Mrs Jellyby: Between Freedom and Domestic Fiefdom
Orphans, Mothers and Children
Using his treatment of female characters as evidence, readers and critics have often accused the writer Charles Dickens of being “anti-feminist”. One of these characters is Mrs Jellyby from the novel Bleak House. She seems trapped in domestic fiefdom, yet manages or struggles to administer a kind of philanthropy of the peculiar, Victorian kind. We first meet Mrs Jellyby in the early part of the story when the three main characters, Esther Summerson, Ada Clare and Richard Carstone need to lodge one night in London before travelling on to the eponymous Bleak House, where they are to live with their guardian, Mr Jarndyce.
The three adult orphans arrive at the Jellyby household and find themselves amid a minor drama wherein a very young member of the household “one of the dirtiest little unfortunates I ever saw” has gotten his head stuck in the house railings. Esther remedies the situation by helping a few concerned adults to release the child from his uncomfortable prison. Indoors, all is disorder; worn carpets, cold rooms and more neglected Jellyby children seated on the staircase. The three orphans find Mrs Jellyby in a room filled with papers, oblivious to the plight of her young child and dictating letters to her eldest daughter Caroline or Caddy, on the matter of transporting settlers to Borrioboola-Gha in Africa, to work on coffee plantations and bring industry to the natives. Mrs Jellyby is welcoming and attractive, though untidy in appearance. The domestic arrangements go from bad to worse. There is no hot water because the boiler is broken, the bedrooms are as cold and uncomfortable as the rest of the house, and Richard complains of having to wash his hands in a pie dish. The drawing room fire smokes, reducing the entire company to tears and the sluttish servant girl is drunk as she serves the barely cooked dishes of dinner. Esther remains calm throughout the evening, helping to control the younger Jellyby children, and placing the injured Peepy (who fell down the stairs) in her own bed. As she sits in her bedroom that night, Caddy Jellyby enters the room and pronounces the household situation – and her mother – as “disgraceful”.
Reading Mrs Jellyby
The tearful Caddy then contrasts her underschooled person unfavourably with the well-educated Esther and Ada. At this point in the story, Esther has worked as a schoolteacher, while the more privileged Ada has had the advantage of a governess. “I can’t do anything hardly,” Caddy says, miserably (and with much irony), “except write.” Esther does her best to comfort Caddy and brings about a kind of order among the children before she, Ada and Richard move on to Bleak House. We all share Esther’s confusion over Mrs Jellyby. At one level, she is a slovenly and neglectful woman, sacrificing her children and household to administrative ambitions. To quote Esther: it must be very good of Mrs Jellyby to take such pains about a scheme for the benefit of Natives (of Africa) – and yet – Peepy and the housekeeping! Just what was Dickens trying to tell us about the ineffective mother?
One way to read Mrs Jellyby is to see her as the antithesis of Esther. Mr Jarndyce saves orphan Esther from a lifetime of manual toil by making her housekeeper of Bleak House. She cheerfully (?) arises at five o’clock every morning and works merrily throughout the day, her bundle of keys at her side. She organises the cleaning and cooking (though not labouring herself), and ensures that Bleak House is a haven of neatness and comfort. Though single and childless, she becomes a “mother” to Richard and Ada, a situation that many readers and critics find disquieting. Her adeptness shames all the actual parents in the story, like Mrs Jellyby and the scapegrace Harold Skimpole.
Privilege and Poverty
The story begs the question: if Esther hadn’t been adept at housekeeping and emotional nurturing, then what role would she have had in Bleak House? More to the point, would she have been there at all? The life of the poor in Victorian times was bitter, to say the least. Esther’s skills saved her from harsh manual labour, or begging, or worse. As if to remind her of the life from which she has escaped, the author maims her with smallpox halfway through the novel. Meanwhile, the middle-class Mrs Jellyby could afford a measure of insouciance; she was not one of “the poor”. With a cook and a maid, her failure was administrative rather than practical. Reading between the lines of the story, I suspect than any attempt to be a “hands on” mother to her children would have had the same, woeful results. This is why I do not agree with Jospeh Hillis Miller when he described her as a “sort of irresponsible do-gooder." In the same essay, he adds her name to the line-up of Bleak House characters “admirably comic creations who are at the same time distorted, grotesque, twisted.” I doubt if she was "do-godding" at all, and I suspect her behaviour sprang from another malady. Quite simply, Mrs Jellyby longed for a life outside the home, witnessed by the constant, faraway look in her eyes. Today, she would be fully trained and fully paid administrator, working most likely for a charity. Amusingly, she would probably juggle work and family, and feel guilty about not being able to give exclusive attention to either.
Neither do I believe that Dickens was against women working outside the home.
Feminism in the 1840s
The writer was no stranger to women’s rights; a generation earlier, Mary Wollstonecraft had published A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters were in print. Successful women surrounded Dickens; his sister was an accomplished violinist and one of his best friends was the journalist and novelist, Elizabeth Gaskell, who wrote articles for the magazines that Dickens edited, All the Year Round and Household Words. What did haunt Dickens was the memory of a childhood marred by parental debt and domestic chaos. He became a workaholic and something of a control freak in domestic matters.
Esther was actually his alter ego, conquering all before her with an acumen that is chilling. She manages homes and lives equally, her one failure being to save friend Ada from an injudicious marriage. She remains calm and smiling throughout, apart from the occasion of being confronted by her estranged mother, Lady Dedlock, who had been forced to abandon her at birth and now spends a loveless if comfortable life in the grand houses of her husband, Sir Leicester. Esther retains her maternal role to the end, although the author does veer towards warning readers of the dangers of a woman neglecting her own emotional needs. She narrowly escapes a disastrous marriage to Mr Jarndyce and marries instead a young doctor, Allan Woodcourt. Though it is a genuine love match, Esther delights that she will be “useful” to her husband. She acquires two children of her own, while becoming a “second mother” to the son of the now widowed Ada.
Dickens and Feminism
Was Charles Dickens anti-feminist?
The Broader Picture
The broader picture is that I do not see Charles Dickens in general and Bleak House in particular, as “anti-feminist”. Rather, the story serves as a comic look at – and a warning about – the havoc that results from personalities forced into inappropriate situations. Witness Richard’s failure to find a suitable job, and Dickens’s description of the relatives of Sir Leicester: “ladies and gentlemen of various ages and capacities; the major part, amiable and sensible, and likely to have done well enough in life if they could have overcome their cousinship.” If there is one vocational success in the novel, it is Caddy Jellyby. She marries a dancing teacher with the unlikely name of Prince Turveydrop, and become a dancer herself. Although given a perfunctory domestic role, her real success is her professional life. She has one child, a little girl who is deaf and dumb. By giving the young Miss Turveydrop this affliction, the author has “saved” her from being forced to work as a secretary to her grandmother.
By the end of the story, Mrs Jellyby had abandoned the now failed African project, and was “campaigning for the rights of women to sit in Parliament”. I wish Dickens had been around to witness the success of women's suffrage.
Bleak House by Charles Dickens, Penguin Edition 1971, with introductory essay by Joseph Hillis Miller