Monday, November 02, 2015

Charles Dickens and the House of Fallen Women

Charles Dickens led a rich and varied life.  Driven by ambition as well as nervous energy, he not only wrote books that illuminated the dark underbelly of London life during the middle nineteenth century but he also threw himself into schemes and projects that were designed to help alleviate the suffering he witnessed as well as survived.

Jenny Hartley's book, Charles Dickens and the House of Fallen Women, focuses on the Urania House and the 12 years that Dickens was intimately involved with it, from 1846 to 1858.  He essentially talked heiress Angela Burdett-Coutts, who was already philanthropically oriented, to spend some of her millions on creating a house to which a handful of "fallen women" (i.e., prostitutes and unwed mothers) could go to for a year in order to learn the skills and manners needed in order to emigrate and start a new life abroad as a servant with an eye on marriage.

I have had this book on my TBR shelf for a number of years and finally put it on my TBR Pile Challenge list for this year.  While I wasn't disappointed, it fell a bit short of the mark for me simply because while there is a fair amount of info about the various women that Coutts and Dickens helped or tried to help--there were some spectacular failures--there is almost no information about how they women who actually did emigrate fared.  So I ended feeling that I only really got half of the story.  But, to be fair, I read the book to learn about Dickens's involvement in the house, and that the book delivered superbly.

My favorite parts were when Hartley wove into the narrative of the history of Urania House the actual novels that Dickens was working on at the time and how the stories of the real women--Dickens took massive notes and wrote many letters to Coutts and others about the particulars of the women's lives--became immortalized in David Copperfield, Bleak House, Little Dorrit, and in Dombey and Son.

It's often said that Dickens's women are either saints or sinners, and while I can see why that is said--and I've often made this complaint myself--reading this book helped me to understand why that is so.  He was enthralled with that cliche'd dark underbelly and it shaped the fictional worlds he created.

Here's a passage from the book that describes how Dickens interviewed prospective girls before they were admitted to the House for their year's training.

Dickens was the one doing the interviewing, and as the process evolved its confidentiality appealed to him.  What started as a formal questionnaire with 'printed inquiries' transformed itself under his pen.  No longer a matter of forms to be filled in by 'us,' the Case Book was to be for him alone.  The secret book would bulge with the life stories of the Urania women ghost-written by Dickens.  Their back stories would be his great dividend.  The Urania Case Book is Dickens's ur-text, the book behind his other books.
The Case Book is lost, however.  It's been searched for since Dickens's death in 1870.  Hartley convincingly speculates that he burnt it along with stacks of letters and other personal documents in the bonfire he indulged in shortly after he left his wife, Catherine. In fact it was that split with Catherine that ended his involvement with Urania House, as Coutts sided with Catherine, stopped funding Urania House, and broke contact with Dickens.

I find it psychologically interesting that Dickens's affair with Nelly Ternan, which led to the breakup of his marriage and home, marked the next and final major stage of his life.  He moved from trying to rescue hundreds of women to "rescuing" one, who in the final irony, he seduced and so made a "fallen" woman.  If you're interested in learning about this stage of his life, I recommend Claire Tomalin's excellent book, The Invisible Woman: The Story of Ellen Ternan and Charles Dickens.

Felicity Jones and Ralph Fiennes as Nelly Ternan and Dickens in the movie adaptation of The Invisible Woman.


  1. Great commentary on this Jane.

    This sounds really worthwhile. Dickens, was indeed a fascinating character. It like the way that you ties his portrayal of women characters to his real life experiences illustrated in this book.The way in which life influences the works of great authors shall alway be a source of interest.

    If only the "Case Book" were still in existence. It would be such a valuable resource.

  2. It may not have been your favorite read...but at least you got another book off your TBR shelf. Congrats on that!

  3. I had no idea about this part of Dickens life - it does sound fascinating.

  4. The Urania project seems almost like a symbol crafted by a great novelist, perhaps one as great as Dickens himself: it so perfectly captures the ambiguity of Dickens's character. He was motivated thoroughly and in equal parts, it seems, by self-interest (curiosity, material for his books) and genuine compassion for the women. It is interesting to see the relationship with Nelly Ternan as the culminating phase of this rescue project--shipwrecked by too close involvement and distorted into its opposite, as you say. By the way, I just started Dombey and Son, so I will remember this connection to a "Case Book" as I read.

    1. You are right...only Dickens could have created the Urania house. Enjoy Dombey!