This guest post was contributed by Martha Stoddard Holmes, Professor of Literature and Writing Studies at California State University, San Marcos.
In this instalment, Bradley Headstone, ‘smouldering’ with unconquered passion, returns to Lizzie Hexam’s temporary lodging where he again encounters a dragon at the gates in the form of Jenny Wren, the self-proclaimed ‘Person of the House’ (167). Jenny exemplifies Dickens’s studies of the scandal of the child who shoulders adult responsibilities like caring for Mr. Dolls, her ‘bad child’ alcoholic father. Similarly, while younger than Lizzie, Jenny takes on the role of duenna, protecting and advising her friend regarding the two men who desire her.
While she has already evaluated both Bradley Headstone and Eugene Wrayburn in month six’s instalment (and seems to have a clear preference for Wrayburn, as much as she can prefer anyone who might hurt Lizzie or take her away), Jenny continues to investigate Bradley on his second visit. She interrogates him about his intentions, directing him to face a doll she names ‘The Honorable Mrs. Truth’ or ‘Mrs. T.’ (260). While his profession as a schoolmaster and purveyor of the same ‘mechanically’ acquired knowledge that moved him out of the pauper class makes him more accustomed to directing others, Bradley obeys the girl’s orders without question (259).
Jenny’s authority builds on a specific social dynamic enacted in Bradley’s earlier meeting with her in month six: acutely and cannily aware of her social body, she directs the power of other people’s stares. When the house-door swings open to Bradley and Charley ‘with a spring and a click,’ it is as if someone offstage—author or character–has pressed the lever in a puzzle box to unfold a secret enclosure holding a trinket or treasure, or a curiosity (167). The narrative itself shifts around trying to articulate (a loaded word for this novel) Jenny: she is ‘a child—a dwarf—a girl—a something’ (167). At once, Jenny takes control by articulating herself:
‘I can’t get up,’ said the child, ‘because my back’s bad, and my legs are queer. But I’m the person of the house.’
‘Who else is at home?’ asked Charley Hexam, staring. (167)
As Charley’s actions prompt the reader to understand, Jenny is what Rosemarie Garland-Thomson might term a ‘staree’: her body and face invite curious looking. Further, despite the fact that her disabilities would have been common sights in the mid-nineteenth century, Jenny to some extent bears out Garland-Thomson’s observation that ‘seeing startlingly stareable people challenges our assumptions by interrupting complacent visual business-as-usual. Staring offers an occasion to rethink the status quo. Who we are can shift into focus by staring at who we think we are not’ (6).
Jenny’s disabilities are only one aspect of her stareable quality. Rather, she provokes in others a multi-layered experience of uncertainty, encompassing age ambiguity as well as a provocative mix of that which we desire because it is familiar, and that which we desire—or avoid–because it is strange. ‘It was difficult to guess the age of this strange creature, for her poor figure furnished no clue to it, and her face was at once so young and so old. Twelve, or at the most thirteen, might be near the mark’ (169). These verbal approximations echo Rokesmith’s first apprehension of Sloppy, ‘in doubt whether he was man, boy, or what’ (150). Charley is perturbed by ‘this crooked little antic of a child, or old person, or whatever it is’ (172). But staring at Jenny is pleasant as well as disturbing; she has an ‘elfin chin that was capable of great expression,’ and a ‘queer but not ugly little face, with its bright grey eyes’ (168, 167). As much as Dickens emphasizes her ‘sharpness’ of face, demeanour, and wit in this chapter, he also notes her sweetness, and will later describe her ‘inspired and beautiful’ quality as she tells of visionary children in ‘long bright rows’ coming to deliver her from pain (167, 181). Her ‘beautiful shower’ of fair hair retains its value better than much of the fairy gold in the novel (264).
Like Tiny Tim of A Christmas Carol, who wants to be looked at in church on Christmas Day, Jenny is strategic about her stareable status. Tim knows and enjoys at least one understanding of the semiotics of his body, that it might evoke not simply pity but a recollection of Christ’s healing. Likewise, Jenny seems to understand that the act of articulating her bodily condition—‘my back’s bad, and my legs are queer’—provides her, in combination with the surprise of her visual appearance, a form of interactional power. She directs both Charley and Bradley to identify themselves, sit, shut the street door, and guess her trade, all instructions with which they comply. Self-named Jenny Wren (née Fanny Cleaver) describes herself before others can interpellate her and questions them before they can interrogate her. Given her multiple social disadvantages, Jenny is a prime example of intersectionality), but she leverages her marginality into moments of agency.
When Bradley returns alone, then, Jenny simply uses the power and authority she has already established earlier. She cannot make him tell the truth about his intentions (he claims that his visit is on Lizzie’s behalf, not his own); but Jenny makes him well aware that she knows it, as one of the novel’s arbiters of truth and reality (she is the real Mrs. T.). Lizzie returns to find her friend ‘shaking her little fist at [Bradley] close before her eyes, and the Honourable Mrs T. with her face to the wall’ (261). Jenny asks Lizzie to help her upstairs, again by narrating her body: ‘The third party hobbles awfully, you know, when she’s left to herself;’ said Miss Wren, ‘her back being so bad, and her legs so queer; so she can’t retire gracefully unless you help her, Lizzie’ (261). This performance of bodily status acts as a literal space-clearing gesture as well as an eloquent expression of disapproval of Bradley’s courtship. Again, Jenny achieves her goal: Lizzie insists that her friend remain, with the result that the only intimate conversation that occurs is when Bradley is gone and the two of them sit by the fire, figuratively and literally letting down their hair to ‘have a talk…about Mr. Eugene Wrayburn’ (264).
——. Our Mutual Friend (London: Chapman and Hall, May 1864-November 1865).
Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Staring: How We Look (New York: Oxford UP, 2009), p. 3. Subsequent references are parenthetical.