The Many Bad Moms of Charles Dickens
Dickens Believed Women Should Be of Selfless Service to their Family & Country
“My love,” said I, “it quite confuses me. I want to understand it, and I can’t understand it at all.”
“What?” asked Ada, with her pretty smile.
“All this, my dear,” said I. “It must be very good of Mrs. Jellyby to take such pains about a scheme for the benefit of the Natives—and yet—Peepy and the housekeeping!”
Soon after Esther Summerson, protagonist of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, first meets her future surrogate siblings, Ada Clare and Richard Carstone, the trio passes through the London home of Mrs. Jellyby, a philanthropist for the betterment of African tribe Borrioboola-Gha. Despite Esther’s self-effacing narration, we quickly discern her agitation at the sight of a frenetic, disheveled, and filthy household.
Mrs. Jellyby—so detached from her milieu that we never learn her first name—practices what the novel refers to as “telescopic philanthropy.” Rather than devote her attention to local social reforms, she instead casts her philanthropic gaze to Africa and is thus engrossed by letter writing campaigns for the education and general advancement of its indigenous population. Because her efforts demand a neglect of more quotidian tasks, her household and family have plummeted into chaos. Stray bonnets, inky paper, and moldy food litter the house; a defeated Mr. Jellyby, “merged . . . in the more shining qualities of his wife,” nearly dissolves into the strewn waste.
But of course, Esther quakes most at the sight of Mrs. Jellyby’s young children (of whom the aforementioned Peepy is one). Somewhere in the midst of her Borrioboolean pursuits—perhaps even during them!—Mrs. Jellyby has managed to produce a gaggle of children, but cannot recollect their presence, dazzled as she is by the labor and nurture required for the Africa project. The novel bids us remember her parental delinquency by emphasizing the near-constant physical peril to which her children are exposed. Dickens writes,
The children tumbled about, and notched memoranda of their accidents in their legs, which were perfect little calendars of distress; and Peepy was lost for an hour and a half, and brought home from Newgate market by a policeman. The equable manner in which Mrs Jellyby sustained both his absence, and his restoration to the family circle, surprised us all.
Motherly intimacy is often expressed as fundamentally embodied: one body encases and nourishes another burgeoning one that, long after delivery, sustains its fleshly kinship. As the source of origin and, in the eyes of the Victorians, the spiritually appointed custodian, a mother cherishes the welfare of her child’s body; they will always remain one flesh. Esther’s own charity throughout Bleak House indicates that she will wear motherhood’s mantle in this way, and the novel celebrates her for it.
But Mrs. Jellyby, blind to her children’s scratches and bruises, placid in the face of Peepy’s disappearance, lacks this sinewy fastening. Her oldest, Caddy, sees their bond as the dispassionate relationship of a scribe and her dictator. “I am only pen and ink to her,” she bemoans to Esther.
If you’ve dabbled in a few Dickens novels, you know that Mrs. Jellyby is by no means the only female character condemned for her reprehensible parenting. Lousy mothers and mother figures scatter across his oeuvre, leaving venom, violence, and, as in the case of Mrs. Jellyby, lazy cruelty in their wake. Mrs. Nickleby—often considered a portrait of Dickens’s own mother—is both useless and foolish, traits illuminated harshly by the family’s severe circumstances. David Copperfield’s mother, gentle though she may be, fails to protect her son from her physically abusive husband. Pip of Great Expectations, an orphan, must weather the vitriol of his older sister, Mrs. Joe Gargery. And of course, there is the infamous Ms. Havisham, entombed in her moldering estate. In protracted mourning for scorned love, she raises Estella to wreak sexual havoc on men and manipulates a hapless Pip to serve as her surrogate daughter’s trial conquest.
In light of Dicken’s penchant for illuminating maternal failings, it may comes as no surprise that he harbored resentment against his own mother, Elizabeth. In 1824, she and her husband, John Dickens, feckless when it came to personal finances, finally toppled into debt. John was incarcerated in the Marshalsea Prison for debtors, and all the family but Charles accompanied him—a common practice when the head of the household was imprisoned there. Dickens, 12 at the time, was sent instead to Warren’s Blacking Factory so that he could contribute to the family’s meager income.
The drudge of factory labor devastated him. When, after roughly a year, his father was released from prison and the family seemed slowly to be emerging from dire financial straits, Dickens hoped to abandon factory work and return to school. His tenure at Warren’s did in fact end, but not according to Elizabeth’s wishes; she insisted he continue. Silent for years on this piercing moment, one that reverberates throughout his novels, Dickens eventually disclosed to close friend John Forster the magnitude of what struck him as an acute maternal betrayal:
My father said I should go back [to the blacking factory] no more, and should go to school. I do not write resentfully or angrily: for I know how all these things have worked together to make me what I am: but I never afterwards forgot, I never shall forget, I never can forget, that my mother was warm for my being sent back.
Dickens’s year at Warren’s Blacking Factory haunted him, not merely because of the dismal labor, but because his parents, it seemed, had abandoned him to it. Like Caddy Jellyby, his wellbeing, his young self-hood were—according to Dickens—inconsequential in relation to his usefulness. “It is wonderful to me how I could have been so easily cast away at such an age,” Dickens wrote to Forster, “no one had compassion enough on me—a child of singular abilities: quick eager, delicate, and soon hurt, bodily or mentally—to suggest that something might have been spared.” John Dickens redeemed himself after such injustice. He, after all, determined that his son should return to school: an appropriate physical and intellectual safe haven for children. But how could Elizabeth be so eager to send her child back amidst the perils of London industry? Such lack of sympathy, Esther Summerson would certainly agree, could not be natural in a mother.
Dickens’s novels unambiguously present a conception of motherhood that assumes an innate, physiological inclination toward tenderness. Various narrators gawk in repugnance of women who lack the impulse to clasp their children close. Women like Mrs. Jellyby, who veer from the well-traveled and culturally entrenched heteronormative trajectory, are rendered emotionally out of sync with their body’s capacities. Indeed, in Dickens’s estimation, they are against Nature itself. Mrs. Jellyby rebukes the maternal affection that, according to the prevailing Victorian mindset, should blossom from her bosom: inherent to biology and bestowed by an omnipotent creator. As Esther summons confidence over the course of the novel, her critiques of Mrs. Jellyby sharpen. In the second half of Bleak House, she observes, “It struck me that if Mrs Jellyby had discharged her own natural duties and obligations, before she swept the horizon with a telescope in search of others, she would have taken the best precautions against becoming absurd.”
Many literary critics have, over the years, explored Dickens’ deficient mothers as expressions of his own extant grievances against Elizabeth, but he takes Mrs. Jellyby to task twice over: she is not only a failed mother, but a wrong-headed and ineffectual philanthropist. This twinned and intertwined failure articulates Dickens’s larger critique of how an English woman should be of utmost service not only to her family, but also to her country. A “telescopic philanthropist,” as Dickens would have it, narrows her vision and confines her sympathy to the far beyond without contemplating charitable works necessary in her midst. As critic Bruce Robbins explains, “The satire of Mrs. Jellyby . . . makes Africa a distraction, an ineligible elsewhere. Instead of founding piano-leg factories on the left bank of the Niger, enlightened women and men should see to it that their offspring don’t fall down the stairs at home or go without their dinner.” Africa as “an ineligible elsewhere” is perhaps, for the modern reader, one of the most disconcerting contours of Dickens’s critique. Foreignness and race become the basis of diminishment, Anglo-Saxon whiteness the criteria for salvation.
This is not to say that Dickens exaggerated the dire circumstances of the poor populating the British Isles. Especially vulnerable to contagion and often unable to afford the price of food, destitute men, women, and children suffered the walloping surf of disease. Bleak House’s serial publication between 1852 and 1853 followed less than a decade after an 1846 typhoid epidemic, and, in 1848, cholera. Dickens was particularly attuned to the perennially jeopardized health of working class children, and his novels underscore scenes in the sickroom as uniquely illustrative: who cares for the ill—particularly the ill and destitute—and how they assume care-taking duties always matters.
For Dickens, both female charity and motherhood are fundamentally of the body.
Esther, and in the case of David Copperfield, Agnes Wickfield, welcome the role of nurse; each is a balm to the sick and dying near and amongst them. The selflessness of their charitable love is very nearly as exaggerated as Mrs. Jellyby’s wholesale neglect of her home and country. But so much clearer the point: the truly philanthropic woman will heed an inner call to heal the suffering around her. Like the mother who cannot parse her own suffering from that of her children, the female philanthropist cannot bear witness to misery without the ardent impulse to soothe and protect. Mrs. Jellyby’s eyes, with their “curious habit of seeming to look a long way off” would never, upon descending to the London streets, discern little Jo, the grimy, diseased street sweeper. It is Esther who, upon finding the child, determines that she must minister to him, who searches in distress when he wanders from her home in the night, and who falls deathly ill because she does not fear his contagion. The female philanthropist will always forsake her body for another she deems less fortunate.
For in Dickens, meaningful charity necessities proximity. To telescope, Robbins points out, enacts “a forcible, sometimes violent compression in which circles collapse into one another and the result is closure and perhaps loss.” And indeed, Bleak House’s condemnation of Mrs. Jellyby insinuates the violence of her needle-thin purview. Jo’s death, omnisciently narrated, propels a thinly veiled condemnation: “Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with Heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us everyday.” In the world of Bleak House, philanthropists like Mrs. Jellyby step nimbly around both the dead and their own children as they chatter endlessly about abstracted worlds that—by virtue of their distance—require nothing of them. The self-important Mrs. Pardiggle, a more minor character, quite literally stands in the shadow of death, leaving religious tracts in hovels populated by dying infants and beaten women. She, like Mrs. Jellyby, interprets philanthropic duty as inherent in words written or dispersed; though she visits the recipients of her “charity,” they are as obscure to her as Mrs. Jellyby’s African tribes.
Perhaps, for Dickens, both female charity and motherhood are fundamentally of the body: bodies which must not be too hesitant to touch or collide, nonplussed by the ravages of London’s dark underbelly or the potential of their own demise. In her willful seclusion, Mrs. Jellyby is selfish—not simply because she disregards the welfare of a downtrodden husband and ragtag children, but because she is thoroughly safe. We cannot fathom an occasion where the telescopic philanthropist would lay down her quill and shut herself into a sickroom, even if the sufferer were one of her own kin. No doubt she would regard nursing as time misspent—not because she regards her children with spite, but because her myopia precludes her from seeing them at all. For Mrs. Jellyby, maternity is perfunctory: she endured both procreative submission and labor; that is sufficient.
In a context less constrictive to women, perhaps Mrs. Jellyby would have chosen not have children. That should have been her right in any case. But Victorian England looked askance at women who demanded full self-sovereignty, and Dickens is disinclined to consider whether Mrs. Jellyby might have thrived under less claustrophobic circumstances. She can only ever be a lousy mother, a woman who obeyed the letter of her sex’s law but was devoid its spirit. For it is all well and good for a female philanthropist to bear a brood of children, to spearhead letter campaigns, attend meetings of consequence—but if she does not surrender her body to her home and to England—whatever that may entail—then she is no philanthropist at all.