My lady’s maid is a Frenchwoman of two-and-thirty, from some-
where in the southern country about Avignon and Marseilles- a
large-eyed brown woman with black hair; who would be handsome, but for a certain feline mouth, and general uncomfortable tightness of
face, rendering the jaws too eager, and the skull too prominent.
There is something indefinably keen and wan about her anatomy;
and she has a watchful way of looking out of the corners of her eyes
without turning her head, which could be pleasantly dispensed with-
especially when she is in an ill humour and near knives. Through all
the good taste of her dress and little adornments, these objections so
express themselves, that she seems to go about like a very neat She-
Wolf imperfectly tamed. Besides being accomplished in the language-
consequently, she is in no want of words to shower upon Rosa for
having attracted my Lady’s attention; and she pours them out with
such grim ridicule as she sits at dinner, that her companion, the
affectionate man, is rather relieved when she arrives at the spoon stage
of that performance. (Dickens, Bleak House 209)
Dickens’ third-person narrator in Bleak House identifies Lady Dedlock’s French maid Hortense as a prospective villainess, through the utilisation of a register that renders Hortense grotesque, and repellent in both her appearance and manner. However the narrator also finds the exact origin of Hortense’s strange appearance difficult to place accurately, referring to Hortense’s “indefinable” anatomy, as well as qualifying the description throughout. It is difficult to understand the exact nature of Hortense because Dickens’ characters recreate the difficulty and indecision with which we apprehend people more than they do the actual contours of people themselves (Rosenberg 147). This portrait places Hortense outside any conventional aesthetic of beauty, suggesting that any attractiveness she might have enjoyed may have been subsumed by her secret, terrible life. This emphasis upon something “indefinable” rendering a character repellent is of course manipulated more extensively in Robert Louis Stevenson’s depiction of Hyde in his novel Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, where Hyde “gives a strong feeling of deformity, although I couldn’t specify the point” (15). Although only tangential to my argument here, as Stevenson’s text comes some thirty years later than Bleak House, this reference underlines both writers’ concerns with ambiguity as a means of characterisation and their preoccupation with the concept of the “double” in their writing.
If Hortense is aesthetically defiant and, thus, morally suspect in this initial description of her appearance, then her near deformity underlines her position as murderess-in-waiting, and suggests that her subsequent criminality can be detected by the discerning observer. The narrator’s unease before her thus originates in the indelible stain of murder that afflicts her physical presence, despite her apparent poise and self-assurance. Indeed her self-possession must condemn her further, for as the lawyer Pedgit remarks of female criminals in Wilkie Collins’ Armadale, “Whatever other difference there might be among them, I got, in time, to notice, among them that were particularly wicked and unquestionably guilty, one point in which they all resembled each other. Tall and short, old and young, handsome and ugly, they all had a secret self-possession that nothing could shake” (368). If Hortense’s sardonic exterior barely masks her criminal intent, then Collins’ own investigation of female villainy in the delicious shape of Lydia Gwilt in Armadale marks a more developed interest into the psychology of the female criminal. For whilst Hortense is seen only from the outside, Collins is more ambitious in the later text. For Gwilt has her own diary, writes letters that are part of the main narrative and has a flawlessly beautiful appearance. Unsurprisingly she dominates much of the novel: “[Gwilt] spoke with a merciless tyranny of eye and voice….Mr Bashwood obeyed her in tones that quavered with agitation, and with eyes that devoured her beauty in a strange fascination of terror and delight” (378). Lydia Gwilt controls her audience through her voice as much as through her devastatingly attractive appearance, and if “all abusers of language are villains” (Bottum 443) then both Lydia Gwilt and Hortense must use language villainously, as they have the ability to silence their listeners through their heavily suggestive vocabulary that twists reality and tramples upon propriety. Their position as social outlaws renders their “script” all the more telling and undermining, as Hortense’s final words to Inspector Bucket concerning Sir Leicester Dedlock and his fallen wife reveal: “Listen then my angel….You are very spiritual. But can you restore him back to life?.. Can you make an honourable lady of her?” (Bleak House 799). Bucket can only quietly reprimand Hortense for her truth-saying, with the evasive “Don’t be so malicious,” recognising the limits of his power as the agent of social order. Hortense’s careless admission, “It is but the death, it is all the same” (799), reinforces her arrogant dignity in the face of her inevitable fate, as well as highlighting the ensuing demise of Lady Dedlock herself. Hortense’s idiosyncratic foreign voice renders her therefore both astute social commentator and villainess simultaneously. Hortense challenges Bucket to a verbal duel, and he ironically admits their deadlock, for her cannot fully restore, he can only contain (Auden 154).
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