Dickens, the Children of the Poor and the Hospital as Home (Month 8: December 1864)

This guest post was contributed by Katharina Boehm (Assistant Professor in English Literature at the University of Regensburg, Germany). Her post draws from a chapter in her monograph Charles Dickens and the Sciences of Childhood: Popular Medicine, Child Health and Victorian Culture (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

The 8th instalment of Our Mutual Friend juxtaposes two radically different visions of hospital care for the poor in nineteenth-century London. When Venus calls at Wegg in the Bower, he carries under his arm ‘a sort of brown paper truncheon’, which contains the bones of Wegg’s amputated leg. Venus bought the leg along with various other amputated body parts from the porter of the hospital in which Wegg was treated (see Nicola Bown’s June blog). ‘“[Y]ou were one of a warious lot”’, he informs Wegg. Wegg wants his leg back and he is in luck: due to the bizarre anatomy of his leg bones, Venus hasn’t yet managed to work the leg into one of the ‘miscellaneous’ articulated skeletons that he sells to art schools and, presumably, to anatomical museums.

Wegg’s comic attempt to regain control over his commodified body part nods to the shady traffic in bodies and body parts in which virtually all hospitals, medical schools and universities were embroiled at the time of the novel’s publication. The great majority of bodies that ended up on dissecting tables or on the shelves of anatomical museums belonged to the poor. The passing of the Anatomy Bill of 1832 had legalized parties in lawful possession of unclaimed corpses – mainly workhouses and hospitals – to pass on these corpses to medical schools unless the deceased person had formally objected to this procedure. Although workhouse masters were legally forbidden to sell pauper bodies for profit from 1844 onwards, many workhouses found ways to circumvent the law, and cases in which the will of the deceased or their relatives had been violated by profit-oriented workhouse masters or undertakers were regularly brought before the public by the press.

Newspaper stories about the maltreatment of the deceased poor and their families by workhouse personnel may have added to Betty Higden’s horror of the workhouse, which leads to her desperate resistance when Rokesmith, Mrs. Boffin and Bella arrive to take her and Johnny away: ‘“Stand away from me, everyone of ye!” she cried out wildly. “I see what ye mean now. Let me go my way, all of ye. I’d sooner kill the Pretty and kill myself.”’ Mrs. Boffin makes it clear, however, that they are not planning to bring Johnny to a workhouse or regular hospital, but to a different place altogether:

We want to move Johnny to a place where there are none but children; a place set up on purpose for sick children; where the good doctors and nurses pass their lives with children, talk to none but children, touch none but children, comfort and cure none but children.

Betty quickly becomes reconciled to Mrs. Boffin’s plan and the remainder of the chapter goes to great lengths to portray the children’s hospital as a beautiful, temporary home for the children of the poor – a place that could not be any more different from institutions like the workhouse, which Dickens associated with social oppression and the spirit of “small official inhumanity” that the chapter attacks. The children’s hospital, with its rich provision of beautiful playthings, kind doctors and nurses, is modeled on Great Ormond Street Hospital, Great Britain’s first hospital for sick children, which had been established in London in 1852. An interactive historic timeline, including many nineteenth-century photographs and illustrations, is available on the Great Ormond Street Hospital’s official website.

Dickens was a great supporter of the hospital. Together with the former medical doctor Henry Morley, a regular contributor to Household Words, Dickens published the first comprehensive journalistic essay about the newly founded hospital, entitled “Drooping Buds”, which appeared on the cover of Household Words in April 1852). He presided as chairman over the first annual dinner in honour of the hospital in January 1858 and gave one of the most celebrated speeches of his career. The dinner raised enough money to enable the hospital management to purchase the adjoining house and garden and so to gradually raise the number of beds from thirty to seventy-five. Dickens was subsequently designated Honorary Governor of the Hospital, and he gave a public reading of the Christmas Carol for the benefit of the hospital in April of the same year, raising even more funds for the hospital.

Many of the press reports that appeared in the decades following the hospital’s foundation emphasized the cosy atmosphere of the wards, the lavish provision of playthings and seasonal decorations, as well as the attention given to the sick children by the genteel lady visitors who read to and played with the children. The child patients of Great Ormond Street Hospital, these articles implied, were not cured by excellent medical care alone, but also by being cared for in an environment that represented a romanticized version of middle-class childhood. ‘Is this a hospital?’, asked the weekly magazine Fun about Great Ormond Street in an article entitled ‘Life in Lodgings’ in February 1869. The answer, albeit jokingly given, is representative of the sentiments expressed in other press reports about the hospital: ‘Well it is – a Hospital for Sick Children. It is a lodging house which receives, rent-free, the sickly infants from London’s unwholesome alleys and courts.’

The novel’s representation of the children’s hospital in this month’s instalment emphasizes the idea of the children’s hospital as a haven for the children of the poor. Johnny is assimilated into ‘a little family, all in quiet little beds’: ‘It seemed that [Johnny] wanted to know whether all these were brothers and sisters of his? So they told him yes. It seemed then, that he wanted to know whether God had brought them all together there? So they told him yes again.’ The dying child’s pious acceptance of this new ‘family’ jars with the earlier fierce loyalty between the members of Johnny’s working-class family, consisting of his great-grandmother Betty and Sloppy. However, the fact that Johnny’s attention in this scene is focused on the wooden Noah’s Ark also hints that the biblical story provides a comforting model that allows Johnny to make sense of his stay in the hospital: the novel suggests that in analogy to the ark, the wards can become a refuge for children who, whatever their background or illness, are integrated into the congenial community of the children’s hospital. This is clearly an idealizing portrayal of the hospital and the parents of children who entered the actual Great Ormond Street Hospital in the middle of the nineteenth century may have had more ambivalent feelings about the idea of the hospital as home that Dickens and other commentators propounded in their journalistic reports about the institution. The visiting regulations of the hospital limited contact between child patients and their parents to a few hours on one day per week. Siblings and other relatives were excluded from visiting rights in the early decades of the hospital.

The novel scene set at the children’s hospital includes a detailed rendition of Johnny’s ark, as well as of other expensive toys and dolls available at the hospital. Given that the preceding chapter has shown Bella Wilfer worrying about her being ‘“the most mercenary little wretch that ever lived”, not caring ‘“for money to keep as money, but […] so much for what it will buy”’, these playthings remind us at first, perhaps, of the fact that toys are a privilege of the well-to-do in Our Mutual Friend. This is amply established by the subplot around the poor doll’s dressmaker Jenny. However, Dickens puts the playthings of the children’s hospital to different and more complex uses in Johnny’s deathbed scene. In this scene, the toys signify in part the working-class child’s temporary access to the experience of middle-class childhood. However, unlike Jenny’s dolls, the toys of the children’s hospital constantly exceed their status as commodities which are tainted by particular class connotations: the child patients appropriate these playthings in unpredictable ways and invest them with personal meaning, as seen in the scene where Johnny turns his toys into an heirloom by handing them down to the child in the cot next to his own.

The chapter that immediately follows Johnny death and that concludes the 8th instalment is entitled ‘A Successor’. It narrates Johnny’s funeral as well as Mrs. Boffin’s announcement of her decision to adopt a very different boy into her family. Sloppy becomes the chapter’s eponymous ‘successor’, with Mrs. Boffin being fully aware that Sloppy will ‘“not be a pet and a plaything for me, but a creature to be helped for its own sake”’. Whereas Johnny, too young to have developed much individuality and easily assimilated into the angelic family of Great Ormond Street Hospital, might have allowed Mrs. Boffin to raise another John Harmon, the energetic, perennially hungry, button-bursting, howling Sloppy will be no one but himself. In the Boffins’ selfless reaching-out to Sloppy we see can see an important aspect of the novel’s ethical vision taking shape. Johnny’s narrative thread has been tied up, but the ending of the instalment indicates that we will follow Sloppy’s thread, newly entwined with that of the Boffins, for quite some time.



Filed under Books, Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend

2 responses to “Dickens, the Children of the Poor and the Hospital as Home (Month 8: December 1864)

  1. Ruth Richardson

    Please can we have some footnotes here? I would like to know about the regular press coverage of workhouse sales of bodies/body parts.


  2. Pingback: ‘Willing to Die’ (Month 8, December 1864) | Dickens Our Mutual Friend Reading Project

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s