Like quite a few other Victorian novelists and painters, Charles Dickens presents with great sympathy the plight of young women who served as governesses. Suspended between middle- and upper-class employers and members of the working class in service, they often found themselves mistreated. Ruth Pinch of Martin Chuzzlewit, for instance, is criticized, demeaned, and treated haughtily in a nouveau riche family — something her brother Tom quickly discovers when he pays her a visit upon coming to London after leaving the hideous Pecksniff. First Dickens beautifully characterizes the family with the father's opening words to Tom:
"I am glad you chance to have called to see your sister to-day, sir," resumed the brass-and-copper founder. "For although I do not approve, as a principle, of any young person engaged in my family in the capacity of a governess, receiving visitors, it happens in this case to be well timed. I am sorry to inform you that we are not at all satisfied with your sister."
"We are very much dissatisfied with her," observed the lady.
"I'd never say another lesson to Miss Pinch if I was to be beat to death for it!" sobbed the pupil. [ch. 26]
When Tom asks where the problem lies, the father"s response means one thing to him and something very different to Tom:
"Yes," said the gentleman, "I will. I don"t recognize it as a right; but I will. Your sister has not the slightest innate power of commanding respect. It has been a constant source of difference between us. Although she has been in this family for some time, and although the young lady who is now present has almost, as it were, grown up under her tuition, that young lady has no respect for her. Miss Pinch has been perfectly unable to command my daughter"s respect, or to win my daughter"s confidence. Now," said the gentleman, allowing the palm of his hand to fall gravely down upon the table: "I maintain that there is something radically wrong in that! You, as her brother, may be disposed to deny it — "
Tom agrees that "there is something radically wrong; radically monstrous, in that", just as he does when the father"s complains that he expects the goverenness to make his daughter "choice in her expressions, genteel in her deportment, as becomes her station in life, and politely distant to her inferiors in society, [but] I find her, only this very morning, addressing Miss Pinch herself as a beggar!" Tom, who has become a new man now that he has left Pecksniff, removes his sister from the vulgar family, telling them "the simple truth":
"Sir!" cried Tom, . . . no man can expect his children to respect what he degrades."
"Ha, ha, ha!" laughed the gentleman. "Cant! cant! The common cant!"
"The common story, sir!" said Tom; "the story of a common mind. Your governess cannot win the confidence and respect of your children, forsooth! Let her begin by winning yours, and see what happens then." . . . "When you tell me," resumed Tom, who was not the less indignant for keeping himself quiet, "that my sister has no innate power of commanding the respect of your children, I must tell you it is not so; and that she has. She is as well bred, as well taught, as well qualified by nature to command respect, as any hirer of a governess you know. But when you place her at a disadvantage in reference to every servant in your house, how can you suppose, if you have the gift of common sense, that she is not in a tenfold worse position in reference to your daughters?"
This being Dickens, Tom concludes by emophasizing that the cash nexus cannot justify ill treatment of one"s employees:
As to your suspicion and distrust of her; even of her word; if she is not above their reach, you have no right to employ her."
"No right!" cried the brass-and-copper founder.
"Distinctly not," Tom answered. "If you imagine that the payment of an annual sum of money gives it to you, you immensely exaggerate its power and value. Your money is the least part of your bargain in such a case. You may be punctual in that to half a second on the clock, and yet be Bankrupt. [ch. 26]
Last modified 17 May 2007
Last modified 8 June 2007