Abstract

While several Dickens characters fit binary stereotypes of the disabled (pitiful/helpless; monstrous/villainous), Jenny Wren, the dolls' dressmaker in Our Mutual Friend,(1864-5),creates a unique and constructive life with regards to her infirmities. This essay considers her successful adaptation and argues that in several respects she reverses and challenges the limits ordinarily imposed on disabled women in Victorian fiction. Jenny Wren anticipates today's view that the disabled and the able-bodied can work together in interdependent relationships, subverting the expectation that the disabled are inevitably dependent. While typically the disabled woman in the Victorian novel is denied a reproductive future, Jenny is an exception. Dickens was ahead of his time in providing a suitor for Jenny, and envisioning that a disabled woman can be beautiful.

Introduction

It is a frequent complaint that Dickens's ideal heroine is the angel of the house and that his "stereotypical presentations of angels, fallen sisters, and eccentric women regrettably leave [today's readers] in search of a viable heroine" (Golden 17-18). Jenny Wren breaks this mold. Although Jenny's "back is bad and her legs are queer" (272, II, 5), she is a model of agency, who quite literally works through her pain to create beautiful dolls' clothes. Caught in a double bind, she must not only struggle with her own impairment but also support a dependent parent, her shiftless father, who is afflicted with alcoholism. Jenny shows that a person with a crutch can be pro-active and powerful.

Lennard Davis observes that almost all novels represent binary oppositions in which the able-bodied attain supremacy vis à vis disabled individuals:

… I have come to see that almost any literary work will have some reference to the abnormal, to disability and so on. I would explain this phenomenon as a result of the hegemony of normalcy. This normalcy must always be creating and bolstering its image by processing, comparing, constructing, deconstructing images of normalcy and the abnormal. (23)

Jenny is a welcome contrast to stereotypes of disabled individuals as "permanent children" always in need of protection, "defined by their perceived dependence on the nondisabled" (Klages 2). Far from slinking through life as an object of pity, Jenny proclaims herself "the person of the house" (235, II, 2). The little dressmaker is so strong and courageous that she physically assaults a vile businessman, Fascination Fledgeby, who has hounded Jenny's friends and ruined many other lives through his extortionate lending practices. Jenny's weapon of choice is pepper, the Victorian girl's counterpart of mace. In a complete reversal of the usual paradigm, the able-bodied man finds himself writhing helplessly, temporarily disabled, humiliated and in pain (704-06, IV, 8).

In this essay I consider four ways in which Jenny challenges the usual portrayal of the physically impaired in the Victorian novel. First, Jenny's relationships with non-disabled individuals represent the kind of creative interdependence that many disability advocates have suggested to replace the old paradigm of the disabled person as invariably dependent. Second, Jenny adopts a novel and successful strategy to deal with pain and ease her toil. Her visions of heavenly angels, beautiful flowers, and singing birds do not distract her from efficiently performing the daily tasks necessary for survival. Third, while disabled women are ordinarily denied a reproductive future in Victorian fiction, Jenny gains a suitable lover at the close of the novel, a caring craftsman. Fourth, in a significant break from the usual "sweet innocent" pattern, Jenny is neither docile nor angelic in her interaction with her alcoholic father. By presenting Jenny as a scolding daughter, Dickens not only provides a more complex characterization but also reflects impatience with irresponsible men who, like his own father, are a drain on their hard-working children.

Exploring Reciprocity and Interdependence: Jenny as Fashioner and Enabler

As an authority on feminism and disability, Susan Wendell, observes that "[d]isabled women struggle with both the oppressions of being women in male-dominated societies and the oppressions of being disabled in societies dominated by the able-bodied" (105). Disabled women are led to consider "whether to place great value on independence from the help of other people, as the dominant culture does, or to question a value-system which distrusts and de-values dependence on other people" (105).

In Our Mutual Friend, Dickens presents a dynamic relationship in which the disabled person slips in and out of the role of care receiver and caregiver. Jenny forms a bond with Lizzie Hexam, the daughter of a dredger of corpses, who is one of the heroines of the novel. Lizzie assists Jenny by combing her hair, offering her sympathy and companionship, and helping her (literally and figuratively) carry her burdens. In turn, Jenny helps Lizzie acknowledge her desire for Eugene Wrayburn, a young lawyer whom Lizzie loves despite his emotional immaturity, and Jenny eventually brings about their marriage.

Jenny forms a similarly constructive partnership with Riah, a kindly Jew, who shelters Lizzie and provides a rooftop haven where Lizzie and Jenny can learn to read, safe from danger. Through much of the novel Riah is Jenny's "fairy godmother," providing her with a refuge and protection, while Riah loses his income when he quits his unsavory association with his employer Fledgeby. Then Jenny becomes the benefactor, providing the old Jew with shelter in her meager home. As in the case of her relationship with Lizzie, the dolls' dressmaker is first presented as requiring the help of the able-bodied, but then becomes the protector.

One could not find a better example of role reversal, of the potential for one impaired in body to assist a "normal," than Jenny's life-saving rescue of Eugene when he lies on the river bank after a brutal attack. Jenny's ability to work with her hands gives her the power to rescue Eugene from the brink of death. It is Jenny, not his beloved Lizzie, who has the competence to bind Eugene's wounds wounds. Jenny's "lightness and delicacy of touch" (721, IV, 10), her skill and experience from years of making dolls, are now transformed into a saving power.

Jenny forms the character and literally fashions the life of Eugene Wrayburn as she assists the young lawyer in the two most important decisions that he will ever make: choice of a wife and commitment to meaningful work. At the beginning of the novel, Eugene is an idle young lawyer, whose directionless torpor makes him unfit for his own society, much less a worthy companion to Lizzie. He is so "bored" that his life is a meaningless nursery rhyme (278, II, 6). Jenny serves as a role model for Eugene, teaching him the dignity of labor and the necessity of commitment.

While she is attending her father's funeral, the little dressmaker envisions the marriage of Eugene and Lizzie, mentally refashioning the surplice of the clergyman into the image of a clergyman doll marrying Eugene and Lizzie (716, IV, 9). As Eugene lies on the river bank, in the throes of a spiritual crisis as well as suffering from physical wounds, Jenny helps Eugene to understand that he wants to make Lizzie his wife not his mistress, notwithstanding differences in social class and other obstacles. Jenny articulates for Eugene the words that will soothe his agitation and give meaning to his life: she suggests that the word that he is seeking is "wife" (724, IV, 10). As Helena Michie observes, "Jenny's knowledge of her own pain and her 'fashioning' of material images of women … as a dolls' dressmaker makes her … not only the center of awareness in the novel, but also the person who articulates other people's desires" (209). Sharon Marcus has drawn attention to strong homosocial bonds between women in Victorian society that are reflected in its literature. Marriage can present a threat to these intimate friendships; thus in Bleak House, Esther Summerson weeps uncontrollably when Ada elopes with Richard Carstone. Rather than resenting Eugene as a rival for Lizzie's affection, Jenny generously fosters their marriage once she is satisfied that he is worthy of Lizzie's love.

Our Mutual Friend is a novel about many things, including the evil of valorizing wealth, but among its most important concerns is choice of occupation. By inverting the traditional hierarchy, Dickens challenges the reader's expectations of what vocations are suitable and promise a decent life. We gain respect for endeavors that London society, represented by the guests at the dinner table of the upstart Veneering family, would scorn. Through Jenny Wren and other characters who engage in humble pursuits that the world disrespects, Dickens shows that there is dignity in dolls' dressmaking or running a pawnshop if these trades are performed decently and with pride; in contrast, businessmen can be scoundrels and schoolmasters can be criminals.

As Lynn Alexander has observed, the occupation of sewing elicited a response of protectiveness in male readers and a sense of empathy among female readers, who probably sewed themselves (30). However, Jenny's occupation is more than a way to eke out a subsistence living, the clothes that she creates show her artistry. If any occupation survives Dickens's critical scrutiny in Our Mutual Friend, it is the work done by the two artisans, Jenny the dolls' dressmaker and Sloppy the carpenter.

Coping with Pain: Jenny's Dialogue with Angels

Elaine Scarry has written movingly about the problem of empathizing with those in pain:

When one hears about another person's physical pain, the events happening within the interior of that person's body may seem to have the remote character of some subterranean fact, belonging to an invisible geography that, however portentous, has no reality because it has not yet manifested itself on the visible surface of the earth …. [W]hen one speaks about "one's own physical pain" and about "another person's physical pain" one might almost appear to be speaking about wholly distinct orders of events. (3-4)

The reader of Our Mutual Friend feels Jenny's pain, as well as the physical and or psychological suffering of other abused and neglected characters such as Lizzie, the pawnshop owner Pleasant Riderhood, and the resolute old woman, Betty Higden.

Jenny has visions that transport her to a heavenly realm, a site where one no longer suffers, where pain is transformed to joy. When Jenny was a small child, other children taunted her and mocked her deformity. Unable to join in other children's games, Jenny imagined slanting rows of otherworldly children "in white dresses and with something shining on the borders and on their heads" (233, II, 2). These angels tell Jenny that those who are "in pain" should "have patience" (233). No wonder that Jenny, while suffering, yearned for death: "Have pity on me! Take me up and make me light" (233).

Despite having seen so few flowers in her life, Jenny envisions them in her "fancy" (232, II, 2): "And yet as I sit and work I smell miles of flowers. I smell roses till I think I see the rose-leaves lying in heaps, bushels, on the floor" (232). Jenny's ability to imagine flowers was "given to the child in compensation for her losses" (232). To help her deal with pain, her "birds sing better than other birds, and her flowers smell better than other flowers" (233). Garrett Stewart declares that it is "the recurrent tragedy of Jenny's life that fancy is an unreliable refuge from drudgery, that what is beautiful in her life must inevitably evaporate …" (119). I doubt that Dickens, a life-long advocate of fairy tales and fancy, would have agreed with Stewart that fancy is an "unreliable refuge." In Hard Times (1854), Sissy Jupe, an able-bodied circus girl who prizes flowers and fairy tales over facts and practical concerns, emerges as one of the novel's strongest figures. Sissy, like Jenny, teaches that imagination and fancy are paradoxically practical tools.

Although Dickens was a great skeptic about organized religion, Scripture lessons, and catechism, Jenny Wren engages in a highly personal and almost naïve communion with her angels. Religion is an especially convenient and efficient source of consolation for those who have limited resources or mobility. As C.S. Lewis wrote (1962):

[N]or have I anything to offer my readers except my conviction that when pain is to be borne, a little courage helps more than much knowledge, a little human sympathy more than much courage, and the least tincture of the love of God more than all (qtd in Idler 10).

Hillis Miller suggests that "Dickens's novels are religious in that they demand the regeneration of man and society through contact with something transcending the human" (315). Jenny Wren seeks consolation through just such a transcendental connection when she connects Riah's rooftop haven with a "call to death" in Book II, Chapter 5.

For Jenny, to "feel dead" is not only to escape the dirt and the bustle of city streets but also to escape daily care, and to experience, if only for a moment, a paradisal realm. On the rooftop, Jenny sees "the clouds rushing on above the narrow streets, not minding them and you see the golden arrows pointing at the mountains in the sky from which the wind comes" so "you feel as if you were dead" (273, II, 5). "'When you are dead you feel Oh so tranquil!' cried the little creature smiling. 'Oh, so peaceful and thankful.'" (273). When the kindly old Jew Riah leaves the rooftop where Jenny and Lizzie have been reading, Jenny calls back to him: "Come back and be dead!" (274). This "call to death" is a call for Riah to return to a safe haven where heartbreaking, body-racking pain is eased. However, when the bloodsucking Fledgeby visits the roof, Jenny spurns him; since Fledgeby cannot share in this heavenly vision; he must "[g]et down to life!" (274).

Part of Jenny's genius is her ability to mediate between the imaginative sphere of angels and fairies and the everyday world of hard labor. As Hilary Schor observes, Jenny is as creative in her narrative and imaginative power as is Dickens in his own fiction:

Although [Jenny] is realism's daughter, linked to those reeking streets, far from gardens and fancy, she smells imaginary flowers throughout the whole novel. …. She sees dream children, who are unlike the mocking children of her horrible childhood, but beg her to come up and play with them; to "come up and be dead." That is to say, she fictionalizes in much the way Dickens does: she fills imaginary gardens with flowers that defeat mere realism …(200)

Late in the novel Jenny tells Eugene that she no longer sees the heavenly children who used to bring her ease and rest because "she is hardly ever in pain now" (719, III, 1). Jenny is the creator of images that offer consolation, the author of her own recovery.

Jenny's visions represent a coping strategy, but we should not see them merely as compensatory or available only to those who are physically impaired. For other characters in the novel, images of flowers, sky, heaven and angels appear in times of distress. As Jenny's position improves and Lizzie's deteriorates, Jenny summons her "blessed children" to help Lizzie who "wants help more than I" (340, II, 12). Early in the novel Eugene, languid and purposeless, grew "weary" of Jenny's fanciful tales of fields of flowers (232, II, 2). Over the course of the novel, Eugene learns the value of such visions. When he lies gravely ill, Eugene asks Jenny if she has "seen the children" and "smelt the flowers" (719, IV, 10). So too poor old Betty Higden, as she nears the end of her life's journey, experiences comforting visions of heavens, angel and "water meadows" that ease her passing (499, III, 8). No such heavenly visions are associated with the deaths of Jenny's dissolute father, or with the deaths of two violent criminals, the schoolteacher Bradley Headstone, or the dredger of corpses, Rogue Riderhood. They die without comfort.

Coping with a Dependant Parent: Jenny as the Scolding Daughter

Jenny may have angelic visions but she does not always sound like an angel. She repeatedly scolds her drunken father, unlike Lizzie Hexam who never chastises her father although he also causes his daughter misery and anxiety. Jenny's father is a constant drain on her scant resources. She must support him in a "dire reversal of the places of parent and child" (234, II, 2). When her father weakly protests that his failures arise from circumstances "over which he had no control," Jenny replies "I'll circumstance you and control you too" (235). Dickens's sympathy lies with Jenny rather than with her alcoholic father, who barely has a speaking voice: when his daughter asks him if he is ashamed of himself, Mr. Dolls merely stammers, "yes my dear" (235). Of course, the Victorians did not recognize alcoholism as a disability, and the reader is left to infer that his alcoholism results from character weakness or poverty.

Dickens's profoundest expression of sympathy for Jenny paradoxically arises when we see the Person of the House at her worst, as a "shrew" scolding Mr. Dolls:

The person of the house was the person of a house full of sordid shames and cares, with an upper room in which that abased figure was affecting even innocent sleep with sensual brutality and degradation. The dolls' dressmaker had become a little quaint shrew; of the world, worldly; of the earth, earthly. (294, II, 5)

However, when her father dies Jenny explains to Riah that she "'must have a very short cry, godmother, before I cheer up for good … because after all a child is a child you know'" (715, IV, 9). Jenny mourns her father doubly, both because he was her father and because she was de facto his parent. We can read Jenny's scolding as the weariness and impatience experienced by caregivers of adult dependents — an anguish that is intensified when the caregiver is herself in physical pain. We can infer that Jenny's anger reflects Dickens's frustration and rage at his own father, who irresponsibly ran up debts that his son had to discharge (Johnson I: 98- 99).

Given Jenny's paternity, it is no wonder that she was eager to change her name from Fanny Cleaver to Jenny Wren, a "nom de plumage" that elevates Jenny "above the sordidness of her cares and labors" (Stewart 113). Jenny's re-naming as a songbird not only evokes her beautiful voice but also her potential to be a sweetheart; in a nursery tale, Jenny Wren is the sweetheart of Robin Redbreast. It is a lovely touch by Dickens who valued the nursery tales that he learned in his infancy, stories that he continually incorporated into his novels. "Jenny Wren" is especially appropriate to a child-woman, an adolescent of uncertain age who must work with dolls rather than play with them, who must perform a parent's role and put aside childish playthings.

Envisioning A Romantic Outcome for a Disabled Woman: Jenny as Beloved

It is a commonplace that Victorian novelists could not conceive of a reproductive future for disabled women. Klages argues that to the extent that disabled people like Tiny Tim or Blind Bertha produce empathy, this objectification is inconsistent with reproductive potential. Focusing on the fate of Bertha Plummer in Dickens's The Cricket on the Hearth (1845), Klages writes:

… [S]exuality is inaccessible to disabled people, who are culturally enjoined from reproducing their defect …. [W]hile non-disabled bodies can be sites of reproduction without compromising the ties of empathy that form the basis of all social bonds, disabled bodies cannot. Dependent on empathy for their survival as well as for their social utility as signs, blind people like Bertha are forced to remain on the margins of family life, barred from becoming the centers of their own families because of the contradictions between blindness and sexuality (77)

Bertha, having been deceived by her father into believing that the exacting businessman who buys their toys is a kindly figure, falls in love with the image of Tackleton that her father has created. Bertha suffers deeply when Tackleton becomes engaged to another woman, although Elizabeth Gitter may go too far when she says that her father's "fictionalizing has the effect of making a fool of Bertha" ("Cricket" 680). At last the scales are pulled from Bertha's eyes and finally she can "see" the truth about Tackleton and the shabby and precarious existence that her father has sought to conceal (264-65). This Christmas story closes with a cold reality in which the other young women enjoy wedded bliss, while Bertha remains single. Bertha is excluded from the romantic coupling that closes the novella, confined to strumming her harp while the merry sighted couples dance and embrace (277). Martha Holmes points out that Victorians associated blindness with disease, rather than with accident, aging or other causes. Given fear of contagion and belief in maternal transmission of genetic defects, it is not surprising that blind women like Bertha were disabled from marriage and reproductive outcomes ("Affliction" 63-64).

Does Dickens allow a romantic future for Jenny? Michie, who reads Jenny as a child daydreaming about a "Him" who will come to court her (227, II, 2), characterizes these desires as "fantasies" (212). I believe that Michie's abbreviated discussion of this topic is too dismissive of a romantic future for Jenny. As Hilary Schor points out, Jenny figures not only as atypical or eccentric but also as an erotic presence. As Dickens wrote to Marcus Stone, he sought to create with Jenny "a weird sharpness not without beauty" (204). Jenny, who refers to herself as "Cinderella" (709, IV, 9), achieves a fairy tale ending when the "Him" of her dreams arrives as a suitor. Sloppy, a skilled craftsman, admires the artistry of Jenny's creations, her beautiful singing voice, and her abundant, gorgeous hair. For the Victorians, the display of alluring hair constituted "a sexual exhibition. And the more abundant the hair, the more potent the invitation implied by its display" (Gitter, "Hair" 938). Jenny's gorgeous hair is a multi-layered metaphor: it offers corporeal compensation for her bodily deformity; it evokes the magical realm of fairy tales; through the threads of her hair, Jenny the seamstress weaves the narrative of her own life and that of others.

Jenny and Sloppy are suited both because of their moral character and because of their skill and pride in craft. Each is an exemplar of creative and constructive energy. Sloppy offers to make nests and drawers to hold Jenny's dressmaking materials, and to transform her crutch by beautifying its handle (789, IV, 16). Sloppy even speaks the same repetitive singsong language as Jenny. She describes herself as "work, work, working" (232, II, 2); the kindly young cabinetmaker has been "a-learning and a-learning" to better himself (789). Because Sloppy has treated his foster mother and adoptive parents with great devotion, we are confident that Sloppy will prove an excellent husband. Promising to treat Jenny's dolls as if they were "gold" (791), Sloppy "will consider himself better paid with a song than with any money" (790). In a novel whose primary theme is to criticize excessive fondness for money and neglect of human kindness, the humble Sloppy is a life-enhancing match.

As Rosemarie Garland-Thomson points out, bodily difference distinguishes attitudes of some disabled women from mainstream feminine concerns with female sexuality. Thus "while feminism quite literally decries the sexual objectification of women," disabled women often experience "asexual objectification," the assumption that sexuality is inappropriate in disabled women" (285). Jenny Wren escapes the wallflower's fate when Sloppy comes to call. One might quarrel with the fairy tale ending but Jenny obtains the match that she desires, and is not left out of the marriage dance like poor Blind Bertha. Dickens showed himself ahead of most of his contemporaries who denied romance and marriage to disabled heroines.

Dickens and Disability Stereotypes

If Jenny Wren is presented on the whole with sensitivity, should we revise our overall estimation of Dickens's portrait of disabled individuals? Can we square the favorable representation of Jenny Wren with Dickens's other depictions of disabled persons as helpless innocents (Tiny Tim), hustlers (Wegg), or monstrous villains (Quilp, Stagg)?

While I posit that Jenny Wren exhibits agency throughout the novel, other characters such as Tiny Tim represent disability stereotypes characterized by absolute purity, strong spirituality, and passive objectification (Norden 195). Such images enable the able-bodied majority to view the disabled as inferiors and as idealized children in need of help (197). The Christmas Carol (1843) is so thoroughly an allegory that Tiny Tim hardly seems a person at all but rather a foil for Scrooge's development.

Blind Bertha in The Cricket on the Hearth is another "sweet innocent." Julia Rodas analyzes this story under the rubric of the "satellite persona," defined as a "nondisabled person who appears to construct his or her personal identity around a central nexus of disability, which is perceived as requiring mediation" (93, note 2). Rodas suggests that Dickens thought of himself as mediating for the Laura Bridgman, the blind deaf mute taught by Dr. Samuel Howe (78). Bertha's father serves a similar satellite role, caring for his daughter and pulling the wool over her sightless eyes so that she believes that they are living in ease and comfort. Rodas suggests that the only future Bertha envisions for herself is to fill a supporting satellite role for her husband (if she could marry) or for her father (since she cannot). In a very brief discussion of Jenny Wren, Rodas comments that Jenny can be viewed either as relegated to the world of dolls or, alternatively, as fulfilling a satellite role for her alcoholic father (92). While Jenny fits this paradigm to the extent that she cares for her father, as I have shown, the relationship between Jenny and her father is only one aspect of her character. Far more than a caregiver for her wayward parent, Jenny is a strong figure who guides the futures of the able-bodied hero and heroine, and forges her own way in the world.

Turning to Dickens's negative portrayals, Silas Wegg, the con artist in Our Mutual Friend, is deformed in character as well as in his body. At times the one-legged Wegg seems ludicrous, at other times malevolent. Although abysmally ignorant himself, he charges a high fee to read Roman history and poetry to Noddy Boffin, the "Golden Dustman" who inherits the Harmon fortune. Wegg's venality is no minor flaw to an author like Dickens who prized literacy and reproved selfish exploitation. More seriously, Wegg attempts to blackmail Boffin with a recent will, extracted from mounds of dust, which purports to disinherit Boffin and establish the Crown as the inheritor of Harmon's estate. Every reader rejoices when Wegg's plot is foiled and he meets his comeuppance. However, Dickens does not play on Wegg's disability or ascribe his warped character to his incomplete body. One of the few moments when we sympathize with Wegg arises when he seeks to collect his severed limb from the "articulator of skeletons," Mr. Venus, and expresses anguish at the loss of his limb and the dispersion of his body parts (80, I, 7).

Perhaps the most glaring example of Dickens's denigration of a disabled character is Quilp, the one-eyed, misshapen arch-villain of The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-41). Dickens apparently constructed Quilp from the fairy tale source of the Old Yellow Dwarf (Olshin) and a real-life dwarf who lived in London, notorious for abusing his wife and his donkey (McLean). As Harry Stone has commented, Qulip is a "storybook goblin in a storybook residence"; Quip is an "ogre" and a "fairy tale master" (109). Quilp has fangs for teeth and crooked legs; his giant head is perched on a dwarf's body. In contrast to Jenny Wren's golden bower, which recalls the long hair of fairy tale princesses, Quilp's persona draws on the legend of the demonic dwarf. One cannot exonerate Dickens from employing the trope of the demonic hunchback just as he emphasized Fagin's Jewish identity, drawing upon the prejudices of his time. It remains troubling that Dickens depicts Quilp as a stalker, who tracks "chubby, rosy, cozy little Nell … so compact, so beautifully modeled, so fair, with such blue veins and such transparent skin, such little feet, and such winning ways" ("Curiosity," 9). Quilp goes so far as to propose to Nell that she become "Mrs. Quilp the second when Mrs. Quilp the first is dead" (6). Robert Newsom observes that the sexuality of Quilp's sadism, bordering on pedophilia, is more explicit than we might expect in Victorian fiction (94). However, neither of the other stalkers in Our Mutual Friend (Bradley Headstone and the corpse-dredger Rough Riderhood) suffers from physical impairment. Dickens thus avoids direct association of bodily deformity and depravity.

The blind villain in Barnaby Rudge (1841) is thoroughly odious, acting as an accessory to a murderer and attempting to extort funds from poor Mrs. Rudge. If Blind Bertha is cloying in her saintliness, Stagg is her wicked and ruthless antithesis. Dickens confronts the expectation that because Stagg has lost his vision, he should have "something in its place almost divine" (378, Ch. 45).

Have I no feeling for you because I am blind? No, I have not. Why do you expect me, being in darkness, to be better than men who have their sight …. It's the cant of you folk to be horrified if a blind man robs, or lies, or steals; oh yes, it's far worse in him, who can barely live on the few half pence that are thrown to him in the streets, than in you who can see, and work, and are not dependent on the mercies of the world. A curse on you! You who have five senses may be wicked at your pleasure; we who have four, and want the most important, are to live and be moral on our affliction. (384, Ch. 46)

As Klages observes, Stagg "explodes the sentimental association of blindness with a self-sacrificing goodness" (57). Stagg is a waste product of a society that has left him to live on his wits and now reaps the consequences of his criminal behavior. Yet he is no more evil than other sighted villains in the novel and their counterparts in real life.

Barnaby Rudge offers us an example of another caring reciprocal relationship, this time between a simple son and his devoted mother. The eponymous hero, mad Barnaby Rudge, presents a complex portrait of mental disability. Barnaby is at once sympathetic, credulous and foolish. He warmly loves not only his devoted mother but also his utterly worthless father and his diabolical pet raven. Lured by Stagg who dangles before him dreams of gold, the boy heads to London in a misguided effort to strike it rich and make his mother proud. Following his dangerous involvement with the Gordon riots, Barnaby is imprisoned and barely escapes the gallows. Of interest here is less Barnaby's simplicity or the collective madness of the Gordon riots, than the loving bond between him and his mother. While at first blush this relationship may appear unequal, the love between Barnaby and his mother is as mutually nourishing as the bond between Betty Foy and her simple son Johnny in Wordsworth's Idiot Boy (1798). Mrs. Rudge, who has lost everything else that matters to her, clings to her son who provides the only meaning in her difficult life. As in Wordsworth's ballad, when Mrs. Rudge loses sight of her son she suffers acute anxiety; it is touch and go whether the boy will survive. As Holmes observes in the context of discussing the bond between Nicholas Nickleby and the unfortunate Smike, there are "dyads of care in Victorian fiction that appear on the surface to be asymmetrically dependent instead of interdependent, yet they are less easily categorized as such if we look beyond a limited definition of dependence/independence" ("Gaskell" 35).

Having considered the extremes of helpless innocents and deformed villains, we should examine a disabled woman who occupies a middle ground — Little Miss Mowcher in David Copperfield (1850). An eccentric dwarf who initially repels with her vituperative tongue, Miss Mowcher later emerges as a sympathetic, even heroic figure. As Julia Saville observes, "Mowcher's eccentricity is revealed as a disguise that has hidden a closet sentimentalist" (790). We come to appreciate that Miss Mowcher's biting tongue and off-putting manner is a defense mechanism:

"Be thankful for me, if you have a kind heart, as I think you have," she said, "that while I know well what I am, I can be cheerful and endure it all. I am thankful for myself, at any rate, that I can find my tiny way through the world, without being beholden to anyone; and that in return for all that is thrown at me, in folly or vanity as I go along, I can throw bubbles back …. If I am a plaything for you giants, be gentle with me." (391, Ch. 32)

At the end of the novel, Miss Mowcher, courageously captures Littimer, Steerforth's servant and confederate in the seduction of Little Emily, an improbable scenario, but one that portrays Miss Mowcher in a heroic light.

To evaluate the character of Miss Mowcher, we have to consider the back story. After the early installments of David Copperfield appeared, Jane Hill, the real life manicurist and chiropodist who served as a source for the character, sent Dickens a letter of protest, followed up by a note from her attorney. Hill complained that while she had long suffered from physical deformities, the odious portrayal of her person in the initial installments of the novel had heaped scorn on top of misery. While admitting that he had not originally intended to make Miss Mowcher a favorable character, Dickens promised to rectify his error and expressed remorse for the pain that he had caused. Betty Adelman suggests that by transforming Miss Mowcher into a heroine, Dickens not only carried through on his promise to Ms. Hill but showed sincere regret and empathy (207). I suggest that the Dickens-Hill exchange of letters recalls a similar correspondence when a Jewish woman, Eliza Thomas, complained about Fagin in Oliver Twist (1838). In response, Dickens not only apologized but presented a favorable portrait of a Jew in the form of Riah in Our Mutual Friend. (Letters to Eliza Davis, July 10,1863; November 16, 1864, rpt in Oliver Twist, 378). In both of these instances, Dickens succumbed to the temptation to present stereotypes, and later repented. In an obviously autobiographical passage, Miss Mowcher accuses David of mistrusting her because of her size.

"Come!" said she … "[Y]ou know you wouldn't distrust me, if I was a full-sized woman!"

I felt there was much truth in this; and I felt rather ashamed of myself.

"You are a young man," she said, nodding. "Take a word of advice, even from three foot nothing. Try not to associate bodily defects with mental my good friend, except for a solid reason." (393, Ch. 32)

Through Miss Mowcher, Dickens imparts the lesson that he has learned: "Trust me no more, but trust me no less, than you would trust a full-sized woman …" (393).

Jenny Wren escapes the binary categories of pitiable or contemptible, innocent or evil. While Jenny is an eccentric, she is a successful person who has turned hardships into assets. She talks to herself and scolds her father; however, on the whole she is admirable, resourceful, generous and imaginative. At the end of his life, Dickens appears to have heeded the advice of Miss Mowcher/Jane Hill: outward appearance and physical impairments should not cloud our judgments of individuals or lead us to form premature judgments about their strength of character.

Works Cited

  • Adelson, Betty M. The Lives of Dwarfs: Their Journey from Public Curiosity Toward Social Liberation. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers UP, 2005.
  • Alexander, Lynn M. "The Seamstress in Victorian Literature." Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 18.1 (1999): 29-38.
  • Davis, Lennard J. "Constructing Normalcy. The Bell Curve, the Novel, and the Invention of the Disabled Body in the Nineteenth Century." The Disability Studies Reader. Routledge: New York and London, 1997. 9-29.
  • Dickens, Charles. Barnaby Rudge. Ed. Gordon Spence. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.
  • ---. The Cricket on the Hearth. Christmas Books. Ed. Ruth Glancy. Oxford and New York: Oxford UP, 1988.
  • ---. David Copperfield. Ed. Jerome H. Buckley. London and New York: Norton, 1990.
  • ---. The Old Curiosity Shop. Ed. Elizabeth M. Brennan. Oxford and New York: Oxford UP, 1998.
  • ---. Letters to Eliza Davis, rpt. in Oliver Twist. Ed. Fred Kaplan. London and New York: Norton: 1993.
  • ---. Our Mutual Friend. Introduction by Richard T. Gaughan. New York: Modern Library, 2002.
  • Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. "Feminist Theory, the Body, and the Disabled Figure." The Disability Studies Reader. Routledge: New York and London, 1997. 279-92.
  • Gitter, Elizabeth G. "The Blind Daughter in Charles Dickens's Cricket on the Hearth." Studies in English Literature 39 (1999): 675-89.
  • ---. "The Power of Women's Hair in the Victorian Imagination." PMLA 99.5 (1984): 936-54.
  • Golden, Catherine J. "Late Twentieth-Century Readers in Search of a Dickensian Heroine: Angels, Fallen Sisters, and Eccentric Women." Modern Language Studies 30.2 (2000): 5-19.
  • Holmes, Martha Stoddard. Fictions of Affliction. Ann Arbor: U. of Michigan P, 2004.
  • ---. "Victorian Fictions of Interdependency: Gaskell, Craik and Yonge." Journal of Literary Disability. http://www.journalofliterarydisability.com/issues/vol01no02/holmes.html.
  • Idler, Ellen L. "Religion, Health and Nonphysical Senses of Self." Social Forces 74 (1995): 683-704).
  • Johnson, Edgar. Charles Dickens: Tragedy and Triumph. 2 vols. Boston, Toronto: Little Brown, 1952.
  • Klages, Mary. Woeful Afflictions: Disability and Sentimentality in Victorian America. Philadelphia: U. of Pennsylvania P, 1993.
  • Michie, Helena. "'Who Is This in Pain?' Scarring Disfigurement, and Female Identity in Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend." NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction 22.2 (1989): 199-212.
  • Hillis Miller, J. Charles Dickens: The World of His Novels. Bloomington and London: Indiana UP, 1969.
  • Marcus, Sharon. Between Women: Friendship, Desire and Marriage in Victorian England. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2007.
  • McLean, Robert Simpson. "Another Source for Quilp." Nineteenth-Century Fiction 26.3 (1971): 337-39.
  • Newsom, Robert. "Fictions of Childhood." The Cambridge Companion to Dickens. Ed. John O. Jordan. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge UP, 2001. 92-105.
  • Norden, Martin F. "Tiny Tim on Screen: A Disability Studies Perspective." Dickens on Screen, ed. John Glavin. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge, UP (2003). 188-201.
  • Olshin, Toby A. "'The Yellow Dwarf' and The Old Curiosity Shop." Nineteenth-Century Fiction 25.1 (1970): 96-99.
  • Pierson, Kimberly J. "Revenge and Punishment: Legal Prototype and Fairy Tale Theme." 6 Buffalo Women's L.J. 3 (1998).
  • Rodas, Julia Miele. "Tiny Tim, Blind Bertha, and the Resistance of Miss Mowcher: Charles Dickens and the Uses of Disability." Dickens Studies Annual 34 (2004): 51-97.
  • Saville, Julia F. "Eccentricity as Englishness in David Copperfield." Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 42.4 (2002): 781-97.
  • Scarry, Elaine. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. New York and Oxford: Oxford UP, 1985.
  • Schor, Hilary M. Dickens and the Daughter of the House. Cambridge U.K.: Cambridge UP, 1999.
  • Stewart, Garrett. "The 'Golden Bower' in Our Mutual Friend." ELH 40.1 (1973) 105-30.
  • Stone, Harry. Dickens and the Invisible World: Fairy Tales, Fantasy, and Novel-Making. Bloomington and London: Indiana UP, 1979.
  • Wendell, Susan. "Towards a Feminist Theory of Disability." Hypatia 4.2 (1989): 104-24.
Return to Top of Page


Copyright (c) 2009 Sara D. Schotland



Volume 1 through Volume 20, no. 3 of Disability Studies Quarterly is archived on the Knowledge Bank site; Volume 20, no. 4 through the present can be found on this site under Archives.

Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated. 

Disability Studies Quarterly is published by The Ohio State University Libraries in partnership with the Society for Disability Studies.

If you encounter problems with the site or have comments to offer, including any access difficulty due to incompatibility with adaptive technology, please contact libkbhelp@lists.osu.edu.

ISSN: 2159-8371 (Online); 1041-5718 (Print)