by Charles Dickens
Alone by choice, Miss Wade is a confusing and rebellious character. Is she gay? Is she just threatening to society because she refuses to accept a traditionally female role? Mostly, she is a stubborn and cold woman who tries to rescue Tattycoram from a seemingly oppressive domestic situation.
Oh, Miss Wade, Miss Wade. What a totally random character. Or so she seems, until we find out that Dickens actually intended for her story to be central to the novel. In a letter he wrote to his friend, the writer John Forster, Dickens says, "In Miss Wade I had an idea, which I thought a new one, of making the introduced story so fit into surroundings impossible of separation from the main story, as to make the blood of the book circulate through both." So, we guess that means we'd better get cracking on solving the Miss Wade riddle.
Considering that scholars are still having a battle royale about what on earth this character is all about, it's unlikely that Shmoop is going to bust the case wide open. But we'll try at least to point out a bunch of ways to think about what's happening with this strange woman in the novel.
First off, what's the deal with her chapter? Why does she write Arthur a letter that is a mini-biography of herself? It's a little off-putting, to say the least – and not just for Arthur, but for the reader. Think about it. How do we usually get to know new characters? We usually get some description of how they look and what their MO is. Then we get some conversation, so we can hear their voice. And then we slowly get more and more info about them throughout the novel. In this novel, that pretty much all happens through the snarky voice of the narrator.
Except in the case of Miss Wade. She gets to just talk about herself without being interrupted by the narrator, or made fun of, without any kind of outside commentary on what she says about herself. The reason it's so strange to get this kind of device in this novel is that it's a technique from the 17th and 18th centuries – about two hundred years before Dickens was writing, and before novels even existed as a form. It would be like suddenly coming across a passage in iambic pentameter in one of the Twilight books. So why does Dickens reach back to this old-timey device for this character? Is there something about her that is somehow out of time? Does the reader need to be jolted out of the novel's more regular pacing?
So that's one question. Second question: why did Dickens think Miss Wade was central to the novel? We know she takes the Henry Gowan thing to a crazed, paranoid extreme, basically thinking that any good action anyone does is motivated by a bad, selfish, or condescending feeling. She can't take a compliment, or any kind deed, and generally thinks that everyone has some horrible ulterior motive for acting the way they do. Which makes life pretty sucky and isolates her from all other humans.
In a way, this is a parody of one of the ideas behind the new science of political economy – the idea that there is no such thing as altruism or selfless behavior. Instead, the theory went, people do nice things because there is always some kind of payoff for themselves, either because the recipient of the niceness will do something good in return or because the person doing the good deed just wants to experience the feeling of awesomeness that comes from being nice. To Dickens, this whole thing sounded nuts, because he was really all about selflessness... well, at least as far as his female characters go. So by making Miss Wade a satire of the anti-altruism theory gone off the rails, he's keeping to the anti-economic analysis theme of the rest of the novel.
The third issue is that there is clearly some kind of sexual thing going on – or at least being repressed – with Miss Wade. Meagles tells Miss Wade that "If it should happen that you are a woman, who, from whatever cause, has a perverted delight in making a sister-woman as wretched as she is (I am old enough to have heard of such), I warn her against you, and I warn you against yourself" (1.27.83).
Now, the word "perverted" didn't have a sexual connotation back then (it just meant "twisted" and "abnormal"), but even still – what else could this mean but that Meagles is accusing Miss Wade of being homosexual? It seems hard to figure out a different way to read the bit about his being old enough to have heard of the idea of two women together. How does this tie in to the rest of the novel? Miss Wade has clearly rejected the standard trajectory of women at that time: marriage and children. What are we supposed to make of her character? Is she evil? Or is she actually spot-on with her descriptions of how offensive Tattycoram's treatment is? If so, how are we supposed to interpret this?