Her fall was her fault, she must take blame and shame as her deserved lot. – On penitentiaries and refuges, Charles Dickens and the House of Fallen Women (p.16)
(all page references are referring to Charles Dickens and the House of Fallen Women by Jenny Hartley (2008), unless indicated.)
I had read The New Magdalen by Wilkie Collins this January. A novel first published in 1873, it is a didactic story with a mission which was dedicated to Wilkie Collins’s younger brother, Charles Allston Collins, upon his death of the same year (born 1828, died 1873). The heroine, Mercy, was inveigled by her own will to serve in a respectable lady’s house. She could put everyone off the scent except herself, and she felt guilty as she assumed another’s name to live comfortably under a hospitable roof. What draws pity from readers is her backstory. Her trials and tribulations began not because she voluntarily led herself to do so but it was due to her birth that she resorted to abhorrent means under every appalling circumstance in order to survive (“The dragon, pauperism was the villain”). Despite the fact that Mercy was admitted to a Magdalen refuge and repented day and night, she was not accepted by society. Once fallen, a woman was seen irretrievable in the pit: here was an impressionable and weaker sex who was deemed without a morsel of virtue left for herself. She stumbled and was inflicted with scorns and thorny paths along rowdy streets and dark alleyways.
“Even the flowers of the field cannot grow without light and air to help them!” – The New Magdalen, Wilkie Collins
Lately, upon reading a biography named Charles Dickens and the House of Fallen Women by Jenny Hartley (2008), I feel that The New Magdalen was exactly a tailor-made fiction for the girls at Urania Cottage, although the Institution seemed no longer active after 1862, as Charles Dickens got less involved with rescued work in 1858 and started shifting the focus on Nelly Ternan and his reading tours. The New Magdalen by Wilkie Collins is a story in which the fallen heroine in the end did not yield and seek acceptance from the people who were only consumed with condescension, vanity and vileness but instead was enlightened and awakened by the idea of self-respect, acceptance, and redemption: she became a woman who learnt to love herself.
Helping those in need – Charles Dickens and the Urania Cottage
(1) “The good people who have established Refuges and Homes for those who repent have succeeded in making them repellent and intolerable.” (p.32)
Charles Dickens came up with the plan of opening a Home called Urania Cottage for young pauper girls in Shepherd Bush in London in 1847 with financial aid of Angela Burdett-Coutts. This biography is in many cases indicating Charles Dickens being a vanguard of his time and his rescue work in his nature; and those so-called refuges of his contemporaries were a far cry from the Home that Dickens set up and Burdett-Coutts helped founded.
In Dickens’s perspectives, chucking the sinned and fallen girls over workhouses and hospitals, forcing them to live in days of austere and self-effacing repentance was not actually helping them but only would they sink further deeper. In The House of Mercy at Clewer in Windsor (philosophy of abjection), established in 1848 by a Spanish widow of an English clergyman (widow being associated with High Church order), “inmates’ heads were shaved, and their unruliness punished by solitary confinement” (p.32). Especially in the case of religious charitable societies, the inmates were not allowed to talk freely lest they would make a sacrilege to God against the mission of the institutions. Mentioning the aura of “lethargic indifference” surrounding the refuges, Benjamin Drouet’s Pauper Asylum for Children at Tooting in South London (coined the “Tooting Farm”) was infamous for its savage treatment of over-crowded children in the midst of cholera. Situated in close proximity of open ditches, under damp, filthy, starving and abused conditions, 150 out of 1,372 children died in January 1849 (p.46). Among other contemporary organisations, inmates were also assigned to monotonous tasks like picking oakum and laundry work to support the institutions’ finance.
Regarding Urania Cottage, financial aid from Angela Burdett-Coutts was crucial. Charles Dickens supplied comfortable atmosphere of practical help and spiritual support to the inmates. Compared with The House of Mercy at Clewer, the girls at Urania Cottage would be at leisure to mend their gardens in spare time, go out chaperoned once a week, being adorned in clothes of sundry colours, rewarded with peer friendships, motherly love, and paternal education. Dickens was determined to make his Home in active and affectionate management rather than the commonly “lethargic indifference”. In a year or so, the girls would be ultimately promised an overseas voyage with their most intimate friends of the Home, and culminated with a happy matrimonial union after emigration. The girls were taught of the motto of not indulging in the reproachable past but hopefully looking for the “possibility and potentiality” out on the horizon.
Before the girls arrived at Home, they were in a way to undergo sessions of individual interviews, or to be more analytical these days, they had inadvertently so called “counselling therapy” in confiding to someone about their past who empathised and acknowledged their pains. The Listener would be none other than Charles Dickens himself; he was to know their history, examine their behaviour, and elicit whether the girls were corrigible to reform and start a new life overseas (places included Australia, Canada, South Africa, and New Zealand). Lamentable past and deeds of each girl were strictly kept secret from matrons at Home and among her friends; moreover, her subsequent history (life upon emigration), if known, was recorded in a “Case Book” invented by Charles Dickens. Although there was the Urania committee, the original and inimitable Dickens shone in glory with him “dispensing justice, order and mercy to his pocket-sized Utopia in west London” (p.113).
(2) “Did a little for a lot, aimed to do a lot for a few.” (p.148)
The House of St. Barnabas in Soho was a charity for distressed persons in London which helped the inmates find work. The Institution focused on the good deeds of helpers instead of the helped, which was similar to other contemporary charitable organisations. According to the mission of the House, it was “to give a definite sphere of united action to persons engaged in various worldly callings, who desire to give a portion of their time, as well as of their substance, to the poor, under fixed regulations, consistent with the discipline of the Church of England.” Helpers included middle- and upper-class volunteer helpers, some with a lack of experience who held presumptuous and subjective viewpoints of the inmates owing to the lack of trust and intimacy upon them. The House of St. Barnabas contained substantially short-stay inmates who took shelter for only two to three weeks. This organisation was found upon efficiency and statistical outcome of the numbers of paupers they had taken and being helped, with no interests of how former inmates coped afterwards. It could never satisfy and fulfill the uproarious demand from the metropolitan pauperism, and applicants with questionable characters were compulsory to be removed immediately.
Compared with the House of St. Barnabas, Urania Cottage which Dickens managed provided shelter for girls upon limited basis in each intake. The Home only consisted of thirteen girls in its first intake, and thereupon the number of admissions kept maintained round the same. After the Cottage had been in operation for five and a half years, there were only 56 inmates recorded in an article titled “Home for Homeless Women” in April 1853 issue of the Household Words.
(3) You must solemnly remember that if you enter this Home without such constant resolutions, you will occupy, unworthily and uselessly, the place of some other unhappy girl, now wandering and lost; and that her ruin, no less than your own, will be upon your head. (p. 255)
It was not until 1836 that the Foundling Hospital in London acknowledged the cities’ increasing demand by taking illegitimate children under its wing, only provided that the child was the first-born of the mother with her irreproachably moral character. According to page 23 of the Founding Museum guidebook, “the most meritorious case[…]would be that a young woman, having no means of subsistence, having no opulent relations[…]but yielded to artful and long-continued seduction and an express promise of marriage; whose delivery took place in secret, and whose shame was known only to one or two persons.”
Charles Dickens understood the young women’s shame instead of criticising their downfall. He did not expect the girls to be absolutely quiet and domestic; instead, he tolerated and was fascinated with the restlessness in them. The boarders of Urania Cottage ranged from “orphans, servants, child-carers, seamstresses, milliners, half-starving apprentices, to theatre-girls, prostitutes, tramps, petty thieves, and ones who attempted suicides” (p. 157). All walks of life he found and saved on streets and prisons, and salvaged downtrodden girls whom his companions and prison governors discovered and communicated in letters and persons to seek his help.
(4) In a distant country, they may become the faithful wives of honest men, and live and die in peace. (p. 255)
Emigration was not a popular notion in his time, considered by the contemporaries. In the 1840s, British government was sending out assisted migrants from cities and towns on assigned ships. Convicts were still being transported to Botany Bay and other parts of Australia due to the overcrowding of prisons and hulks. Emigration was regarded as the only solution to “shoveling out paupers”; women, on the other hand, were in demand in Australia to “redress the balance between the sexes” (p.18).
However, Dickens disregarded others’ opinions of the emigration plans. To him, Australia was a place he held high hopes for people he knew in intimacy for a new change. In 1865 and 1868, he respectively sent in two sons Alfred (aged twenty) and Edward (sixteen, nicknamed Plorn) with one-way tickets to Australia. In England, Charles Dickens came up with the verdict that Plorn was a stripling with “a want of application and continuity of purpose” (p. 189).
For the reformed girls back at Urania Cottage pleading a normal life, it was a rare chance for them to continually earn their means and at the same time, ignoring society’s norms and perspectives. Their situation was demeaning, and worse, their future unforeseeable. Dickens had visions of sending and helping the girls emigrate, in the first place, to Australia (mainly Adelaide), rather than disbanding the newly reformed girls back on the streets. Charles Dickens envisaged that “the new emigration projects had to distance themselves from the older, compulsory and punitive system”. Of course, deeming him a vanguard for the vision of emigration was an exaggeration, because Caroline Chisholm (1808-1877) also promoted the reunion and emigration for families and children upon her return to England in 1846. What was interesting was that some Uranian girls were still rebellious to abscond with their peers once they disembarked, and refused to meet the delegated pastor and recruiting agent assigned by Dickens and Burdett-Coutts in Australia. While some went to be a maidservant, got married, attained what Dickens had hoped for; many migrated to Melbourne to join the gold rush.
On a personal note – Charles Dickens, the Great Original, the inimitable
“I know my plan is a good one – because it is mine!” (p. 241)
Of course, it would be inescapable that some girls of Urania Cottage did not meet Dickens’s expectations. Some had constant and tempestuous outbreak, they carried on thieving at Home, some sneaked off in the middle of the night, some were too violent in their words and actions that they were expelled by Dickens back on the streets lest they would badly influenced other inmates at Home.
As regards Dickens, the biographer Jenny Hartley did not exclude all gossips about him: that he did not admit pregnant women and babies to the Refuge; that he founded this Home merely to escape his dullness of his real nuptial household; and that he rightly did so at the same time to fulfill literary gains in plotting ideas for his novels, including Dombey and Son (1846-48), David Copperfield (1849-50), and Bleak House (1852-53). Nonetheless, I find it amusing because the Author could amazingly relate to the healing journey of Dickens himself: during the process of listening to the girls’ story, he also had this gleam of light and aspiration to console himself through a way of retelling his history, especially in David Copperfield. This Urania Cottage was said by some critics as Dickens’s proud experiment; he let his own philanthropic reality conjured up from his steam-powered imagination. On the other hand, I think it was a soul asylum for Dickens too.
Talking of inspiration, at one point, I might think that Wilkie Collins might have extracted cases and history of the girls of Urania Cottage, confided by Dickens, for his foundation of the New Magdalen (1873), because the painful concatenation that Mercy had gone through as she told in her confession was too convoluted to be imaginable. But it would not be right to deduce it as Dickens purposely concealed the plight of girls before they were admitted to the Home except himself. Probably, Wilkie Collins did a bit of interview and research about the underprivileged women of the underworld.
“All people who have led hazardous and forbidden lives are, in a certain sense, imaginative.” (p. 68)
In this biography, I especially enjoy reading the chapter “Audacious Rhena Pollard” because Dickens was wonderfully portrayed as an ingenious master by Jenny Hartley. In this chapter, a matron informed Dickens that an inmate named Rhena Pollard kept insinuating to her privately that she wanted to announce at the committee meeting about her application to leave the Home. Dickens, in his fictional flair, contrived a ploy and a role with which he compelled and designated the Matron to play and comply. Dickens, in his letter to the Matron, cleverly premeditated all emotions, reactions and actions for Rhena Pollard when she was “allowed to leave the Home”, and so much to her violent temper, Rhena was distressingly and unknowingly “producing exactly the kind of public show Dickens had choreographed for her” (p.119). In the end, it is so much a humour in the chapter: Dickens wrote another letter which he asked the Matron to read aloud to all girls at the Home, alike a parent reading aloud to the children at fireside during winter, “…at this forgiving Christmas time, and at your request[…]the unfortunate creature, so young as so forlorn, can be brough back into the fold.” What a tearful letter! What a merciful father to a prodigal daughter! What a clever plot! Readers like me could not help admiring Dickens’s worldly knowledge of humanity and his brilliancy.
Two sides of a coin Dickens might have, the house of fallen women he founded was such an interesting and fascinating entity which signified a decade of his rescue work. On the other hand, I was a bit disappointed by the benefactress of the Home, Angela Burdett-Coutts, because in this biography, she gave me an impression of being a much more conservative and close-minded person compared with Charles Dickens, and was not as eccentric as I always wish her to be.