This month’s guest post has been contributed by Catherine Waters, Professor of Victorian Literature and Print Culture at the University of Kent.
The October instalment of Our Mutual Friend continues the theme of literacy – introduced in chapter 3 of Book the First with Gaffer’s jealous opposition to his children’s self-improvement, and in chapter 5 with Wegg’s reading to Boffin – but provides an explicit focus upon education in the first two of its three chapters. Dickens of course had a long-standing belief in the importance of comprehensive, liberal education as one of the foundation-stones of social reform. But it had to be non-sectarian and pedagogically sound. The satiric portrait of the Ragged School in which ‘young Charley Hexam had first learned from a book’ recalls something of the dysfunctional methods of instruction employed in the more prosperous establishment sponsored by Mr Gradgrind and superintended by Mr M’Choakumchild in Hard Times. The ‘young dredgers’ and ‘hulking mudlarks’ who are comically ‘referred to the experiences of Thomas Twopence’ by ‘lady-visitors’ under the ‘grimly ludicrous pretence that every pupil was childish and innocent’ are juvenile collectors of waste matter, like the river scavengers and dust-sifters of the earlier chapters. Notwithstanding the segregation of sexes and partitioning of different age groups ‘off into square assortments’, the Ragged School is shown to be a ‘lamentable jumble’ where ‘back spirits and grey, red spirits and white, jumbled jumbled jumbled jumbled, jumbled every night’.
Into this account of educational confusion and disorder, Dickens introduces Bradley Headstone, ‘highly certificated stipendiary schoolmaster’. Arguably Dickens’s most powerful psychological study of repression and class anxiety, Bradley is described in the language of commerce: ‘From his early childhood up, his mind had been a place of mechanical stowage. The arrangement of his wholesale warehouse, so that it might always be ready to meet the demands of retail dealers – history here, geography there […] had imparted to his countenance a look of care; while the habit of questioning and being questioned had given him a suspicious manner, or a manner that would be better described as lying in wait […]. He always seemed to be uneasy lest anything should be missing from his mental warehouse, and taking stock to assure himself’. As Alison Winter points out in her discussion of literacy education in the novel, Bradley seems to suffer from a kind of cognitive dysfunction as a result of the rote learning he was subjected to as a child. He struggles to synthesize the various elements of the knowledge he has memorized, which he stores away, like one of Mr Boffin’s misers hoarding his money. The contents of his ‘mental warehouse’ resemble Marx’s contemporary definition of the commodity, for ‘the “owner” of such fragmented knowledge is also alienated from his own mental labor’, says Winter (The Pleasures of Memory, 2011, 236). In other words, as both victim and perpetrator of an educational system that commodifies knowledge, Bradley is part of the novel’s wider critique of modern industrial capitalism.
Bradley’s anxious social position, maintained by the ‘suppression of so much to make room for so much’, is reflected in the marginal location of the school in which he now teaches,
down in that district of the flat country tending to the Thames, where Kent and Surrey meet, and where the railways still bestride the market-gardens that will soon die under them. The schools were newly built, and there were so many like them all over the country that one might have thought they whole were but one restless edifice with the locomotive gift of Aladdin’s palace. They were in a neighbourhood which looked like a toy neighbourhood taken in blocks out of a box of a child of particularly incoherent mind, and set up anyhow; here, one side of a new street; there, a large solitary public-house facing nowhere; here, another unfinished street already in ruins; there, a church; here, an immense new warehouse; there, a dilapidated old country villa; then, a medley of black ditch, sparkling cucumber frame, rank field, richly cultivated kitchen-garden, brick viaduct, arch-spanned canal, and disorder of frowsiness and fog. As if the child had given the table a kick and gone to sleep.
The liminality of this conspicuously indeterminate place is significant. In between Kent and Surrey, land and river, this is a site of gradually encroaching urban sprawl on the outskirts of the metropolis. It is characterised by the crazy juxtaposition of new development with ruin. The half-built, half-derelict character of the landscape may recall G.A. Sala’s essay on ‘The Great Invasion’, published by Dickens as the leader in Household Words on 10 April 1852. There, describing the view from the line of railway connecting Camden Town to Blackwall, Sala observes the way in which
[b]rick and mortar invade market gardens; they elbow green-houses; they jostle conservatories; they thrust summer-houses away. Still looking from the carriage-window, do we see streets upon streets growing up in commons, and what were once shady lanes; filling up ditches; tumbling down hedges everywhere; crushing up the country in its concrete grasp. Here and there a solitary pollard-willow stands among scaffold-poles and wheelbarrows, seeming to wonder very much how it got there. And feeling itself, doubtless, an anachronism.
Such ambiguous signs of progress in the district where Bradley Headstone’s school is set, amidst a mixture of modernity and decay, bespeak the unstable class position of the schoolmaster himself, striving for ‘respectability’ but burdened with his memory of ‘the pauper lad now never to be mentioned’.
The October instalment also sees the introduction of Jenny Wren, the dolls’ dressmaker, who joins a list of characters in Dickens’s earlier fiction illustrative of the ‘dire reversal of the places of parent and child’, such as Little Nell or Little Dorrit. But unlike these earlier examples of precocious feminine self-sacrifice, Jenny is distinguished by a sharpness of perception and manner that cuts through social and moral pretence. She is quick to recognise the selfishness in Charley’s regard for his sister, informing Lizzie bluntly that she ‘“Don’t like the boy’”; she immediately understands Bradley as ‘bespoke’; and she registers the implicit threat to Lizzie veiled in Eugene’s ‘playful’ thought ‘of setting up a doll’ by advising him against it: ‘“You are sure to break it. All you children do.”’ As she describes the conditions of her trade to Bradley and Charley – ‘“I had a doll married, last week, and was obliged to work all night. […] And they take no care of their clothes, and they never keep the same fashions a month. I work for a doll with three daughters. Bless you, she’s enough to ruin her husband!”’ – her formulation recalls the uncanny animation of the inanimate seen earlier in the account of Mr Venus’s shop, with its anthropomorphic taxidermy (discussed by Nicola Bown in the blog post for June). Like Mr Venus’s stuffed canary – ‘There’s animation!’ – Jenny’s trade as dolls’ dressmaker continues the novel’s exploration of simulated life, the peculiar juxtaposition of animate and inanimate bodies, the ambiguous border between the living and the dead.
Following closely on from the description of Bradley Headstone’s mechanically acquired ‘store of teacher’s knowledge’, however, Jenny’s dressmaking also throws into relief the question of labour and its possible forms under industrial capitalism. As Susan Stewart argues in discussing the miniature, ‘[w]hereas industrial labour is marked by the prevalence of repetition over skill and part over whole, the miniature object represents an antithetical mode of production: production by the hand, a production that is unique and authentic’ (On Longing, 1993, 68). Like Mr Venus, Jenny labours by hand and the trophies of her art stand in contrast to the mechanistic contents of Bradley’s mental warehouse, serving instead, as Stewart describes the toy, as ‘a device for fantasy, a point of beginning for narrative’ (56).
Indeed, Jenny finds relief from her domestic misery as the crippled daughter of an alcoholic father in visionary scenes of children ‘all in white dresses’ who lift her up and make her light and bring ‘delicious ease and rest’. But as the narrator concludes this second chapter of the instalment, the ‘charm [is] broken’ by the arrival home of her drunken father:
The person of the house was the person of a house full of sordid shames and cares, with an upper room in which that abased figure was infecting even innocent sleep with sensual brutality and degradation. The dolls’ dressmaker had become a quaint little shrew; of the world, worldly; of the earth, earthy.
Seemingly a world away from the troubled Millbank home of the dolls’ dressmaker, the third and final chapter in the instalment returns us to the ‘bran-new’ residence of the Veneerings in their ‘bran-new quarter’ of London. The inescapably sordid materiality of Jenny Wren’s domestic circumstances forms a stark contrast to the expensive charades that characterise the upward mobility of this ‘mushroom man’. His latest performance is the purchase of a seat in parliament for five thousand pounds, a sum that being ‘put down’, says the narrator, ‘will disappear by magical conjurations and enchantment’. The mystification is sustained by much noisy pretence of canvassing on the part of his ‘dearest friends’ who ‘rally round’ him. The satire is vintage Dickens, as the commercial corruption behind the appearances of an election for Pocket-Breaches is repeatedly exposed in the narrator’s free indirect discourse. It is only once he is back in the livery-stable yard in Duke Street, Saint James’s, that poor Twemlow recognises the farce: ‘Gracious heavens! Now that I have time to think of it, he never saw one of his constituents in all his days, until we saw them together!’ Will Mr Veneering go the way of Little Dorrit’s Mr Merdle? We shall have to wait and see.