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Father Philip Jones reading next to Dickens's baptismal font

Father Philip Jones reading next to Dickens’s baptismal font


On March 4 some 203 years ago young Charles Dickens, less than a month old, was brought to the Portsea Parish Church font to be formally welcomed into the Anglican religion. This week the Portsmouth Dickens Fellowship commemorated the occasion by reading from The Life of Our Lord, the story of Jesus Christ, which Dickens had written for his children.

Said chapter secretary Geoffrey Christopher, “It went well.” Click here.


I’m demonstrating how sifters sift the dust.

At the November gathering of the Dickens Fellowship in Philadelphia, I gave a talk on one of the main motifs of Our Mutual Friend—dust. Most of this “dust” consisted of ashes and cinders from coal fires, also the source of the famous London fog (actually smog). In the 1850s each London household burned an estimated average of 11 tons of coal a year.

Localities arranged for dust-contractors to haul away the contents of household dustbins, leading to huge dust heaps rising like volcanic mountains on the city’s outskirts. Profits from the heaps made the contractors wealthy. How do you get rich from trash? Almost every item collected from the city’s dustbins—the ashes and cinders, along with other household refuse–marrow bones, cabbage stalks, worn-out shoes, crumpled paper, dirty rags, and the like—was sold and put to use. Nothing went to waste.


A dust heap at King’s Cross

Two-man teams, each equipped with horse, cart, ladder, shovels, and baskets, went house to house, calling “Dust oh-ey,” to alert the household. The filler shoveled the dustbin’s contents into his basket. The carrier brought the full baskets to the cart and dumped them. Once their cart was full, they headed for one of the dust-yards to “shoot” their load onto the heap.


Flying Dustmen

Householders usually arranged for the dustmen to come by once a week. What if a householder or servant failed to heed the dustman’s cry? No fear. The flying, or running, dustmen to the rescue.

These chaps ran their own independent, somewhat shady, business. They’d offer to clean out the house’s dustbins, for which they expected a good tip. If the tip wasn’t to their liking, they were apt to drag their muddy boots along the carpet or smear the wallpaper with slime. Once their cart was full, they sifted through the dust for whatever of value they could find. Unlike the large contractors, they had no way of disposing of the ashes and cinders that made up the bulk of their cargo. So they’d wait until dark, drive out to some deserted road, open the back of the cart and let its contents spill out as they drove along.

At the yard, the dustmen’s wives and children processed the dust. A woman, usually, called a hillwoman, supervised operations. When a sifter, a woman aged 16 to 60+, held out her sieve and shouted, “Sarve!” a teenage boy, called a filler-in, tossed in a shovelful of dust from the heap. Each woman rapidly sorted the contents of her sieve, flinging marrow bones, worn-out shoes, bits of coal, crumpled paper, dirty rags, cabbage leaves, sometimes, if she was lucky, a dead cat into baskets. Then, giving the sieve a strong shake, she let the fine ashes, or soil, sift through, leaving only the cinders, or breeze, to dump into another basket, which the children carried off.

Small children helped their mothers sort. As soon as they were strong enough to carry a basket across the yard, they were paid a few pence a day. Despite the dire warnings in the press, the dustmen,  the sifters, and their children were a healthy lot. The smell didn’t bother them, they claimed. They rarely got sick. Neither the plague nor cholera seems to have touched them.


Children grew up into the business.

The contractor who owned the yard sold the soil and cinders to brickmakers and farmers. Mixed with clay, soil made fine bricks. Spread on fields, it made good fertilizer. Brickmakers used cinders to burn bricks. Other found items belonged to the hillwoman. Any rags, bones, or metal, for example, she sold to marine store dealers, old boots and shoes to manufacturers of a pigment called Prussian-blue. Tin objects, such as kettles, went to trunk makers, who used them to make clamps. Valuables like jewelry and coins were supposedly sold and the money shared between the hillwoman and the workers. Usually, however, despite the threat of immediate dismissal, a worker who found a valuable item quietly pocketed it.

Other Victorian scavengers included mudlarks, who searched the muddy shores of the Thames for coal from barges, rope, wood chips and the like, and dredgermen who searched the river for debris, including corpses. Many old woman were pure-finders, scavengers who collected pure, or dog dung, to sell to leather tanners. It was good for purifying hides, hence the name.

Something for dog owners to think about when they scoop poop. Victorians could find a use for anything.

On Monday, February 18, 2013, 65-year-old Danny Vanzandt burned to death in his home in Muldrow, Oklahoma. Although his head and legs were intact, the rest of his body was reduced to ashes. Yet surrounding furniture was undamaged. According to Sequoyah County Sheriff Ron Lockhart, a former arson investigator, “You could pour gasoline on somebody and he wouldn’t be as badly incinerated.” A lighter was found near his body but no accelerant. There was no suggestion of foul play. What happened?

Where is Mr. Krook?

Where is Mr. Krook?

In Chapter 32 of Bleak House, Dickens described a similar mysterious death. Krook, an alcoholic rag-and bottle dealer, is alone in his shop at night, imbibing freely. Soon after, Mr. Snagsby, strolling past, scents a greasy flavor in the air but supposes it’s due to not-quite-fresh chops being grilled at the tavern next door. Two young men, Guppy and Weevil, are in the apartment above Krook’s shop. “See how the soot’s falling,” Mr. Guppy remarks to his friend.

“See here, on my arm! See again, on the table here! Confound the stuff, it won’t blow off–smears like black fat!”

Mr. Guppy pulls his hand from the windowsill.

“What, in the devil’s name,” he says, is this! Look at my fingers!” A thick, yellow liquor defiles them, which is offensive to the touch and sight and more offensive to the smell. a stagnant, sickening oil with some natural repulsion in it that makes them both shudder.

They go down to the shop. Krook has vanished, but his cat is snarling at something near the fireplace.

Hold up 
the light. Here is a small burnt patch of flooring; here is the tinder from a 
little bundle of burnt paper, but not so light as usual, seeming to be steeped in something; and here is—is it the cinder of a small charred and broken log of wood sprinkled with white ashes, or is it 
coal? Oh, horror, he IS here!

All that remains of Mr. Krook is a foul smell, greasy soot, a pool of oil, and a chunk of burnt thigh.

Krook’s death is attributed to spontaneous combustion, an iffy supposition, as Dickens  knew. In the Preface to Bleak House he assured his readers, “before I wrote that description I took pains to 
investigate the subject” and cited the well-known 1731 case of an Italian countess’s puzzling death. “The appearances, beyond all 
rational doubt, observed in that case are the appearances observed 
in Mr. Krook’s case.” Dickens claimed to know dozens of documented examples of such deaths.

In this 1951 death, nothing is left but a leg.

In this 1951 death, nothing is left but a leg.

Similar cases have been reported in modern times. In each case the body is burned to cinders but the surrounding area—and sometimes the victim’s extremities—remain intact. As in Mr. Krook’s case, greasy residue from the body may adhere to floor and walls. Like both Mr. Krook and Mr. Vanzandt, the victim is often a smoker and/or a drinker, and the body is found near a fireplace. In each case, the question arises: Did the victim, like a heap of oily rags in a bucket, spontaneously combust?

The issue resolves into two questions:

  1. How can a body catch fire without being ignited?
  2. How can a body burn so completely that even its bones are cremated and yet not burn anything around it, even its own limbs?

Technically, the term spontaneous human combustion (SHC) applies only to the first question and the answer to it is: it can’t. Dickens thought the alcohol inside Krook’s body caused him to explode, but scientists say no inner chemical reaction can cause a body to burst into flames. Something must ignite it, such as a smoldering ember, lit cigarette, or match. (A lighter was found near Vanzandt’s body.)

But why does the body burn from within? Why is surrounding furniture left untouched? The answer may lie in what scientists call the “wick effect.” The spark burns through clothing and skin to reach the fat beneath. The victim is already dead, perhaps from a heart attack, or drunk, or—gruesome thought—too disabled to douse the flame. Clothing absorbs the fat as it melts, fueling the flames as a candle’s wick fuels its wax, until all the fat has burned away. The fire is confined to the fat-rich torso, leaving the extremities intact.

Pig in a blanket

Pig in a blanket

Dr John DeHaan of the California Criminalistic Institute used a dead pig to demonstrate. (Something to think about: the fat content of a pig’s body is similar to yours.) The pig was wrapped in a blanket, a small amount of gasoline poured on, and a spark applied. Once the flames caught, the pig burned for over five hours. In human crematoria, with temperatures as high as 1600-1800F, bone fragments remain. Here, the heat was so intense even the bones were pulverized to ash.

Generally speaking, Dickens was not kind to women of a certain age. Mrs. Skewton, Sairey Gamp, Miss Havisham, Mrs. Squeers, Mrs. Clennam, Mrs. Corney, Madame Defarge, Mrs. Joe Gargery, Miss Murdstone, Miss Wade—horrors, one and all. In Bleak House, however, among the cruel aunts, neglectful mothers, and hard-hearted dispensers of good works, one older woman stands out as a pleasant exception. Mrs. Rouncewell, the housekeeper at Chesney Wold is, we are told, “a fine old lady, handsome, stately, wonderfully neat,” and an indispensable part of the grand Dedlock estate for fifty years.

Could Mrs. Rouncewell be based on Dickens’s grandmother—also a widow and mother of two grown sons—longtime housekeeper at Crewe Hall, another grand estate? Mrs. Rouncewell tells ghost stories to visitors to Chesney Wold. Lord Crewe’s grandchildren remembered Mrs. Dickens telling stories to them.

Dickens's paternal grandparents were servants at Crewe Hall.

Dickens’s paternal grandparents were servants at Crewe Hall.

Elizabeth Ball, born in Shropshire in 1745, began her career as a servant at Tong Castle near Wolverhampton. By the time she was 36 she was in London, a maid to Lady Blandford. There she met William Dickens, a manservant working for Lord Crewe, who had a townhouse in Lower Grosvenor Street, Mayfair. In November, 1781, despite a considerable age difference—William was in his 60s—he and Elizabeth married. Thirty-six was considered a bit long in the tooth in those days, so no doubt she felt lucky to get him. Especially when he was promoted to butler at Crewe Hall, the family’s estate in Cheshire. Elizabeth was taken into the household too, as housekeeper. The next year she bore her husband a son, also named William.

In 1785, Mr. Dickens died. A few months later, his widow bore a second son, John, who would become Charles Dickens’s father. John, unlike his older brother, was helped to rise out of the servant class. When he was 20, through the patronage of the Crewe family and their influential friends, he was appointed to a clerkship in the Navy Pay Office at five shillings a day. Claire Tomalin in Charles Dickens: A Life suggests he may have received this boost not to reward his mother for her faithful service, as is generally assumed, but because he was actually the son of Lord Crewe or one of his friends—plucking the virtue of household staff being a common pastime among the aristocracy of the day.

An attractive theory, with no hard evidence to support it, which transforms John into an Oliver Twist or Esther Summerson, someone whose status is raised through the sudden acquisition of an aristocratic ancestor. (Tomalin points out that even if John Dickens wasn’t an actual by-blow, he may have thought he was, which could account for the lordly sense of entitlement and lack of financial prudence that landed him in the Marshalsea.)

Whether Dickens used his grandmother as a model for Mrs. Rouncewell depends on how well he knew her and on whether he ever visited her at Crewe Hall. Elizabeth Dickens was 67 when Charles was born; he was 12 when she died, so it’s certainly possible. We know his father visited her. The Crewes’ granddaughter remembered “old Mrs. Dickens’ grumbling about ‘that lazy fellow John . . . who used to come hanging about the house” and how she’d given him “many a sound cuff on the ear.” If he was trying to cadge money, as was likely, why not bring his lively son along to soften her up? That she had money, we know. She left John enough in her will to get him out of debtor’s prison.

If Dickens did have his grandmother in mind when he created the Chesney Wold housekeeper, he cleaned her up. That “fine old lady” Mrs. Rouncewell is far too genteel to give anyone, certainly not one of her sons, “a sound cuff on the ear.”

thFor a convivial drink to celebrate the New Year why not concoct a bowl of Mr. Micawber’s punch. He makes it not once, but twice, in David Copperfield, initially, when David hosts his first dinner party. The Micawbers–“Mr. Micawber with more shirt-collar than usual, and a new ribbon to his eye-glass”–are among his guests.

I informed Mr. Micawber that I relied upon him for a bowl of punch, and led him to the lemons. His recent despondency, not to say despair, was gone in a moment. I never saw a man so thoroughly enjoy himself amid the fragrance of lemon-peel and sugar, the odour of burning rum, and the steam of boiling water, as Mr. Micawber did that afternoon. It was wonderful to see his face shining at us out of a thin cloud of these delicate fumes, as he stirred, and mixed, and tasted, and looked as if he were making, instead of punch, a fortune for his family down to the latest posterity.

And when it’s ready:

“Punch, my dear Copperfield,” said Mr. Micawber, tasting it, “like time and tide, waits for no man. Ah! it is at the present moment in high flavour. My love, will you give me your opinion?” Mrs. Micawber pronounced it excellent. (From David Copperfield, Chapter 27)

The second occasion is on the eve of the Micawber family’s departure for Australia, when Mr. Micawber consents to compose “a moderate portion of that Beverage which is peculiarly associated, in our minds, with the Roast Beef of Old England. I allude to–in short, Punch.”

The Micawbers are already prepared for life at sea and in the Outback.

Mr. Micawber immediately descended to the bar . . . and in due time returned with a steaming jug. I could not but observe that he had been peeling the lemons with his own clasp-knife, which, as became the knife of a practical settler, was about a foot long; and which he wiped, not wholly without ostentation, on the sleeve of his coat. Mrs. Micawber and the two elder members of the family I now found to be provided with similar formidable instruments, while every child had its own wooden spoon attached to its body by a strong line. In a similar anticipation of life afloat, and in the Bush, Mr. Micawber, instead of helping Mrs. Micawber and his eldest son and daughter to punch, in wine-glasses, which he might easily have done, for there was a shelf-full in the room, served it out to them in a series of villainous little tin pots; and I never saw him enjoy anything so much as drinking out of his own particular pint pot, and putting it in his pocket at the close of the evening. (From David Copperfield, Chapter 57)

Mr. Micawber, so magnificently resilient and rhetorical, is based on Dickens’s father, John, also a master of the punch bowl. By the 1840s, the making of punch was fast becoming an outdated, old-fashioned custom but one his son loved. According to this Esquire article by David Wondrich, “When he was among friends, it was his custom to brew up a bowl of punch, complete with a running disquisition on the techniques he was using and the ingredients he was deploying.”

esq-holiday-punch-drink-1212-lgHere’s Charles’s  own recipe for making three pints of punch:

Peel into a very strong common basin (which may be broken, in case of accident, without damage to the owner’s peace or pocket) the rinds of three lemons, cut very thin, and with as little as possible of the white coating between the peel and the fruit, attached. Add a double hand-full of lump sugar (good measure), a pint of good old rum, and a large wine-glass full of brandy–if it not be a large claret-glass, say two.

Set this on fire, by filling a warm silver spoon with the spirit, lighting the contents at a wax taper, and pouring them gently in. [L]et it burn for three or four minutes at least, stirring it from time to Time. Then extinguish it by covering the basin with a tray, which will immediately put out the flame.

Then squeeze in the juice of the three lemons, and add a quart of boiling water. Stir the whole well, cover it up for five minutes, and stir again. At this crisis (having skimmed off the lemon pips with a spoon) you may taste. If not sweet enough, add sugar to your liking, but observe it will be a little sweeter presently.

Pour the whole into a jug, tie a leather or coarse cloth over the top, so as to exclude the air completely, and stand it in a hot oven ten minutes, or on a hot stove one quarter of an hour. Keep it until it comes to table in a warm place near the fire, but not too hot. If it be intended to stand three or four hours, take half the lemon peel out, or it will acquire a bitter taste.

The same punch allowed to cool by degrees, and then iced, is delicious. It requires less sugar when made for this purpose. If you wish to produce it bright, strain it into bottles through silk. These proportions and directions will, of course, apply to any quantity. (From a letter to “Mrs. F.”–Amelia Austin Filloneau–January 18, 1847)

At the end of A Christmas Carol Dickens mentions another punch, made with red wine and oranges, called smoking bishop in reference to its deep red color, when he has Scrooge tell Bob Cratchit, “I’ll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop, Bob!”

Although I haven’t tried either punch, I’ve seen  smoking bishop  on the menu  at Cavanaugh’s Dark Horse, where the Dickens Fellowship’s Philadelphia branch meets. If it’s still there at our next meeting, I’ll give it a try–after my talk.

Dickens Fellowship Meeting

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Dutch-treat lunch, noon

Meeting, 1:15

Talk: Joan Kane Nichols, Dickens and Dogs

Guests welcome.

Cavanaugh’s Headhouse Square (formerly The Dark Horse)

Pickwick Room

421 South 2nd Street



1838 portrait by Samuel Laurence

In November 1838, 23-year-old Catherine Dickens, the happily married mother of two—a one-year-old son, Charley, and an eight-month-old daughter, Mary—received a letter from Charles, away on a trip. It ended with these words: “God bless you my darling—I long to be back with you again, and to see the sweet Babs—Your faithful and most affectionate Husband.”

1858 photo

1858 photo

In June 1858, twenty years later Charles wrote to his best friend, John Forster, bemoaning his present marital unhappiness and tracing its source to that same time:

Poor Catherine and I are not made for each other, and there is no help for it. It is not only that she makes me uneasy and unhappy, but that I make her so too . . . we are strangely ill-assorted for the bond there is between us. . . . What is now befalling me I have seen steadily coming, ever since the days you remember when Mary was born; and I know too well that you cannot, and no one can, help me.

What went wrong? How did “my darling” turn into “poor Catherine”? More to the point, when did the marriage begin to go wrong for Dickens—almost from the beginning as he suggests, or only in more recent years?

 Charlie Takes a Wife

In 1834 George Hogarth, editor of London’s Evening Chronicle, hired Charles Dickens to write some articles for him. Growing fond of the talented and ambitious young man, Hogarth invited him to meet his family at his home south of the Fulham Road, a somewhat rural neighborhood sandwiched between Kensington Gardens and the Thames. Charles was impressed with the Hogarths, who four years earlier had arrived in England from Edinburgh, where Mr. Hogarth had been a friend of Charles’s idol, the famous author Walter Scott. They were a cultured and contented family, definitely a cut above his own.

Best of all, he liked 19-year-old Catherine, the oldest of the Hogarth’s nine children. Cheerful, bright, and happy, with a good sense of humor (though rumored to have a penchant for bad puns), warm-hearted and compliant, Catherine was everything Charles could want in a woman. Pretty too, even sexy in a quiet way, with her heavy-lidded blue eyes, what are often called “bedroom eyes,” uptilted nose, red lips, and shapely figure.

Unlike Charles’s former love, Maria Beadnell, Catherine was intelligent, an avid reader and a serious musician, a companion with whom he could discuss his work. And she was versed in the practical arts of housekeeping and child care. Though richly endowed with culture and children, the Hogarths, had few servants. Along with her 15-year-old sister, Mary, her best friend and closest companion, Catherine attended to domestic chores, including caring for her youngest siblings, a pair of one-year-old twins.

1838 portrait by Samuel Laurence

1838 portrait by Samuel Laurence

But she also enjoyed a normal share of excursions, gossip, sleepovers, flirting, and parties, such as the one Charles invited her to for his 23rd birthday. She wrote, “Mr. Dickens improves very much upon acquaintance he is very gentlemanly and pleasant.”

He became a constant visitor to her home, played with the younger children, made himself agreeable. Once, dressed as a sailor, “he jumped in at the window, danced a hornpipe, whistling the tune, jumped out again.” Little more than six months after they met, he proposed. Catherine accepted. How could she resist this handsome, clever, ambitious, amusing young man?  He called her, “darling Tatie,” “darling Pig,” “dearest Mouse.” He sent her a thousand kisses in his letters. He demanded she come make breakfast for him, so he could see her smiling face as soon as he woke up.

He was always “Charles in Charge.” Less than three weeks into their engagement, Catherine, miffed for some reason, treated him to a dose of cool reserve. Furious, he  returned home and dashed off a letter. Her “sudden and uncalled for coldness” had “surprised and deeply hurt” him. “If a hasty temper produce this strange behavior, acknowledge it. If a feeling of you know not what—a capricious restlessness of you can’t tell what, and a desire to teaze, you don’t know why—give rise to it—overcome it.” If she’s grown tired of him, she’s to say so at once. “I shall not forget you lightly, but you will need no second warning.” If she feels anger when she reads this letter “or to use a word more current with your sex—‘spirit’,” she’s to let it go.

Heeding his implied threat, she was careful to avoid showing ‘spirit’ again. She did complain of his frequent absences, however, saying he was more interested in his writing than in her. Everything he did, he insisted, using a well-worn excuse, he did for her.

Whether for Catherine or to gratify his own ambition, Charles did work hard. A respected journalist, he had a growing reputation as an author of stories and sketches. A publisher suggested he gather his sketches into a book. Thrilled, he wrote more sketches to fill up the volume. On February 7, 1836, his 24th birthday, Sketches by Boz, illustrations by George Cruikshank, was published to great success.

Three days later, publishers Chapman and Hall told him a well-known artist, Robert Seymour, had an idea for a series of engraved illustrations showing the comic hunting and fishing mishaps of a club of sporting gentleman. Would Dickens write short bits of text to accompany the illustrations? Charles, who had a good share of chutzpah, agreed on two conditions: first, instead of him writing text to accompany Seymour’s drawings, Seymour would illustrate text that Dickens would write; second, since Dickens knew nothing about sports (the topic was old hat anyway), he’d write about a wide range of scenes and people. Chapman and Hall agreed. Seymour, though irked that his plan had been twisted out of shape by this hack upstart, had to agree too.

Contracts were signed, deadlines decided. Now all Charles had to do was write the book—after first coming up with characters and a plot. “I thought of Mr. Pickwick,” he said. Two days later The Pickwick Papers was underway. The first number came out on March 31, 1836. Two days later, on April 2, he and Catherine were married

<to be continued>

Prostitution was rampant in Dickens’s London. According to Bracebridge Hemyng, who wrote the prostitution section of Henry Mayhew’s four-volume, mid-19th century classic, London Labour and the London Poor,* prostitutes were arranged in a hierarchy. At the top were kept women, mistresses of wealthy men, who had their own homes and lived like respectable members of society.

One rung down were prima donnas, fashionable women of beauty and charm, who depended on more than one well-to-do “protector.” These women often resorted to night-houses to replenish their supply.

In these night-houses, what we’d call after-hours clubs, fashionable men and women could drink, gamble, relax, and meet one another. Kate’s, the classiest night-house in London, was the prima donnas’ favorite, since, as Hemyng says, “Kate is careful as to who she admits into her rooms–men who are able to spend, and come with the avowed intention of spending, five or six pounds, or perhaps more if necessary.” About the amount a young maidservant could earn in a year.

Below the level of the kept women and the prima donnas were women who resided, one or two together, in their own apartments.Their landlords knew what they were but didn’t object, just jacked up the rent. Most such lodging houses were near the Haymarket, a section of London not far from Picadilly. These women trolled for business in nearby cafes and clubs, or , as here, on the streets.

On the lowest level were women who lived in brothels and turned over all or most of their earnings to brothel keepers in exchange for board, lodging, and clothes. Like the woman Martha rescues Little Em’ly from in David Copperfield, these brothel keepers, usually women, had a reputation for luring innocent young women just up from the country into their brothels under false pretences.

Although some brothels existed in the fashionable West End, most were located in the poorer districts of the East End or south of the Thames, in neighborhoods such as Lambeth, as shown here. Notice that these young ladies are exposing their ankles, something no respectable woman would do.

* Also see Dover Publication’s The London Underworld in the Victorian Period, an easily accessible reprint of Volume 4 of London Labour and the London Poor.

Victorian art and literature are full of  stories about the fallen woman, defined as any woman who loses her reputation by having sex while unmarried or with a man not her husband. George Eliot’s Hetty Sorrel in Adam Bede, Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton, Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, as well as Dickens’s Nancy in Oliver Twist, Little Em’ly and Martha Endell in David Copperfield and Lady Dedlock in Bleak House all qualify.

Suicide was the approved means of atonement. “The Bridge of Sighs,” a poem by Thomas Hood published in 1844, features a fallen woman fished out of the Thames after flinging herself in.

Hood’s  poem was so popular  an illustration of it was carved on his tombstone.

George Frederic Watts based his painting Found Drowned (1849-50) on Hood’s poem.

Hablot Knight Brownes’s etching of Martha Endell, the fallen woman in David Copperfield, shows her at the river. We know what she’s contemplating.

The Outcast (1851) Richard Redgrave                                                              “Sisterly/brotherly,/Fatherly, motherly/Feelings had changed;”

The Lost Path (1863) Frederick Walker                                                                                                “O, it was pitiful!/Near a whole city full,/Home she had none.”

The Awakening Conscience by Pre-Raphaelite William Holman Hunt was initially inspired by Mr. Peggoty’s redemption of Little Em’ly’ in David Copperfield. Hunt , however, wanted to show the redemption as coming from within the woman herself. Playing and singing “Oft in the Stilly Night” (see the sheet music on the piano), a song about happier times, the woman in Hunt’s painting is struck by a spiritual revelation. (Or has her lover just indulged in a rude grope. You decide.)

The Awakening Conscience (1853-54) William Holman Hunt (Tate)               Notice the absence of a wedding ring on her finger and the symbolic details scattered about, such as the castoff glove.

Adultery was as bad, if not worse, than simple fornication. A series of paintings by Augustus Leopold Egg, originally untitled but now called Past and Present, I, II, III (1858, Tate), portrays the discovery and dire consequences of a wife’s fall–a stern warning to any woman tempted to infidelity.

The triptych includes a fictional diary entry that reveals and comments on the whole sad story: “August the 4th–have just heard that B–has been dead more than a fortnight, so his poor children have now lost both parents. I hear she was seen on Friday last near the Strand, evidently without a place to lay her head. What a fall hers has been.”

The infidelity is discovered. This painting too is replete with symbols, such as the apple next to the anguished woman’s body and the children’s house of cards.

Five years later, the daughters, older now and alone, struggle to survive in this bare garret room.

On the same night, by the light of the same moon, the fallen woman cowers under an arch near the Thames, the fruit of her sin–dead or dying–clasped in her arms.

But there was a lighter side to all this gloom and doom. Not every fallen woman killed herself or took to the streets. As Thomas Hardy points out in his 1866 (published 1902) poem “The Ruined Maid,” being ruined could have its compensations.

Hardy may have been inspired by this Punch cartoon.

(In the 19th century gay referred to prostitution, not homosexuality.)

Mary Hogarth was much better looking than this only surviving image suggests.





Mary Hogarth was the younger sister and closest companion of Charles Dickens’s wife, Catherine. Her sudden death at seventeen broke Charles’s heart. To him she was an angel who inspired him throughout his life.


Mary died here at 48 Doughty Street.






Catherine and Charles Dickens with newborn Charles, Jr. had moved into 48 Doughty Street in April of 1837. Mary died, suddenly and unexpectedly, one month later. “Thank God,” Charles wrote to a friend, “she died in my arms and the very last words she whispered were of me.”


Today, 48 Doughty Street is home to the Charles Dickens Museum. Now undergoing renovations, the museum will reopen in December 2012.


Charles arranged to have Mary buried in London’s Kensal Green Cemetery and composed her epitaph.







Charles planned to be buried beside Mary, but five years later her brother died and was buried there instead. Charles wrote that “the thought of being excluded from her dust was like losing her a second time.”

Mary’s tombstone. Her parents were eventually buried here as well.


Rose Maylie in Oliver Twist is the first of many Dickens characters based on Mary. “She was not past seventeen. Cast in so slight and exquisite a mould; so mild and gentle; so pure and beautiful; the earth seemed not her element, nor its rough creatures her fit companions.”

Like Mary, Rose is struck with a sudden deathly illness. Unlike her, she survives.

Charles rejected the illustration George Cruikshank provided for the final scene of Oliver Twist and insisted he replace it.


The canceled plate shows Rose, Oliver, Mrs. Maylie, and Henry, Rose’s fiance.

The scene Charles preferred: Oliver and Rose alone together lit by a heavenly glow.

To exist for men? Not much different from men? Meant to please and praise? Sickly, feeble, and useless? A fountain of self-sacrifice? No better than a slave? These opinions and more swirled through the cultural climate of Dickens’s time.

Image Many Victorians believed what Jean-Jacques Rousseau had said in 1762:

“Women’s entire education should be planned in relation to men. To please men, to be useful to them, to win their love and respect. to raise them as children, to care for them as adults, correct and console them, make their lives sweet and pleasant; these are women’s duties in all ages and these are what they should be taught from childhood.”

Image In 1847 Charlotte Bronte, who wrote under a male pseudonym in order to be taken seriously, said:

“Women are supposed to be very calm generally; but women fell just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do;they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags.”

Image In 1854, in a long poem in praise of his wife, Coventry Patmore said:

“Man must be pleased; but him to please

Is woman’s pleasure; down the gulf

Of his condoled necessities

She casts her best, she flings herself.

How often flings for nought! and yokes

Her heart to an icicle or whim,

Whose each impatient word provokes

Another, not from her, but him;

While she, too gentle even to force

His penitence by kind replies,

Waits by, expecting his remorse,

With pardon in her pitying eyes;

And if he once, by shame oppress’d,

A comfortable word confers,

She leans and weeps against his breast,

And seems to think the sin was hers.”

Image In 1865 John Ruskin said:

“The man’s power is active, progressive, defensive. He is eminently the doer, the creator, the discoverer, the defender. His intellect is for speculation and invention; his energy for adventure, for war, and for conquest, wherever war is just, wherever conquest necessary. But the woman’s power is for rule, not for battle–and her intellect is not for invention or creation, but for sweet ordering, arrangement and decision. She sees the qualities of things, their claims, and their places. Her great function is Praise: she enters into no contest, but infallibly adjudges the crown of contest.”

Image In 1864 Sarah Stickney Ellis, a devout Congregationalist and minister’s wife, said:

“When the cultivation of the mental faculties had so far advanced as to take precedence of the moral, by leaving no time for domestic usefulness, and the practice of personal exertion in the way of promoting general happiness, the character of the women of England assumed a different aspect, which is now beginning to tell upon society in the sickly sensibilities, the feeble frames, and the useless habits of the rising generation.”

Image In 1869 John Stuart Mill, with the help of his wife, Harriet Taylor, said:

“We are constantly told that civilization and Christianity have restored to the woman her just rights. Meanwhile the wife is the actual bondservant of her husband; no less so, as far as the legal obligation goes, than slaves commonly so called.”

Image In 1931 Virginia Woolf, whose mother was one, said that the Victorian woman:

“was intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed herself daily. If there was chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draught she sat in it–in short she was so constituted that she never had a mind or a wish of her own, but preferred to sympathize always with the minds and wishes of others.”


Queen Victoria, age 26, in 1845. A model of womanhood for the women of her time.