It is staggering to the modern reader that a novelist with such a highly public profile as Charles Dickens should have involved himself to such a degree in an individual concern like Urania Cottage. We are accustomed to celebrities who lend their services to the publicity of a particular charitable interest, and many do become closely linked to a particular cause or concern. Dickens, however, was involved in every aspect of Urania Cottage; he was in twenty-first century parlance, obsessively involved.
Miss Angela Burdett-Coutts had approached Dickens in May 1846 regarding setting up a home for the redemption of prostitutes. Miss Coutts had sought Dickens' opinion before for her Ragged School and was keen for his practical help in this new venture. Miss Coutts was a deeply religious woman whose religious beliefs, like those of Dickens, were expressed in a practical way. She had become fabulously wealthy unexpectedly; as the youngest daughter of the Burdett-Coutts family she was chosen by her grandfather's second wife as the heir to the Coutts bank fortune. Her family background with its radical traditions (her father was Sir Francis Burdett, the radical M.P.) had prepared her for a pragmatic approach to using her fortune for the good. It seemed to Miss Coutts that in Dickens she had found a fellow campaigner, someone who like her was liberal when dealing with others, but driven and exacting with her own performance.
Dickens, despite a first attempt to dissuade Miss Coutts from an investment in such a venture, was persuaded himself to become involved. In a long letter to Miss Coutts on May 23th May 1846, Dickens writes with enthusiasm and a characteristic organisational pragmatism about the home , or 'Asylum' as they referred to it at this point. He was brimming with ideas on the type and layout of the house needed,
I would divide the interior into two portions; and into the first portion I would put all new-comers. . . as a place of probation. (Letters, p.533)
He was also concerned that the women entering the house should be encouraged rather than constantly reminded of their sin, 'She is degraded and fallen, but not lost, having the shelter; and that the means of Return to Happiness,' (note the rather literary style of the capitals),'are now about to be put into her own hands. . . ' (Letters, p.533)
Dickens proposed using, 'Captain Maconnochie's Mark System' which involved awarding marks for good conduct, marks which are, ' deducted. . . for every instance of ill-temper, disrespect, bad-language. . . ' The goal of the institution should be, 'the formation of habits of firmness and self-restraint.' Above all, Dickens wrote to Miss Coutts, the system of education for this, 'class of persons', should be, 'steady and firm. . . cheerful and hopeful. Order and punctuality, cleanliness, the whole routine of household duties — as washing, mending, cooking — the establishment itself would supply the means of teaching practically, to every one' (Letters, p. 554). How marvellously practical this seems in comparision to Nancy's sad resignation to her fate in Oliver Twist, or Em'ly's passive shame in David Copperfield.
There is also a pragmatic approach displayed to the difficulties of instilling responsibility in the young woman. Dickens warns Miss Coutts, 'There is no doubt that many of them would go on well for some time, and would then go on well for some time, and would then be seized with a violent fit of the most extraordinary passion, apparently quite motiveless, and insist on going away. . . .I would have some rule to the effect that request be allowed for at least for and twenty hours, and that in the interval the person should be kindly reasoned with, if possible, and implored to consider well what she was doing. . . ' (Letters, p.554). The phrase, 'quite motiveless,' perhaps goes some way towards explaining Dickens reliance on literary clich�s to describe fallen women in his novels; reality is sometimes hardest to explain.
Miss Coutts and Dickens planned a Home that would offer a different and more sympathetic approach to the treatment of fallen women. Other organisations such as the Magdelen Society had homes which offered a typically harsh and punishing routine. The problem of prostitution was seen to be growing, throughout 1846, the summer of which brought famine to Ireland, Miss Coutts and Dickens shared letters discussing suitable dress for their young women, a garden for flowers and a piano to sing around, and generally looked towards the establishment of a new and innovative asylum. The poverty of the girls parading outside Miss Coutts' Piccadilly window only increased their enthusiasm for the project.
It was Dickens who found the house in Lime Grove. Urania Cottage was, he wrote in May 1847, 'retired, but cheerful. There is a garden and a little Lawn. The taxes are very low' (Dickens Connection, p. 8). He wrote 'An Appeal to Fallen Women' to be distributed to women in prison in the hope of encouraging them to enter the Home. He asked them to, 'be gentle, patient, persevering and good-tempered. . . you will (otherwise) occupy, unworthily and uselessly, the place of some other unhappy girl. . . ' (An Appeal to Fallen Women)
Dickens was involved with choosing the staff for Urania Cottage, he kept a close eye on the accounts and he interviewed prospective inmates. Miss Coutts trusted him in most things but was swayed by the Prison Governor Chesterton who argued that, 'the love of dress is the cause of ruin of a vast number of young women' (Lady Unknown, p.133). In this she disagreed with Dickens who begged for colour, 'Colour these people always want, and colour. . . .I would always give them. . . . In these cast-iron and mechanical days' (Lady Unknown p. 134).
Last modified May 27, 2003