Isobel Armstrong is a fellow of the British Academy, Senior Research Fellow of the Institute of English Studies and Professor Emeritus at Birkbeck, University of London. She has published widely on nineteenth-century studies (in particular Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics and Politics, 1993) and theory (see The Radical Aesthetic, 2000). Her most recent book, Victorian Glassworlds. Glass Culture and the Imagination, 2008) won the Modern Language Association’s James Russell Lowell Prize in 2009. This account of the dolls’ dressmaker will appear in her forthcoming monograph on the nineteenth-century novel and the democratic imagination, to be published by Oxford University Press.
This case study is part of a larger discussion of the way the category of the aesthetic in the nineteenth-century novel, introduced either as works of art, creative labour or media, is formative of the novel in that it shapes a reading of radical possibilities. While we too often see the novel as a symptom of history, the aesthetic is one of the ways the novel creates history. It is central to asking what free human personhood is. In the case of the dolls’ dressmaker, the aesthetic encounters ambiguity as art abuts on craft, work and economic law. Attention to the category of the aesthetic and these ambiguities extends our sense of the novel’s inquiry into class and inequality and the social boundaries of inclusion and exclusion. The aesthetic does not enter the novel as an unquestioned democratic good but precisely as a problematical category, which generates interrogatives, prompting questions about the social order that is its context. Seemingly marginal and subsidiary to the main action of the narrative, the dolls’ dressmaker’s presence is a source of questions, and the dolls’ dressmaker’s craft in Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend (1864-65) uses the aesthetic to act as a prompt for radical questions. I identify four such prompts in the following discussion.
Charles Dickens’s dolls’ dressmaker earns money by working on toys as a child sweated labourer and member of the underclass. Dickens’s disabled girl designs and makes clothes for dolls – mainly female dolls. This is a crucial economic necessity – the imperative to work is not optional. She supports a drunken father, and her work is her only means of survival. ‘“Slave, slave, slave, from morning to night [. . .] and all for this!”’ (Slavery in the nineteenth century is deemed to be at the borders of the non-human.) Yet even in this harsh context, toys have a curious status. They are mass produced for the market, interpreted by the dolls’ dressmaker as slave labour, yet they require individual manual work. Each one is a slight variation on its prototype – the dolls’ dressmaker’s dolls are differentiated by their designer garments: ‘a dazzling semi-circle of dolls [. . .] dressed for presentation at court, for going to balls, for going out driving, for going out on horseback, for going out walking, for going to get married, for going to help other dolls get married’ (p. 435) – celebrity high life in miniature. These toys fall between standardised and individually produced things: not quite craft, not wholly estranged labour, not quite art, if we mean by art the object uniquely shaped through the imagination without reference (in the first instance at least) to its practical use or exchange value. They hint at thingness and automata – the dolls in Our Mutual Friend have ‘no speculation in their eyes’ (p. 731). It is an aspect of Dickens’s genius that the ‘it-ness’ of these dolls fleetingly suggests the Victorian sex toy and the mechanized simulacra that enthralled such men as Charles Babbage (inventor of the ‘Difference Engine’ or computer). He kept a silver female doll in his living room, its nakedness perfunctorily clad, with a kind of contempt, ‘with a few strips of pink and green Chinese crepe’. Such clockwork effigies were manufactured for a specular society. Dickens raises this possibility but closes it down by demonstrating that the dolls’ dressmaker’s relation to her wholly female groups of dolls and dolls’ clothes is an actively mediated one, as if the dolls become transitional objects to negotiate the world and to enquire into her own gendered place in it. Dolls take on, for their child owners, and even for their maker in this novel, the unique aspect of the art work, treasured sometimes passionately for their individuality, and made part of an imaginative world which is an extension of the maker’s and the child’s identity, since playing interprets their experience. Hence the interest of toys, in an industrialised era, to poets such as Baudelaire. ‘There is an extraordinary gaiety in a great toyshop which makes it preferable to a fine bourgeois apartment. Is not the whole of life to be found there in miniature?’ ‘In their games children give evidence of their great capacity for abstraction and their high imaginative power’; ‘The toy is the child’s earliest initiation to art’ (pp. 199, 200).
First prompt: Toys problematise the work/art dichotomy, the opposition of play and production. Is this an insurmountable contradiction? Does the aesthetic disguise estrangement?
The dolls’ dressmaker’s life is driven by style, the need to reproduce the image of fashion. She is driven by the need to know, even for her miniature subjects, the latest changes of fashion, and the need to reproduce them in cut, texture and profile. She goes to public places where rich and fashionable women gather, to society Drawing Rooms, Fetes, Shows, the opera, and risks her life among the wheels of carriages to get a view of their clothes. She could be seen through the traditional critiques of commodity culture, the society of spectacle, and class, and the built-in obsolescence of fashion. This would be correct as far as it goes, but incomplete. Dominated by the secondary image (the Barbie doll and Hello magazine descend from her experience), exploited by those who purchase it, and moreover prey to the obsolescence of the secondary image, she might well seem the slave of commodity and the society of spectacle. But she ‘“scuds”’, as she puts it, round London with extraordinary freedom, a real and not imaginary freedom. She invests imaginative energy in her project – ‘“All my work!”’ (p. 435), she says, of the shop window showing the spectacle of her dolls: she is rightly proud of her aesthetic inventiveness and flair, her resourcefulness, and her practical efficiency. She is in control of her work, she brings ideas to it – ‘“You must have another touch of blue in your trimming, my dear”’ (p. 716) – and she shapes her life through it. She is a maker in several senses of the word. Moreover, to her mind, her work inverts the class hierarchy which it appears to serve and actually instrumentalises the rich: ‘“I am making a perfect slave of her [slavery again], with making her try on my doll’s dress”’ (p. 436) When she ‘“cut[s] out and baste[s]”’ (p. 436) a grand lady and eyes the apparel of an aristocratic woman they become completely subservient to her imagined doll’s dress. ‘Trying on’ is an imaginative practice that ruthlessly demythologises class and fashion. ‘“That’s Lady Belinda [in the shop window] hanging up by the waist, much too near the gaslight for a wax one, with her toes turned in”’ (p. 436). It would not be an exaggeration to say that her work is a form of self-representation that re-interprets class, culture and cultural meaning.
Second Prompt: what sort of autonomy is this? The wresting of autonomy and imagination from exploitation? The wresting of autonomy from economic law and class hierarchy?
Her occupation becomes a self-made therapy for her disablement – the completeness of her dolls’ outfits becomes a reparation for her own incompleteness and lack, the twisted back and legs that distort her body. They give her back ownership of her body. She has been mocked, assaulted and terrified by other children (p. 224). If one reading of the doll is a form of narcissism, another, Luce Irigaray’s, says that a psychoanalytical reading of the doll is as surrogate for the female subject position, which it duplicates in order that this position can be dramatized and understood. In her corrosive encounter with the disingenuous Headstone, she uses a doll, the ‘“Honourable Mrs T”’, or ‘“Truth”’, to mediate the conversation and expose his bad faith – ‘“O Mrs T”’ (p. 342) – she knowingly addresses the doll. The doll is a powerful female surrogate. It is characteristic of her that mourning for her dead father issues in the discovery of a surplice and the inspiration for a clergyman doll – the only male doll mentioned in her arsenal of dolls – ‘glossy black curls and whiskers’ (p. 734), which is incidentally a silent but wonderful satire on the self-important Anglican clergyman officiating at a pauper funeral. We might read her ecstatic account early in the novel of the perfume of roses, and the visionary children in white who come to her in ‘“long bright slanting rows calling ‘Who is this in pain?’”’ (p. 239) as a transcendental escape, as her lodger, Lizzie, does. But it is much more like the visions of Blake’s chimney sweeps in Songs of Innocence, who are still capable of creative imagining despite their oppression.
Third Prompt: Blake’s question – can one transcend through creativity the oppressions of labour and class? Can critique be reached through creativity?
She is the only character in the novel with five names to her identity. These names suggest the complex affiliations of the aesthetic. She has given herself her own name – Jenny Wren. Actually born Fanny Cleaver, her folkloric designation of herself, a female bird from a nursery rhyme, is a kind of self-mythologising. It is a sign of her own constant verbal creativity but also protects her from the violence, and possibly the deep insights, of her own cleaving, aggressive tongue. For she mercilessly attacks class pretensions and dissimulation in male figures, which is ‘“The way with all of you”’ (p. 342). Eugene (‘“you had better by half [. . .] turn industrious”’ (p. 238)), Headstone (‘“Here’s a perfectly disinterested person”’, she says ironically (p. 343)), Fledgeby (‘“Don’t look like anybody’s master”’ (p. 280)), and above all her own drunken father, or ‘child’ come in for verbal abuse: ‘“I wish you had been poked into cells and black holes, and run over by rats and spiders and beetles”’ (p. 241). The Oedipal violence here is intense. Her two names suggest a double nature, but Dickens is quite clear that the body in pain, and the mental suffering that makes for vituperative speech, is also what enables her to deconstruct class and status. She has learned autonomy, as her third name, ‘the person of the house’, suggests. You ‘“said nothing for yourself”’ (p. 724), she reproaches her passive Jewish friend, Riah, when he fails to resist Fledgeby. Her fourth name, the dolls’ dressmaker, suggests the efficient professional life that repudiates passivity.
Singer, nurse and interpreter to the shattered Eugene in the last part of the novel, it might seem that the novel places her stunted body and golden hair finally as subaltern at the disposal of class power. Particularly so, as the sick Eugene appropriates her vision of flowers and children: ‘“I should like you to have the fancy here, before I die”’ (p. 737). But just as she turns her aristocratic women to slaves, so she can be seen to make the upper world her dependent. Eugene’s life literally depends on her aesthetic of nursing, refined by her ‘miniature’ work, and on the linguistic power that interprets his needs. Yet despite his ‘salvation’, Eugene, Wildean before Wilde, torn by homosocial feeling (‘“we have long been much more than brothers”’, says Lightwood (p. 735)), and by his ambivalence about women, must be a risky proposition as a husband. (At one point we find him anally aiming earth from an old flower pot at a point of moonlight, bombarding the anima [p. 286]). While the life with Lizzie must be at risk from the anguish of Eugene’s homosocial feeling, Dickens gives the dolls’ dressmaker what no one else gets: a lover who is incapable of manipulation, a lover who can love her deformed body. The mythologising side of her, working in parallel with the deconstructing Cleaver side’s real hatred of men, like the recto and verso of a sheet of paper, longs for a ‘Him’ throughout the novel. As ‘Cinderella’, Riah’s name for her, a fifth name, she gets her prince in the unexpected form of Sloppy, now educated as cabinet-maker. ‘“I’ll tell you what, Miss. I should like to make you something”’ (p. 809). The overdetermined gender of the Cinderella fairy story might seem to relegate her to a subordinate role. Yet the only two makers in this fictional world come together, exchanging a humanly made aesthetic object and not the money or paper bonds that circulate in the novel. Jenny Wren’s paper patterns are in stark contrast to these financial bonds. Yet both the aesthetic object and the bond are forms of representation, different kinds of substitution that ask questions about the nature of representation itself.
Fourth Prompt: is it possible through the aesthetic and its representations to escape the noose of class and gender exploitation? To live and love with use value?
The encounter of Jenny Wren and Sloppy belongs to the mythmaking aspect of the novel. But Dickens is far from sentimentalising the Dolls’ dressmaker as a working class figure. He knows that the five names do not add up in his society. He is well aware of the privations and horrors of life on the poverty line. His point is that the dressmaker’s own sense of confidence and entitlement is correct: she is not a deficit subject; she wants the freedom-to-be-human; she is entitled to more and wants more. Bradley Headstone’s stunted mind is in direct antithesis to her stunted body. Distorted by the coercive ideology of self-improvement and education as a form of self-help that takes one out of one’s class, he is already intellectually petrified, as his name indicates. She, on the other hand, is able to see beyond the constraints of class hierarchy and acts in despite of her crippled body. No wonder she feels an instant hostility towards him devoid of the pity he might inspire. She knows she is entitled to representation in the sense that her energies can become a visible part of the social world, and can act upon it, entitled to a life that rates the aesthetic as important and is fulfilled by it, to everything taken for granted by the rich ladies of fashion whom she knows with the unillusioned insight of the dispossessed. She lives on the edge of a condition where she is taxonomically and literally a slave, a condition not granted the status of human personhood. The corrosive friction between the dolls’ dressmaker’s desire for recognition and the existing condition of society is ongoing in the text. It is exposed by Dickens’s exploration of the aesthetic.
Our Mutual Friend seethes with a sense of energy and its wasted potential. The subtext insists on the massive social and economic change required to transform the lives of such figures as Fanny Cleaver and give them a fair outlet for their fully human energies. What would be the changes required to enable such women to move from being mere figures caught in the network of economic need to figure or ‘try on’, as Dickens puts it, lives for themselves? The novel opens this up as a problem for the imagination. The status quo described in the text cannot be allowed to close down this problem, but instead forces open the imagination.
The case study above suggests the way the aesthetic searches into radical possibility through a process of interrogatives. Christopher Nealon has argued that by virtue of being ‘literary’, despite being riven by ‘internal contradictions’, imaginative writing belongs to ‘a broad history of social and political struggle’, ‘part of a human struggle to be free’. The work of art belongs to history but has its own history too. I would extend this to the novel’s creation or making of history. Nealon is eager to expand the notion of political struggle to ‘include under its rubric struggles to survive, to love, to live in safety and in joy that may not at first have seemed “political” per se’ (p. 44). Such a project will never be unproblematic. Thus a democratic imagination does not emerge without difficulty in the novel at this time. It can emerge in unexpected forms and places, as a body of practices, forms of inquiry, clusters of images, or as the latent meaning of the manifest text whose orthodoxies conceal it. But for all this it is persistent and consistent. To speak, to work, to think, to act and interact, to shape life through representation, these are pre-conditions for belonging to and changing civil society – being recognised. We might think of democratic imagination, rather as Svetlana Boym thinks of freedom in her Another Freedom, where she conceives of freedom rather as a process than a formal project. One of the constituents of freedom for her is ‘passionate thinking’: ‘It requires a double movement – defamiliarizing experience through the practice of thought and defamiliarizing habits of thought in response to changing experience’ (p. 27). But it requires, she says, the co-creation of the reader, another aspect of freedom, to see this happening in a text. Because the tendency of critique has been to see the novel in terms of its historical limitations that co-creation can be lacking. It is possible to push back the boundaries of ideology through the Inquiry, through the transformation of form, through an insistence on what is fully human, and through the work of the aesthetic.
Charles Baudelaire, ‘A Philosophy of Toys’, in The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, ed. and trans. by Jonathan Mayne (London: Phaidon, 1995), pp. 198-204.
Svetlana Boym, Another Freedom (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012).
Steven Connor, ‘Guys and Dolls’, Women: A Cultural Review, 26 (2015), 129-41.
Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend, ed. by Michael Cotsell (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).
Catherine Gallagher, ‘The Bioeconomics of Our Mutual Friend’, in The Body Economic: Life, Death, and Sensation in Political Economy and the Victorian Novel (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009).
Luce Irigaray, ‘The Gesture in Psychoanalysis’, in Between Feminism and Psychoanalysis, ed. by Teresa Brennan (London: Routledge, 1989), pp. 127-38.
Christopher Nealon, ‘Reading on the Left’, Representations, 108 (2009), 22-50.
Simon Schaffer, ‘Babbage’s Dancer’, in Cultural Babbage: Technology, Time, Invention, ed. by Francis Spufford and Jenny Uglow (London: Faber and Faber, 1996), pp. 53-80.