[The following essay was presented at the 26th Dickens Society Symposium (12-14 July 2021). Many thanks to Sean Grass, Professor of English at the Rochester Institute of Technology and President of the Dickens Society, for providing the list of speakers and sending along to them our invitation to add their presentations to the Victorian Web. — George P. Landow.]

Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend (1864–65) received a mixed reception from his contemporaries: while E.S. Dallas “class[ed] it with Mr. Dickens’s best works” (6), claiming the only weak point is “no real connexion” (Dallas 6) between the tale of “social chorus” (618; bk. 3, ch. 17) and the main story, Henry James considered it as “the poorest of Mr. Dickens’s works” (786), criticizing for the lifelessness of characters like Jenny Wren, a young doll’s dressmaker, and coldly pigeonholing Jenny as an “unnatural” “little monster”(787). The two seemingly irrelevant commentaries may be woven together in this essay: the plot of “social chorus” does have a subtle connexion with the main story by providing a bourgeois perspective on the latter, and it is the narrator’s proximity to the bourgeoisie urges himself to exaggeratedly infantilize the working-class girl Jenny, thereby rendering her grotesquely unreal. Here the bourgeoisie, as the term is used by Friedrich Engels, includes not just the middle class but also “aristocracy” so as to highlight the opposition between the group with property and the group without (276). This essay thus argues that the networks of characters, the narrator, and the narratee are to a degree class-biased, and this bias results in a framing of Jenny as a pitiable, powerless, doll-like “child” and her desires for authority and agency in consumer culture as puerile. However, if we notice the absence of Jenny’s thoughts and feelings and the instabilities in narration, we could resist such a bourgeois framing and read Jenny as able and powerful.

Noticeably, the middle classes in Our Mutual Friend more or less are related to the nobility. In those ‘Good Society’ parties, Lady Tippins and a ‘first cousin to Lord Snigsworth’(6; bk. 1, ch. 2), Mr. Melvin Twemlow, in a broader sense are the titled class, but they sit comfortably with the professional class, who imitate an idle lifestyle of the noble class (245; bk. 2, ch. 3). Also, as Peter Gurney observes, after inheriting wealth, the dustman “Boffin develops into a miser (or at least pretends to do so)”, and his wife becomes “a highflyer at Fashion” and compels them to “move to an ‘Eminently Aristocratic Mansion’ and surround themselves with fashionable things” (235–36). Twemlow, just due to his relationship with Lord Snigsworth, is frequently invited and habitually arranged first in a dining table, suggesting the yearning of the middle class for the aristocracy (6; bk. 1, ch. 2). All of these set the main story in a backdrop where either as Karl Marx described, “[t]he higher middle classes ape the aristocracy in their modes of life, and endeavor to connect themselves with it” (4), or as David Cannadine argues, the upper class incorporates into the middle class (58). Either way, the tale of social chorus indicates that in the main story, the landed class and the mercantile class fuse together into the bourgeoisie, distancing themselves from the laboring classes (815; bk. 4; ch. 17). In addition, when Mortimer Lightwood functions as a storyteller of the main story as well as a commentator and an observer in Good Society gatherings, his role, as Bert Hornback notes, “hints teasingly to us that he could be [the narrator of the novel], and that his understanding of the world is what Dickens proposes to us in the end” (257). This obfuscation of the distinction between a character and the narrator leads to the illusion among readers that the main story is recounted by a bourgeois character in a “good society” dinner party.

From a narratological perspective, the narrator also clearly groups himself with the landed and commercial classes:

Yes, verily, my lords and gentlemen and honourable boards, adapting your Catechism to the occasion, and by God’s help so you must. For when we have got things to the pass that with an enormous treasure at disposal to relieve the poor, the best of the poor detest our mercies, hide their heads from us, and shame us by starving to death in the midst of us, it is a pass impossible of prosperity, impossible of continuance. (503; bk. 3, ch. 8, emphasis mine) For example, in this passage, the narrator identifies himself and his audience, the upper class (lords) and the middle class (gentlemen), as a “we” unity, and distances this unity from the destitute, which are referred to as “them.” [Alber 138]

Through such a bourgeois lens, the narrator attempts to hold Jenny in a child position, thus making her unreal, but there is more to her than something the narrator can infantilize. The narrator and the working-class girl Lizzie Hexam first addresses Jenny as “child” (222, 227; bk. 2, ch. 1), and after Jenny’s names are revealed, the narrator always refers to her as “Jenny Wren”, a pseudonym named after the songbird “regarded in nursery lore as the wife, bride, or sweetheart of Robin Redbreast” (“Jenny Wren, n1”), rather than “Fanny Cleaver”, a name that suggests her perceptibility (Moore 477) and her profession as dressmaker. In this way, Jenny appears to be more childlike than perceptive and professional. Furthermore, the mid-Victorian bourgeoisie tended to regard a girl of Jenny’s age, “[t]welve, or at the most thirteen” (224; bk. 2, ch. 1), as a child: rich fathers prolonged childhood for their daughters to advertise “the excellence of both his earning capacity and his domestic affections” (Nelson 71), and it was until unmarried heiresses reached twenty-one that they could legally manage their money and property or marry without the consent of their parents or guardians (Gorham 363–64). As such, from a bourgeois perspective, Jenny is more a child misplaced in a role of adult than a liminal figure between child and adult. However, the narrative also illustrates Jenny as an indefinite figure: she is “a child – a dwarf – a girl – a something” (222; bk. 2, ch. 1). Charley Hexam also describes Jenny as “a little crooked antic of a child, or old person, or whatever it is” (228; bk. 2, ch. 1); and for Miss. Abbey’s question, “Child, or woman?”, Mr. Riah replies, “Child in years … woman in self-reliance and trial” (439; bk. 3, ch. 2). Interestingly, Charley is always referred to as “boy”, neither man nor child, and his origin as a son of a waterman and his rise into a “pupil-teacher” place him on the threshold of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Likewise, Riah’s race makes him peripheral to society, and his masquerade as the owner of moneylending business and his real identity as an employee also locate him in an intermediate state. The two in-between characters both define Jenny as a liminal figure, who as Ben Moore claims, “exhibits a strange indeterminacy” (473), or, as Frederick Luis Aldama states, “can fluidly move … in and out of different states of being” (8).

Additionally, with the employment of “focalization”, “a selection or restriction of narrative information in relation to the experience and knowledge of the narrator, the characters or other, more hypothetical entities in the storyworld” (Niederhoff 197), it can be seen that the narrator omits much information about Jenny. More often than not, Jenny is not the “focalizer”, “the subject of focalization … from which the elements are viewed” (Bal 135), but the “focalized”, the object that “the focalizer perceives” (Rimmon-Kenan 76). When Jenny is focalized by other characters, those characters are unable to access Jenny’s thoughts; when Jenny is focalized by the omniscient narrator, she is often perceived “from without” – that is, only the “outward manifestations” of Jenny are presented, her “feeling and thoughts remaining opaque” (Rimmon-Kenan 78). In fact, if the proletarian Jenny were real, her understanding of childhood may be different from that of the bourgeois narrator and author. In his 1851 interview, Henry Mayhew addressed an eight-year-old Watercress Girl as “infant” or “child” and sympathised with her lack of toys and “sweet-stuff”, whereas the young seller’s own accounts showed that she did not identify herself as a child requiring sugar-sticks (151–52). Not knowing Jenny’s thoughts and assuming her to be a child in accordance with the narrator’s bourgeois constructions lead to the deficiency of verisimilitude that Henry James noticed.

From a different viewpoint, Jenny’s names have also suggested her potential for being read as an adult. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick points out that the name “Fanny Cleaver” hints at aggression and rape (164). Although Sedgwick means homosexual rape between men here, this name may also infer vaginal penetration for “[fanny] apparently referred to female genitals throughout the nineteenth century in England” (Sedgwick 225) and “cleave” suggests splitting and penetration (“cleave, v1”), thereby endowing the character with violence and masculinity. Also, The Oxford Companion to English Literature explains “Jenny Wren” as “the business name of the doll’s dressmaker” (“Wren, Jenny”), so the fairy-tale moniker can be not just romantic but also commercial. In this case, the change of name may demonstrate Jenny’s obsession with children’s world and rejection of adults’ skills, but it can also reveal Jenny’s talent in advertising, particularly considering her designed business card, and her desires to hide her own aggressive nature. Thus, Jenny’s demotion of her father, Mr. Dolls, to a child position, and her control of his alcohol consumption may not just demonstrate a father-daughter inversion nor victimize Jenny, but manifest Jenny’s desire to manage domestic economics as an adult and her refusal of the impotence brought by a child state.

In addition to infantilization, Jenny also faces the threat from the bourgeois narrator’s reification. The narrator sometime employs the pronoun “it” (222; bk. 2, ch. 1) or the endearments, “little figure” (222; bk. 2, ch. 1), “little creature” (223; bk. 2, ch. 1), and “little thing” (347; bk. 2, ch. 11), to refer to Jenny. Indeed, littleness, “as an indication of … preciousness, physical smallness, modesty, and, most importantly, self-abnegation in service of others”, is an idealized quality favored by the Victorian bourgeoisie (Byler 219). However, the pronoun and the endearments refer to not just a “child” but also an artificial inanimate being, such as a doll. Moreover, the expressions, “being turned out of that mould” (222; bk. 2, ch. 1), “whenever she gave this look, she hitched this chin up” and “her eyes and her chin worked together on the same wires” (223; bk. 2, ch. 1) also give readers an illusion – as if Jenny were a marionette made out of a mould and manipulated by strings. When the narrator relates minutely how Lizzie brushes Jenny’s hair, “playfully smoothing the bright long fair hair” (233; bk. 2, ch. 2), Jenny, on the one hand, is associated with the fairy tale princess, Rapunzel, and therefore with the child image, and on the other hand, the adverb “playfully” dismisses Jenny as a doll which can be played by Lizzie. To resist the infantilization or reification, Jenny relegates characters around her to children and her higher-class customers to dolls (223; bk. 2, ch. 1). This resistance breeds more than one interpretations: Moore argues that Jenny’s action of watching fashionable ladies on the street is in line with the nineteenth-century imagination of dolls, which “were imagined to watch their owners” (479–80); in contrast, Gurney views the action as Jenny’s “revenge on a society whose structural inequalities she stoically endures” (239) because while those ladies imagine Jenny as “little creature” admiringly staring at them, Jenny in fact only considers them as dolls working for her (436; bk. 3, ch. 2) – to put it differently, Jenny objectifies those who objectify her and commodifies those who consume the commodities she makes. Consequently, Jenny oscillates between child and adult, doll and doll maker, within a bourgeois framing and beyond the framing.

Jenny controls domestic finances and reifies her clients, but her commercial desires are more obvious in her imagination of her future husband. She exclaims: “Because when I am courted, I shall make Him do some of the things that you do for me … he could take my work home, and he could call for orders in his clumsy way. And he shall too. I’ll trot him about, I can tell him!” (233–34; bk. 2, ch.2, emphasis original). Although Jon Mee argues that “the idea of a woman intellectually superior to her husband can only be allowed in the comic subplot by Dickens, refusing any serious aspect to ‘the Rights of Women, and all that kind of thing’” (76–78), Jenny’s own words also depict herself as a more determined and powerful figure than the one shaped by the bourgeois narrator. The shift from “shall”, to “could”, and back to “shall”, “will”, and “can” demonstrates the change of Jenny’s state, from assertiveness to uncertainty and then restoring to assertiveness. With a moment of hesitation, Jenny firms her confidence and determination that her future husband will not only obey her orders to take care of her but also assist Jenny to run her business. In other words, the Him submits to Jenny in two senses, as a husband and as an employee, emotionally and financially. This intention challenges the Victorian gendered stereotype in both family and workplace. The capitalized “Him” also reminds western readers of God and thus Jenny’s celestial power – acting as a creator of heavenly gardens and as “an interpreter between this sentient world and the insensible man” (739; bk. 4; ch. 10). Such a correlation empowers Jenny by subverting her disadvantageous position in gender and class binaries. Due to his connectedness with the bourgeoisie, the narrator opts to represent Jenny as a doll-like child, but because of the class dichotomy, the absence of Jenny’s thoughts, the indefinite definitions of childhood in the era, and most importantly Jenny’s own assertion, a reshaping of Jenny is possible. If Jenny were “a possible person”, when we look at her simply as little or child, she would perhaps act as she did with those fine ladies or her “bad boy”, staring at us in return and calling us doll or child.

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Last modified 23 September 2010