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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.”