[Revised and adapted from the author's article of the same title from Women's Studies Forum No. 8 (March 1994), Kobe College Institute for Women's Studies, Japan. Click on the illustrations to enlarge them and usually for more information about them.]

decorated initial 'C' harles Dickens may not be the only one to push for domesticity, but he is notorious for glossing over any difficult passages. Caddy Jellyby is a case in point: having learnt by bitter experience the necessity for housewifely devotion, she takes to domesticity like a duck to water. The heroine of Little Dorrit has to make even less transition between childhood and young womanhood, having willingly taken care of others all her life. In fact, what she experiences when temporarily released from her domestic role, during her father's numbered days of luxury, is not an opening of horizons but a strange kind of regression: "quite lost by her task being done," she becomes nothing but a "little solitary girl" (519). She is far happier when restored to all the worries and responsibilities of a dependent family, including her sister Fanny's neglected children and her scapegrace brother, than she was without them. Heroines like these, positively grateful to be balancing housekeys, teapots and family commitments from a tender age, have brought Dickens under fire from many modern critics.

But it is worth noting that they are by no means sacrificial lambs on the altar of patriarchy. The service of such little housekeepers is, we are shown time and time again, founded on love, "a love in the world," as Sleary puts it in Hard Times (308). We can see how it works in the case of Florence Dombey. Neglected by her own father, she is waited on hand and foot by the sprightly Susan Nipper at home; but after running away, she at once blossoms in the warmth of Captain Cuttle's fatherly regard. She energetically shares the chores with him and even mixes him a "perfect glass of grog" — something she could have had no call to practice before (Dombey and Son, 775). Amy Dorrit hates her days of enforced idleness because they rob her of all means of expressing her affection for her father. For Dickens, the assumption of domesticity is something active, the female equivalent of, say, Pip's commendable shouldering and soldiering on in his working life in Great Expectations; it is also a form of emotional self-expression. Those who love and are loved, go to it with a will.

When that basis is denied, the heart does literally go out of their homes. Louisa Bounderby in Hard Times, for instance, is one young bride whose drawing~room, like her marriage, has no warmth at all. Miss Wade in Little Dorrit, embittered by her own tainted orphanhood, constructs a sterile parody of domesticity with Tattycoram. Worse still is the perfectly dead room (not unlike Louisa Bounderby's) in which Arthur Clennam finds an older Miss Wade in Calais. Whereas young Amy Dorrit can make a welcoming home in a prison, Miss Wade, her very antithesis, has made a chilly, dark prison of a home. These cases are sad, but not quite as striking as that of Miss Havisham, now an old woman, but one whose mouldy, insect- and rodent-ridden wedding feast and rank garden both bear disgusting testimony to the catastrophic blighting of her heart in youth. It is worth noting, however, that amongst these desolate figures, only Louisa Bounderby has any claim to be called a heroine.

"Our Housekeeping," by Phiz (Hablot K. Browne) illustrating the hopeless disorder and incompetence of the child-wife, Dora Spenlow, when Traddles drops round (Ch. 44). [Click on the image for more details.]

There is one still more poignant situation, though. David Copperfield's first wife, Dora, is neither unloved nor unloving, nor is she an unwilling helpmate. But she was over-protected and over-indulged in a childhood which has never really ended: she was treated as "a pretty toy or plaything" by her aunts right up until her marriage (David Copperfield, 669). Compare the shambles of her dining room, when Traddles comes to dinner, with the pleasantly quaint but tidy drawing room presided over in girlhood by Agnes Wickfield. Dora's is the real tragedy, as much for herself as for David; her death after a still-birth puts them both out of their misery. It also makes way for the more mature, competent (and fertile) Agnes — the real heroine, long earmarked for David's partner in life.

The rationale which Dickens provides for the domestic ideal is not, after all, exploitive or patronizing; the warnings he issues about the failure to square with it are grim but not cold.

Other writers were evidently impressed. There could hardly be another Miss Havisham. But Dora became a model for ineffectual wives in several novels, notably Rosey in Thackeray's The Newcomes, another pathetic child-wife who puts aside her "childish triumphs and vanities" and dies after a still-birth, in order to make way for a more capable heroine (The Newcomes, 672).

Related Material


Dickens, Charles. Bleak House. Ed. Norman Page. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985.

_____. David Copperfield. Ed. David Blount. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985.

_____. Dombey and Son. Ed. Peter Fairclough. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970.

_____. Hard Times. Ed. David Craig. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969.

Thackeray, William Makepeace. The Newcomes: Memoirs of a Most Respectable Family. Complete Works. Vol. 16. NewYork: Harper and Brothers, 1903.

Created 7 July 2018