Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Book Review: Charles Dickens and the House of Fallen Women

Title: Charles Dickens and the House of Fallen Women

Author: Jenny Hartley

London in Charles Dickens's time was a city of great contrast. The affluent and middle classes enjoyed a comfortable existence but for the poor, life was cruel and harsh, the more so for girls and young women...Dickens was clearly troubled by what he saw and in autumn 1847, established Urania Cottage in Sheperd's Bush as a hostel for destitute young women...Urania Cottage was financed by the millionairess Angela Burdett Coutts of the banking family and the details of the residents, its routines and its dramas are brought to life in the treasure-trove of letters written to her by Dickens. The aims of Urania Cottage were very simple – to rehabilitate the residents and to prepare them for a normal life as domestic servants in Britain's expanding Colonies – Australia chiefly, but some went to Canada and South Africa...Jenny Hartley's meticulous research has revealed the identities of many of the residents of Urania Cottage and how they fared later in life. The book is at once moving and dramatic – life at the cottage didn't always run smoothly – and shows that with help, even the most deprived people can recover.

Why did I pick up this book?
A friend casually mentioned that I might find Angela Burdett Coutts “interesting.” This book is listed under the references on her Wikipedia entry and was available via my local library.
My thoughts:
I am ashamed to admit that I have not read a lot of Dickens's work. As a child I did tackle some of his works that had been adapted for children like Oliver Twist. Nancy was not portrayed as a prostitute but as a young woman that had got herself into a bit of trouble, hanging around with the wrong people.
In this book, Dickens is placed at the heart of the prostitution moral panic in the Victorian era. He was keen to give these women a second chance by giving them a roof over their head and teaching them domestic service skills such as baking their own bread. After a year, these women were shipped off to one of Britain's emerging colonies. Certainly altruistic but I became suspicious of Dickens's motives as the story of Urania Cottage developed.
Hartley makes a convincing argument that Dickens's drew upon the experiences of the Urania girls in his writing. At Urania it was forbidden for any of the girls to discuss their past lives. Fair enough but none of the staff were allowed to talk about these matters either. Dickens was the lord and master of this castle. Each candidate to Urania faced a tough interview process carried out by Dickens. He made meticulous notes in the ominous sounding 'Case Book' about each girl that entered his care. Some of them will be eternally remembered as their fictional counterparts in novels such as David Copperfield, Little Dorrit and Domsey and Sons. I did not find Dickens a kindly benefactor – I found him to be controlling and ominous.
I did find some scraps about Angela in this book. She and Dickens clashed especially when he wrote an article about Urania for his magazine, Household Words. Dickens grumbled but there was little he could do – Angela controlled the purse strings. It is thanks to his numerous letters to Angela that we get a real taste of the tiny Dickens kingdom within Urania Cottage.
Would I recommend this book?
Hartley does an excellent job of weaving archival material into a fascinating story. Her quests to find Urania girls took her out to Australia to find out what happened to them. Unfortunately a lot of the women are lost to the fog of time (read: lack of records or available information). However Hartley does a thorough investigation, exploring all possible outcomes of what may have happened to these women. Some have happy endings that sound like they've come from the end of a Dickens's novel.