, an unfleshed fantasy, hides her real feelings from us as well as from him, leaving her to play voice of reason and wait until she can finally speak out with her 'I have loved you all my life!'
But Dorothea and Rosamund are both real. The reason is largely that both are allowed passion. Marian may be an Uncle Tom, but that act of hers shows up a passionate desire to be taken seriously, while Laura cannot assert her will without destroying the story. Agnes is all resignation and charity while Dora flies into dizzying crescendos of panic and diminuendoes of pleading. It's only when both characters are allowed to really, seriously want things - want them for themselves, not just for the benefit of the man they love - that they speak from the page with the full force of humanity.
In his autobiography Lost Boy (co-written with Maia Szalavitz) Brent Jeffs, nephew of FLDS patriarch Warren Jeffs, remarks:
Proponents of polygamy often argue that when two women want the same man, if he can marry both of them this will prevent divorce as a consequence of adultery ... Polygamy supporters say that, as a result, conflict and jealousy are actually reduced. They also claim that sisters are typically better suited to being sister-wives than unrelated women. Neither position gets any support whatsoever from what went on in my family.
The relationship between Jeffs's aunt and his mother, in fact, was characterised by physical fighting and constant competition rather than sweet sisterhood. Yet this sister-wife idea seems to have deep roots: Agnes, who begins as David's 'sister' occupies an older sister role with Dora, while Marian and Laura are actual sisters - or rather, children of the same mother. Marian the half-sister becomes a half-wife and accepts her lower status just as she accepts being excluded from Laura's inheritance; there is no conflict between them as they live under the same roof. (Another practice Jeffs reports the FLDS enforcing, with increased conflict as the inevitable result.) Sisters tend to compete for resources in the real world, and generally maintain harmony by carving out their own separate domains, but there is something about the notion of sisterly harmony that seems to compel these male writers.
Dorothea and Rosamund, on the other hand, are only slightly acquainted. They do not occupy the same social caste - Dorothea is aristocratic while Rosamund hails from the wealthy middle class - and seldom move in the same circles. Such interaction between them as we see is focused around Dorothea's charitable attempts to help Rosamund, and yet this creates no bond between them. Rosamund may keep Dorothea in 'religious remembrance', but this does not mean she wants to hear her name spoken under her roof. There is a separation between the two women: nothing either chosen or predestined binds them together. They reflect each other thematically, but this doesn't mean they have to socialise with each other, and that's a difference in perspective: mirroring each other does not make them, in terms of how their lives appear to themselves, deeply connected. Their fictional equivalencies do not mean they have to live as a matched set; in terms of how they do live, one could say that they resist colluding in their own equivalence by making friends, marrying the same man or otherwise pairing off. The reader may draw parallels, but they aren't about to rearrange their personal lives to make them neater.
Dorothea and Rosamund, in short, are part of the Laura/Dora Marian/Agnes tradition, but by retaining both separate personalities and separate lives, they call its values into question. Where Dickens favours exchanging one for another and Collins favours having both, Eliot is very clear that women are not bookends: having both around at once is a one-off, not a lifestyle.
Giving a male character two women to serve his different needs, sexual and practical, is a problem for writers who seek to write good female characters, because women are people and people are not good at subordinating their entire lives to the needs of somebody else. Put simply: two women who influence the life of one man are likely to have separate lives and interests; if their lives and interests both centre around him, they are likely to come into conflict - or if they don't, it'll be for some extraordinary reason rather than because of their inherent feminine nature. (Oh yes, Marian is feminine. You don't see a man running down his gender and spending all his life as a bachelor uncle like that, not in nineteenth century literature you don't.)
Modern tastes seem to have changed somewhat, and you don't see the nursling type quite so often. We have other sexual dichotomies, and pulp fiction for women as well as men now seems willing to adopt the two-for-one approach - or at least, I have the impression that women's pulp is notably fond of the love triangle, Twilight being the most prominent example. Having two people devoted to you is, after all, a compelling idea, and a lot of the time it's just a straightforward ego-fantasy. But it's interesting to see what happens when literary authors get hold of it.