The Victorian Sage

"Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased"

Month: April, 2019

Poverty, Domestic Violence and Rapacious Benevolence: The Brickmaker from Bleak House (1852-53)

The English social novels of the 1840s-50s were concerned with analysing the relations between the haves and have-nots. Generally, the conclusions suggested in novels like North and South (1854-55) was that there was misunderstanding between these sectors, and if they both listened to each other, they would get along and work productively together. In North and South, the protagonist Margaret Hale befriends a household of poor factory workers, the Higginses, and at times mediates between them and mill-owner John Thornton.

Margaret is welcomed into the Higgins household. But the course of trans-class friendship does not always run smooth. The charitable instincts of a middle-class lady are not necessarily met with gratitude from the working class. There is a compelling scene quite early in Dickens’ Bleak House (1852-53) wherein a group of would-be philanthropists enter a brickmaker’s house. The house and its environs are a scene of dismal poverty. Characteristic of Bleak House, the initial description of the setting emphasizes dirt, grime and an overall sense of decay and stagnation:

[I]t was one of a cluster of wretched hovels in a brick-field, with pigsties close to the broken windows and miserable little gardens before the doors growing nothing but stagnant pools. Here and there an old tub was put to catch the droppings of rain-water from a roof, or they were banked up with mud into a little pond like a large dirt-pie. At the doors and windows some men and women lounged or prowled about, and took little notice of us except to laugh to one another or to say something as we passed about gentlefolks minding their own business and not troubling their heads and muddying their shoes with coming to look after other people’s. (Bleak House, Ch. VIII)

200px-Bleakhouse_serial_cover

Dickens’ narrator here is Esther Summerson, and she implicitly raises one of the key themes of the book when she notes the “gentlefolk” passing by “minding their own business”. Like Gaskell, Dickens is concerned with the lack of interaction between classes, and the middle-class disinterest in the problems of the working class. But Dickens’ passage here goes on to show the difficulty in initiating an inter-class exchange. In this passage, it is not Esther who initiates the exchange, but Mrs Pardiggle, a philanthropist whose efforts are characterised by “rapacious benevolence” according to Dickens/Esther. As far as the characters with whom she interacts are concerned, Mrs Pardiggle is both tireless and tiresome:

“Well, my friends,” said Mrs. Pardiggle, but her voice had not a friendly sound, I thought; it was much too business-like and systematic. “How do you do, all of you? I am here again. I told you, you couldn’t tire me, you know. I am fond of hard work, and am true to my word.”

“There an’t,” growled the man on the floor, whose head rested on his hand as he stared at us, “any more on you to come in, is there?”

“No, my friend,” said Mrs. Pardiggle, seating herself on one stool and knocking down another. “We are all here.”

“Because I thought there warn’t enough of you, perhaps?” said the man, with his pipe between his lips as he looked round upon us.

The young man and the girl both laughed. Two friends of the young man, whom we had attracted to the doorway and who stood there with their hands in their pockets, echoed the laugh noisily.

Esther maintains a critical attitude towards Mrs Pardiggle, characterizing her as “too business-like and systematic”. It is clear that her charitable efforts are not approved of by Dickens, and he also satirizes organized charity through the characterization of Mrs Jellyby elsewhere in the book. In a manner that is somewhat typical for Dickens, the energy from the scene doesn’t really come from any of the main players. It comes, instead, from the brickmaker himself, who only appears in this scene and plays no part in the plot of the novel. He doesn’t even have a name. His role in this scene is to frustrate Mrs Pardiggle’s attempts at charity, and to express the anger and hostility that Esther also feels, but is too respectable to say.  The brickmaker’s first sally is the sarcastic observation that “I thought there warn’t enough of you, perhaps?”. Then he is given the opportunity to launch into a powerful speech.

Visit to the Brickmaker's

Phiz’s original illustration for “A Visit to the Brickmaker’s” http://www.victorianweb.org/art/illustration/phiz/bleakhouse/6.html 

 

“You can’t tire me, good people,” said Mrs. Pardiggle to these latter. “I enjoy hard work, and the harder you make mine, the better I like it.”

“Then make it easy for her!” growled the man upon the floor. “I wants it done, and over. I wants a end of these liberties took with my place. I wants an end of being drawed like a badger. Now you’re a-going to poll-pry and question according to custom—I know what you’re a-going to be up to. Well! You haven’t got no occasion to be up to it. I’ll save you the trouble. Is my daughter a-washin? Yes, she IS a-washin. Look at the water. Smell it! That’s wot we drinks. How do you like it, and what do you think of gin instead! An’t my place dirty? Yes, it is dirty—it’s nat’rally dirty, and it’s nat’rally onwholesome; and we’ve had five dirty and onwholesome children, as is all dead infants, and so much the better for them, and for us besides. Have I read the little book wot you left? No, I an’t read the little book wot you left. There an’t nobody here as knows how to read it; and if there wos, it wouldn’t be suitable to me. It’s a book fit for a babby, and I’m not a babby. If you was to leave me a doll, I shouldn’t nuss it. How have I been conducting of myself? Why, I’ve been drunk for three days; and I’da been drunk four if I’da had the money. Don’t I never mean for to go to church? No, I don’t never mean for to go to church. I shouldn’t be expected there, if I did; the beadle’s too gen-teel for me. And how did my wife get that black eye? Why, I give it her; and if she says I didn’t, she’s a lie!”

As well as powerful, this speech from the brickmaker is a rather complicated one. It indicts Mrs Pardiggle’s arrogance and insensitivity. It also refers with brutal frankness to the infant mortality rate. It characterizes the brickmaker as a violent tyrant in his domestic setting, as well as a drunk. Dickens is well known for sentimentality, and rightly so, but here there is no sentimentality, just a vision of degradation, and an unjudgemental portrait of an individual who is both a victim and a bully. All of Dickens’ condemnation seems to be directed against intrusive philanthropists. The brickmaker’s frank assumption of all the worst traits of the “undeserving poor” gives him a momentary heroism, a breaking through of all social conventions that is riveting to read. Say what you like about the brickmaker, he has no cant – an important point for such 19th-century commentators as Dickens and Carlyle, and certainly not something that one could say for Mrs Pardiggle.

The brickmaker’s black-eyed wife is also nursing a baby. As the scene goes on, there is more Dickensian drama:

Ada, whose gentle heart was moved by  [the baby’s] appearance, bent down to touch its little face. As she did so, I saw what happened and drew her back. The child died.

“Oh, Esther!” cried Ada, sinking on her knees beside it. “Look here! Oh, Esther, my love, the little thing! The suffering, quiet, pretty little thing! I am so sorry for it. I am so sorry for the mother. I never saw a sight so pitiful as this before! Oh, baby, baby!”

[…]

Presently I took the light burden from her lap, did what I could to make the baby’s rest the prettier and gentler, laid it on a shelf, and covered it with my own handkerchief. We tried to comfort the mother, and we whispered to her what Our Saviour said of children. She answered nothing, but sat weeping—weeping very much.

When I turned, I found that the young man had taken out the dog and was standing at the door looking in upon us with dry eyes, but quiet. The girl was quiet too and sat in a corner looking on the ground. The man had risen. He still smoked his pipe with an air of defiance, but he was silent.

[…]

We felt it better to withdraw and leave them uninterrupted. We stole out quietly and without notice from any one except the man. He was leaning against the wall near the door, and finding that there was scarcely room for us to pass, went out before us. He seemed to want to hide that he did this on our account, but we perceived that he did, and thanked him. He made no answer.

This is the last we see of the brickmaker, stepping quietly aside to let Esther and Ada pass outside. We presume he returned to his errant ways, but that simple final gesture of respect and decorum is subtly powerful, in the circumstances. It is Dickens at his most unsentimental and dignified. Sometimes, in Bleak House and elsewhere, he lays it on with a trowel, but there are moments where he transcends.

George Orwell famously said of Dickens: “He is all fragments, all details — rotten architecture, but wonderful gargoyles.” The Brickmaker is a gargoyle: he doesn’t need to be there. He doesn’t return later to tie up any loose ends in the plot. But he does provide one of the most compelling, if narratively inessential, characterizations in the novel. In that, he is classic Dickens.

 

 

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The Intensity of the (Quasi-)Maternal Relation in North and South

Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1854-55) is known both as a love story in the Pride and Prejudice lineage, and as a social novel dealing with class conflict of the quintessentially mid-Victorian type. One of its most striking passages, though, is little remarked. It comes from late in the novel, before the final reconciliation between Margaret Hale and John Thornton. Margaret is living with her sister, Edith, and her family. Margaret has a particularly intense relationship with her young nephew Sholto:

One of the great pleasures of Margaret’s life at this time, was in Edith’s boy. He was the pride and plaything of both father and mother, as long as he was good; but he had a strong will of his own, and as soon as he burst out into one of his stormy passions, Edith would throw herself back in despair and fatigue, and sigh out, ‘Oh dear, what shall I do with him! Do, Margaret, please ring the bell for Hanley.’

But Margaret almost liked him better in these manifestations of character than in his good blue-sashed moods. She would carry him off into a room, where they two alone battled it out; she with a firm power which subdued him into peace, while every sudden charm and wile she possessed, was exerted on the side of right, until he would rub his little hot and tear-smeared face all over hers, kissing and caressing till he often fell asleep in her arms or on her shoulder. Those were Margaret’s sweetest moments. They gave her a taste of the feeling that she believed would be denied to her for ever. (Oxford, 2008, ed. Angus Easson, 405)

This passage is surely worthy of more attention than it has hitherto received. Margaret takes over the role of mother from Edith, and her mode of disciplining Sholto has surprisingly erotic overtones. The battle in which the “firm power” of one party subdues the other into peace is a central dynamic of North and South. Margaret is constantly through the novel being described in terms of her personal power, as in Dr Donaldson’s reaction to her:

Who would have thought that little hand could have given such a squeeze? But the bones were well put together, and that gives immense power. What a queen she is! With her head thrown back at first, to force me into speaking the truth […].  (127)

There is also Margaret’s taming of her (initially) insubordinate servant Dixon:

[S]he, who would have resented such words from anyone less haughty and determined in manner, was subdued enough to say, in a half-humble, half-injured tone-

‘Mayn’t I unfasten your gown, Miss, and undo your hair?’ […]

From henceforth Dixon obeyed and admired Margaret […]. [T]he truth was, that Dixon, as do many others, liked to feel herself ruled by a powerful and decided nature. (48)

Throughout North and South, there is a theme of dominance in Margaret’s personal relationships: she likes dominating people, and people – such as Dr Donaldson and Dixon – like being dominated by her. In case it wasn’t made sufficiently clear in the plot, the third-person narrator states it as a general truth: “Dixon, as do many others, liked to feel herself ruled by a powerful and decided nature.” So Margaret’s relationship with Sholto, and her power to subdue him, is an extension of this. It is an emotionally intense process for both parties: Sholto’s face becomes tear stained, while to Margaret the emotional affect is even more profound:

“Those were Margaret’s sweetest moments. They gave her a taste of the feeling that she believed would be denied to her for ever.”

What exact feeling is referred to? In the context of the story, Margaret has just been separated from Thornton, and the loss informs her response to Sholto. She is to be denied both conjugal and maternal relations, and this explains why she reacts so strongly. There is a certain excess in the passage, considered in the light of a (pseudo-)mother-child encounter. Margaret is somewhat too intense about Sholto. The physicality of their encounter – tears, kisses, caresses and the final swoon into sleep by the finally subdued Sholto – along with Margeret’s use of “every sudden charm and wile she possessed” recalls the conjugal relationship more than the maternal one. In this sense, Margaret is a forerunner of Henry James’ governess in The Turn of the Screw, whose lack of appropriate outlet for affection leads her into an obsessive and emotionally destructive relation with her young charges. Gaskell doesn’t imply any emotional failing in Margaret that leads to this incident, nor does she find an inappropriacy in it as a modern reader might. Indeed, this scene is not included in the popular 2004 series adaptation, and it is difficult to see how it could have been without raising uncomfortable questions about Margaret.

margaret north and south

Daniela Denby-Ashe as Margaret Hale in the BBC series North & South (2004).

For Gaskell here seems to have anticipated a piece of Freudian knowledge abut the parental relationship:

[T]he parents — or as a rule the mother — supplies the child with feelings which originate from her own sexual life; she pats it, kisses it, and rocks it, plainly taking it as a substitute for a full-valued sexual object.  (Freud, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, 1905; trans. A.A. Brill, 1920)

In a footnote, Freud acknowledges that some readers will find this contention “wicked” but cites Havelock Ellis in support. Had he read Gaskell, he might have found in North and South another reference point, a piece of Freudian psychology avant la lettre.

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