This month’s post was contributed by Maria Damkjær, Post-Doctoral fellow at the University of Copenhagen. Maria’s chapter ‘”Split […] peas:” Mrs Beeton and Domestic Time, Refigured’ was recently published in Serialization in Popular Culture, ed. by Rob Allen and Thijs van den Berg (Routledge, 2014).
In the November 1864 number of Our Mutual Friend, readers are introduced to a cosy bachelor household: Eugene Wrayburn and Mortimer Lightwood have installed themselves opposite Mortimer’s chambers in the Temple. We meet them at the very cusp of domesticity: nothing has yet been paid for, everything lacks the patina of use. The very tables and chairs are ‘a little too blooming to be believed in’ (like Lady Tippin’s face). And of all unlikely things, Eugene has insisted on their installing a ‘very complete little kitchen’; not to cook in, but for its ‘moral influence’.
‘See,’ said Eugene, ‘miniature flour-barrel, rolling-pin, spice box, shelf of brown jars, chopping-board, coffee-mill, dresser elegantly furnished with crockery, saucepans and pans, roasting-jack, a charming kettle, an armoury of dish-covers. The moral influence of these objects, in forming the domestic virtues, may have an immense influence upon me; not upon you, for you are a hopeless case, but on me’ (OMF, Book II, Chapter VI).
Eugene has absorbed the domestic rhetoric of his time, which was expounded in manuals and periodicals to a larger and larger readership. When he renders it back, he reduces it to absurdity. It was a commonplace that a smoothly running home – and by extension, moral life – is predicated on the diffusion of ‘influence’. Eugene mockingly posits that this ‘influence’ can be acquired with the right set of gadgets. The passage alerts us to the fact that Dickens was very well aware how closely domestic ideology was connected to consumerism. Emanating from and safely ensconced in the home, Eugene’s ‘domestic virtues’ were meant to colour all aspects of life. In the next room, they have moved him, ridiculously, to install pigeon-holes in which to alphabetise all his unpaid bills.
Around the middle of the century, the tendency was to mystify housework, and to centre its representation around ‘influence’ and ‘grace’ and as far away as possible from suspicions of remuneration. The very real work that went on in the middle-class home, and in which the mistress of the house participated, was obscured or idealised. It was as if a stable domestic circle could only be produced by invisible servants and a housewife who was supremely self-effacing. As Karen Chase and Michael Levenson point out in The Spectacle of Intimacy, Eugene is parodying Dickens’s earlier novels in which domesticity was relatively effortless. Dickens was not rejecting his earlier stance, but the ironic twists in Our Mutual Friend ‘indicate the changing circumstances of affirmation’ (Chase and Levenson, 217-220); in 1864, domesticity could no longer be assumed to arise fully formed from nothing, with only the right outlay of money (or credit). By the time he came to write Our Mutual Friend, Dickens had come to recognise the emptiness of the discourse, and the novel repeatedly tests the processes through which houses become homes, or fail to.
The longer Eugene goes on with his list – coffee-mill, roasting-jack and ‘charming kettle’ – the emptier the promise of these items becomes. It may all be very ‘neat’ – one of Dickens’s favourite words – but ‘nothing will ever be cooked’ with them, as Mortimer despairingly comments. Contrast the bachelors’ specialised equipment to the Peggotty house in Yarmouth in David Copperfield. The house itself is a recycled hull, and many of the items are similarly repurposed; some fulfil more than one function, like the boxes which double as chairs (DC, Chapter 3). In the Peggotty house, domestic management has arisen organically from the needs of the family. In contrast, Eugene’s kitchen is purpose-built and empty. Of course, the reader is invited to imagine that something is missing which could have made this domestic centre ‘go’ – or maybe someone is missing. But that is not the whole question; after all, Dickens’s novels are full of functioning bachelor households.
So how is the middle-class home made? What produces it, and what keeps it going? These are relatively new questions in Dickens’s hands. In Bleak House (1852-53), no home is ever seen forming, only ever fully formed. Esther and the others are introduced unproblematically into Jarndyce’s already finely tuned domestic machine in St. Albans. When Esther sets up her own home at the end, she does so in an uncannily exact reproduction of Bleak House. That novel does describe domestic routine, and make it seem very strange indeed – think of Phil Squod circumnavigating the shooting gallery to make breakfast – but each domestic centre is a self-contained little cosmos, already spinning. Dickens may have been interested in the practical circuits of domesticity, but all too often they are in fact short-circuits. In Our Mutual Friend, on the other hand, Dickens explores at length how the domestic is produced. This scrutiny, and Eugene’s lazy irony, makes domesticity strange, puzzling; its processes uncovered and its inconsistencies revealed. In Our Mutual Friend, domesticity is a problem as well as a solution.
To be continued…