Don't Know Dickens

Charles Dickens, that is.

Play List Dedicated to Dickens’ Women


While there are many reasons why people should read Dickens’ novels, I would argue that his characters are the most compelling reason. The BBC History website remarks, “His epic stories, vivid characters and exhaustive depiction of contemporary life are unforgettable.” His readers then and now can learn not only about Victorian life but they can also get to know what seems like real people with real problems. Even people who have never read his novels have probably heard of Scrooge or Pip. “Characters are places where Dickens, like all novelists, reveals his own imagination (Rosenberg 149), and Dickens used his life experiences, like going to work at an early age, and observations of society to develop characters.

I entered this class having never read a Dickens novel, and I didn’t know much about the Victorian period. Reading the five novels and passages from Sketches by Boz have helped me get to know Dickens and the Victorians, and this is a result of Dickens’ characters. Though often troubled and imperfect, these characters engage the reader with their detail (and sometime lack of detail) and how they survive in a time and place with widespread poverty, disease, and hard times. The women of these novels range from beautiful and privileged to poor and ravaged by life and bad circumstances. To these women, I dedicate my play list.

Mystery of Edwin Drood

Rosa Bud is, perhaps, the most perfect of all of Dickens’ female characters because she is “wonderfully pretty, wonderfully childish, and wonderfully whimsical” (Drood 33), and the men in the novel all love her–except for the one she is engaged to.  What is her appeal? Her youth and beauty, of course. For Rosa, also known as Pussy to Edwin, the song “Oh, Pretty Woman” by Roy Orbison captures how the male characters seem to feel about her. I can imagine Rosa strolling down the streets of Cloisterham with John Jasper and Neville Landless singing different verses while Edwin Drood gets the last line, “She’s walking back to me / Oh, oh, Pretty Woman.”

Because of her beauty and her desire to pretend that she is not engaged when Edwin calls upon her, the song “Baby’s Got Back” also seems fitting for Rosa. The first part of the song with the girls talking could easily refer to the girls in the convent with Rosa who are begging to hear Rosa’s reports of Edwin’s visit. Not to mention, as I discovered in my research on motherhood, the current fashion did draw attention to certain parts of women’s anatomy that emphasized their femininity. Since Rosa’s appeal seems to be related to her beauty and childishness, a juvenile, immature song about appearance underlines her character.

Tale of Two Cities

Lucie Manette Darnay shares Rosa’s perfection but has selflessness added to the mix, reminding me of “Daughters” by John Mayer; this is appropriate as her first song, played perhaps at her wedding with Charles. Like the persona in “Daughters,” Doctor Manette has a daughter who “puts color inside of my world” by helping him regain his sanity after being imprisoned in France. The line “Boys will be strong / And boys soldier on” relates to Charles’ decision to return to France despite the danger to himself because of his family. He feels the need to fight, a manly, loyal response, and he, like the song suggests, “would be gone without warmth from / A woman’s good, good heart.” Had Lucie, her family, and friends not gone to France to save Charles, he would have, without question, died; instead, Sydney Carton sacrifices himself in Darnay’s place because of Lucie.

Lucie’s counterpart is the terrible Madame Defarge, who has good reasons to hate Darnay’s family. As she is plotting her revenge, the song “These Boots are Made for Walking” may run through her head. Although her revenge is not motivated by lost love, the attitude of the song matches Madame Defarge’s feelings for Darnay and his family: she will not stop until she has walked over them until they are dead.

Bleak House

Of all of Dickens’ female characters, Esther Summerson is one of the most developed, and she narrates parts of the novel. She, like Rosa and Lucie, is an ideal woman, but readers understand more about her. For instance, Esther loves children–even ones that do not belong to her. The focus on others coupled with its maternal tone make “Lady Madonna” a good song for Esther–although surely she and the good doctor will be able to take care of their progeny. Esther claims at the end of they novel that they  “are not rich in the bank” (Bleak House 769), but her happiness in the domestic sphere is more blatant than in the entire book (and she has always found enjoyment in her domestic duties).

When we consider the circumstances of Esther’s childhood, though, Roseanne Cash’s song “Motherless Children” captures how hard it was for her. The (somewhat redundant) line “Motherless children have a hard time / When the mother is gone” is repeated throughout the song, and the sentiment echoes throughout Esther’s life, even after she meets her mother. Since Lady Dedlock does not acknowledge her publicly and she soon dies, Esther does not have a mother except for a few pages.

Esther’s children, of course, would be fortunate: their mother would sing Victorian nursery rhyme songs like those of J. W. Elliot.

Although it is hard to determine from the novel, Jarndyce does not seem to have negative feelings about Esther and Woodcourt’s love. If he does after he has ended his engagement to Esther, he might sing Etta James’ “All I Could Do Was Cry” as he watches their wedding. Jarndyce tells Esther, “I might have ever renewed the old dream I sometimes dreamed when you were very young, of making you my wife one day” (751-752), but he chooses not to when he realize that Esther’s happiness lies with Woodcourt. This does not suggest he cries over her; yet, it is clear that he had thoughts of his own marriage for Esther for years. He also tells the couple that he will return to his “bachelor habits,” indicating that he no longer thinks of love and marriage.

Ada’s song would be “Stand by Your Man,” without question. Her love and commitment to Richard never waver, even though the Jarndyce case in chancery courts kills him. Just like the speaker, she consistently gives Richard “two arms to cling to /  And something warm to come to…And tell the world you love him / Keep giving all the love you can.” Richard sums up what he has put Ada through when he says to her, “I have fallen like  a poor stray shadow on your way, I have married you to poverty and trouble, I have scattered your means to the winds” (Bleak House 763). Her response is to kiss him; she stands by her man. To a modern reader (such as this one) the song’s basic message–stand by your man regardless what he’s done–can be hard to understand, much like Ada’s commitment to Richard because she could return to her guardian. That Richard finally recognizes her sacrifice is a relief.

Caddy Jellyby does not have a role model of a mother, and she seems caught in the transition between girl and woman although she completes the transition by the end of the novel. Caddy realizes that she does not have the domestic skills to be the meet the Victorian’s ideals of a wife and mother, and she has no other way to advance herself. Her song, “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman” by Brittney Spears addresses the idea of being caught in between the two stages. Caddy, like the speaker, “will always find her way” because she is determined, and she is conforming to society’s ideals, not challenging them. When she does marry and becomes pregnant, her song might be “Blessed” by Elton John because she has wanted to be a wife and mother, which makes her a “dearer creature than ever” (Bleak House 768) in Esther’s eyes.

Barnaby Rudge

While the female characters do not have major roles is Barnaby Rudge, they do motivate male characters and help move the plot. Mrs. Varden supports the rebels–against her husband’s wishes–and treats her husband badly. Her song is Chicago’s “Hard to Say I’m Sorry” because her actions place them in danger. She also likes to give her husband a hard time, and she does not seem like a woman who has an easy time apologizing. When people begin to die and her daughter is kidnapped, however, she falls in line with her husband’s thinking, so she might say, “I really want to tell you I’m sorry,” like the song.

Miggs, a “slender and shrewish” woman, is the brunt of Simon Tappertit’s empty promises and lies. She makes risks for him, only for him to use her for his own gains, not to mention his interest in Dolly Varden. Alanis Morisette’s “You Oughta Know” captures her spirit, and her desperation after Simon leaves her. She is bitter, and she never recovers as she “turned very sharp and sour.”

Dolly Varden may not have clear feelings for Joe Willet, as he does for her, but that changes after he saves her from Hugh. Since the relationship endures a number of ups and downs, Alicia Keyes’ “Fallin” captures their romance–or her side of it. By the end of the novel, she loves and marries Joe because the riots help her move past her indifference. Given Dolly’s “loveliness and cruelty” and her eye for fashion makes the song “She’s a Brick House” her anthem: “When and where was there ever such a plump, roguish, comely, bright-eyed, enticing, bewitching, captivating, maddening little puss in all this world, as Dolly!” (Barnaby Rudge 651).

As for Emma Haredale, the song “Be Okay” by Ingrid Michaelsen matches her experiences in life, from losing a parent to being denied the love of her life. Dickens does not give her much emotional range, and there are not as many descriptions of her as there are of Dolly or Miggs. Nevertheless, she seems better than “okay” by the end of the novel with hopes for a bright future with Edward.

Our Mutual Friend

Lizzie may not be as important a character as Bella Wilfer, but she is captivating in the early parts of the novel, particularly when she talks to her brother Charley. Madonna’s “Promise to Try” has a speaker who could be talking about Lizzie: “Little girl…never look behind, life isn’t fair.” This is a message that Lizzie has learned, which is why she gets her brother to leave. With their mother dead, she has to help her brother and “keep [her] head held high,” like the song. Even as a little girl, she was a “sister and mother both” (Our Mutual Friend) to Charley.

Bella Wilfer moves from Marilyn Monroe’s “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” to Elvis’ “Love Me Tender” as she realizes from watching Noddy Boffin’s transformation into a miser that money is not so important in life. Engaged to marry John Harmon who is thought to be dead, she seems more focused on the loss of money than sadness over the death of Harmon. In “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” the speaker sings, “The French are glad to die for love…But I prefer a man who loves and gives expensive jewels,” and Bella sounds just as shallow and mercenary at times. She complains to her father, “What a glimpse of wealth I had, and how it melted away, and how I am here in this ridiculous mourning–which I hate!” Fortunately, she changes as she falls for Rokesmith, which is why “Love Me Tender” is her next song. The simplicity of the song addresses her love for Harmon: “how John could love me so when I so little deserved it…but I am very grateful” (Our Mutual Friend 1267). Her dreams are no longer about money, but about being with the one she truly loves. (And who sings a better love song than Elvis?)

Ms. Lammle earns the dedication of Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” because she is completely full of herself to the point where she marries a man for his wealth–as he does her. She and her husband are caught up in the appearances and trappings of wealth–not to mention their scheming–that they risk what they have to get revenge. Even their exit communicates their vanity as they “walked arm-in-arm, showily enough, but without appearing to interchange a syllable” (Our Mutual Friend 1062).

So many of the characters in Our Mutual Friend, male and female, seem to tangled up in thoughts of money because they think it will make the happy. Maybe the Beatles should make a guest appearance in Victorian London for a performance of “Can’t Buy Me Love” because it is love that saves some of the characters in the end.


Charles Dickens’ female characters face all kinds of obstacles from poverty to unrequited love to desire to advance in society. When I started making the play list, I was worried that I would want to use some of the same songs for the different women, but I did not have that problem. While some female characters have similarities, there stories and the way they faced obstacles are different, and their songs highlight those differences.

Works Cited:

Dickens, Charles. Barnaby Rudge. [E-book version]

Dickens, Charles. Bleak House. [E-book version]

Dickens, Charles. Mystery of Edwin Drood. [E-book version]

Dickens, Charles. Our Mutual Friend. [E-book version]

Dickens, Charles. Tale of Two Cities. [E-book version]

Rosenberg, Brian. “Character and Contradiction in Dickens.” Nineteenth-Century Literature 47.2 (1992): 145-63.


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