Dominique Bruno: Obsessions
On February 7th of this year, Charles Dickens would have celebrated his 201st birthday. Three years ago, I walked through the Charles Dickens Museum House in London with my mother, who picked up a bobble-head of the man himself for my desk. My mom also bought a teapot with a scene from David Copperfield on the body, so my aunt sewed a tea cozy shaped like a tiny English cottage to put over it. She put snippets of laundry dangling from the sides, and covered the quilted walls with embroidered flowers. After that visit, Charles Dickens became like a family friend, and an inspiration for our popular fabric arts - or at least an excuse for such artwork to exist.
I consider myself an academic writer by trade. My first real forays into writing creatively only occurred within the last two years. My doctoral dissertation contends with women’s behavior and manners in the conduct books of the eighteenth century, and I am trying to balance that with how women wanted to write about themselves, beyond what they were taught. Sometimes, the most annoying part of writing in both fields is learning the languages. Both genres, creative and academic, have their own slang, or jargon. Now it’s “write what you know” instead of letting the “subaltern speak,” and finding a “trigger” instead of finding a thesis. Of course, in creative writing there is the slightly more interesting question: “why?” As opposed to “what’s at stake?” But both questions get to the heart of the matter pretty easily.
My mother and I were on a mission to find the heart of Charles Dickens in London that day. In the early years of his marriage, the family had a four-storey Georgian Townhouse at 48 Doughty Street in London, England. Since 1925, it has been the site of London’s Charles Dickens Museum. I was traveling alone with my mother, tramping through the quieter streets, away from the Tube station and the downtown shops, while my father and brother wandered the city on a pub-crawl. We visited the rooms where Dickens and his young family lived, and saw his old writing desk, meticulously disordered, displaying his blue ink and robin’s egg colored blotting paper (his favorite drafting materials). We visited the bedroom where his seventeen-year-old sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth, had died in Dickens’s arms in 1837. Mary, some critics argue, was the great love of Dickens’s life and the inspiration (or “trigger”) for the sweet, naïve, and devout young women at the heart of most Dickens fiction. The “Angel of the House” as scholars would later call her, became the touchstone of Victorian fiction, and her eternally chaste body would become the lynchpin where later feminist theorists would begin their freak-out over the repressed domestic damsels that birthed popular Victorian culture.
Of course, as any writer would tell you, the question remains why? Why Mary? Dickens had loved other women, one of whom, Maria Beadnell, he was prevented from marrying in his youth due to his lack of social status and the economic constraints of his first job as a legal clerk. However, Mary Hogarth died young, and unlike all of the women in Dickens’s life who were blessed with longevity, she did not live to disappoint him, as Dickens’s wife and daughters did. Even Maria Beadnell, who Dickens met again, many years after their failed engagement, had turned into a pudgy, frivolous creature with an insipid laugh, (and the inspiration for Flora Casby Finching in his later novel, Little Dorrit). Mary Hogarth also did not live to become a mother. Therefore, her body remained perpetually a capsule of sexual potential. Morbid? Maybe. Perverted? Sure. Victorian? Absolutely.
The plaques on the walls of the Dickens museum hinted that the most beloved author of British fiction clearly had a type of woman who fascinated him. After separating from Catherine Hogarth in 1858 (divorce would have been unheard of for a person with Dickens’s fame) he fell in love with the eighteen-year-old actress Ellen Ternan. Dickens was forty-six. He would continue this relationship until the end of his life in 1870. Perhaps he did not live long enough for Ellen to disappoint him, or maybe she did not have him in her life for long enough to be disappointed herself.
The house on Doughty Street seemed so small to me, and I was disappointed as I walked though. I told my mother that I couldn’t imagine all of Dickens’s children packed into such a space. Our family gatherings usually consist of far fewer children, and they were chaotic enough in bigger houses. But then a curator reminded me that Dickens’s family was young and still growing when he and his wife and sister-in-law lived there, and they only lived there full-time for about two and a half years. Eventually fame, fortune, and the ten children that Catherine Hogarth would birth during their marriage would move the Dickens family toward a much grander establishment. This was before he separated from his wife, and moved his young mistress to a house in Kent, called Gad’s Hill. Seven of Dickens’s children would survive to adulthood, to continue to annoy and disappoint their father. He said they all had their mother’s compliant nature, and lacked spirit, fire, or passion--traits which he obviously thought that he possessed in abundance.
Most of the three storeys of the Dickens house—not withstanding the famous room that Mary Hogarth died in--have been turned into museum exhibits, with original copies of Dickens’s drafts under glass. Signs for “NO PHOTOGRAPHY” were politely posted every twenty feet or so, and my camera was sitting in my pocket since our breakfast in South Kensington. But I stopped at one book behind the doorway of the bedroom facing the street. It was a copy of Household Words, a weekly journal that Dickens had started in 1850. The journal was open to the 1853 article “A Home for Homeless Women” about Dickens’s collected lost or “fallen” women in a sort of homeless shelter outside of the city. He called the place Urania Cottage. (“Aphrodite Urania” in ancient Greek, was a term to denote the spiritual, and religious aspects of the goddess of love, as opposed to her more embodied, sexual, life-giver side.) This shelter was built to recuperate, or “reform” wayward women to be reintroduced as productive members of society, so that they were no longer tempted or forced into a life of thievery or prostitution. Incidentally, “A Home for Homeless Women” was the primary inspiration text for my undergraduate thesis, which had gotten honors credit two years before during my bachelor’s degree.
“Oh my gosh, Dee,” my mother said, “we need a picture, it’s a sign!”
I whisper-yelled back to her, “No, Ma, come on, no way, we’ll get in trouble!”
My mother just ignored me, and silently pushed me in front of the case pulling the camera out of my coat pocket. So there I am, hair dyed blonde and cropped short for the summer, squashing up to the glass to avoid the reflective glare. I’m smiling nervously, my Boston College ring next to my trigger finger, pointing to my textual trigger. But triggers are really mundane things. They don’t stand out unless there is a point of resonance or recognition. Something has to make you remember; remind you that you care.
When I was ten or eleven, my cousin Anna ran away. My family didn’t know why. I am twenty-seven now and I can think of a few reasons, looking back, but at the time, I was just confused. Anna was about ten years older than I was, and I had spent most of the first decade of my life in the silent worship of her graceful maturity: following her from room to room while she did her nails, picking up the magazines that she put down, and watching her swipe mascara over her eyelashes before she went out at night, her mouth in a perfect “o” as she opened her eyes in front of the mirror in the foyer. She didn’t really have time for me, but she spoke to me in English, not Italian, which was an upgrade from my grandparents. She also always dutifully kissed me on her way out to the clubs each night.
Anna’s parents didn’t think it was worth it to send a woman to college, so she didn’t go, and she wasn’t expected to leave home until her marriage, whenever that would happen. That idea is rather common on my father’s side of the family. But obviously Anna found other activities to employ her. My first thought was that she had just gone someplace else, sort of like a college. I was very wrong, but no one corrected me, perhaps to protect me, perhaps to protect Anna, or both. I learned not to ask about it, but I did listen. She came back to her father’s house, (and left the man she had run away with) when her mother was dying, bringing with her a daughter, Katerina.
My grandmother doesn’t like to talk about Anna, or Katerina for that matter. Not in English, or Italian. But by the time Anna came back, I was thirteen, and it is really difficult to not talk about the mother staring you in the face, or her toddler pulling your hair with sticky hands, desperate to play any game that you could devise with your brother and the “big-kid cousins.” I had trouble reconciling the Anna in my mind, with the angry, tattooed young woman standing in her father’s foyer on the phone with the father of her child, cursing up a storm. Anna cursed in English too, which was considerate of her.
Katerina spent the next decade or so of her life doing what I had done to her mother: following me around from room to room. When I turned on the TV at night in the big, cold marble-tiled apartment that Anna and her father shared in Rutherford, New Jersey, I was sure to find Katerina snuggled into my blanket within minutes. At my cousin Sylvia’s wedding, Katerina was seven, and I was almost seventeen. She wore her First Holy Communion dress, to dance in, and clung to my skirt as I walked down the stairs to the bathrooms. After midnight, she wrapped herself in my shawl, gazing sleepily at me, as we got ready to put on our coats and leave. Katerina has huge brown eyes, and when she was young, I got the impression that she saw everything, and felt everything, all the time, which must have been a huge burden. I wasn’t surprised when she was diagnosed with epilepsy at age ten. It seemed like a logical progression of an illness. Sometimes life is just too much. We don’t understand it, and we sort of seize up. Writing can sometimes protect you from that, but not always. To my knowledge, Katerina didn’t write much down, or at least she wasn’t encouraged to. However, like most of the best writers I have met, her knowledge of the world began with scrupulous (albeit painful) observations.
Charles Dickens wasn’t very kind towards the women living in Urania Cottage, or if he was, it was definitely a tough-love form of charity. The inmates had very specific dress codes, and curfews, controlled meals, and bible-readings. Dickens chalked this up to re-imposing virtue onto them, which was the only way that any woman could be reclaimed from a sexual fall. Yet as W. R. Greg said in his report for the Westminster Review in 1850, it wasn’t a sex slave ring in London that was causing the rampant prostitution problem. Women went in and out of life on the streets based on their need for money, and other disparate social circumstances. If you consider the rise of industry, and the way that economics had shifted from the farmhouse to the factory, it was just easier for London women to leave the home and hearth. It was also fine for them to return to it. Usually no one was any bit the wiser, not even the husbands of these women. It seems that that was what Dickens feared the most: that a woman could be a prostitute, and no one would know. She could be running a household, raising her children, and still morally vacant enough to sell her body by night. What was happening to human decency? What was happening to the domestic unit of home and hearth if that was the case?
It’s not strange that Dickens was paranoid about it. He seemed to believe what he created on the page. He believed that characters like Esther Summerson in Bleak House (who rattles her housekeeper keys and mutters, “duty” to herself when she feels like acting on an impulse, so she can quash it) really existed. More than just existing, they were the ones moving society forward, and holding its moral center intact. That was the role women were born for: to be mothers to the nation. It’s a pity that Dickens didn’t treat the mother of his own children as well. Towards the end of his marriage, he coldly cordoned off their bedroom, giving her half of it, and when he separated from her, he claimed that she was an unfit mother; being unstable and melancholic.
When I was twenty-two, my cousin Susan ran away. She was almost seventeen at the time. Her parents were divorced, her father was dying, and her mother wasn’t doing well mentally either. Being from a small town in Connecticut, she didn’t have to move far, and we all knew where she was. Her sister even went to collect her (or drag her home) one time, but there were some arrests involved, and eventually a restraining order. We couldn’t get Susan back, at least not for a couple of years. Her mother still refers to that time as the worst part of a mother’s life. When she is drinking, she says, “cut me a break, I didn’t know where my daughter was sleeping for years.” Funny that it is still all about her mom, and not about Susan.
I was raised with my cousins, a conscious effort on my parents’ part, and Susan and I always got along well. When she was younger, I would lend her all the books I was reading after I was done. We liked the same music, and I would make her mix-tapes each time we saw each other. Since I was less prone to acts of violence than the other cousins, I didn’t flip out when she broke a few of my dolls one summer afternoon, so I believe that she was fond of me - and certainly less frightened of me - than she was of her own sister. At the time that she ran away, I was the only one living close enough to the hospital where her father was, and so it was my job to tell him what had happened. After the arrest and subsequent police-problems, Susan did not want to be in the same house as her sister. So, we had to conduct visits separately, when we moved my uncle back to his rehabilitation facility, and later to another apartment. The last time that I saw her before she got clean, she came to her father’s house after his move from the hospital. Her eyes glazed, and I assumed that she was high as a kite during dinner. She didn’t stay long, and didn’t talk much. Her dreadlocks hung down to her waist. I saw her in the kitchen, texting, before she was going to sneak out, and I just hugged her, really hard, before she walked out the door.
The Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey is very beautiful. My brother and my father wanted to go see all the kings who appeared in Braveheart and in Shakespeare’s plays, so I went over to that corner of the Cathedral alone. Charles Dickens is buried under a simple stone, right next to Rudyard Kipling, actually. The stone just says,
BORN 7th FEBRUARY 1812
DIED 9th JUNE 1870
He hadn’t really wanted to be buried there, wanting instead to be placed in the Rochester Cathedral in Kent, near where he was living with Ellen Ternan at Gad’s Hill. It was his demand in his will that the ceremony and all its’ trappings would be simple, claiming that his legacy would continue on in his written works. In his lifetime, the legacy really was established well enough.
After young Mary Hogarth’s death, Dickens’s grief was profound. Despite all of the plates he loved to have spinning in his profession, he was late to publish the next installment of Oliver Twist that quarter. He would go on to write Mary into almost all of his fiction, letting her live again and again on the page. Perhaps the most popular, and tragic re-working of her story was the teenage Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop published in 1840 and 1841. After Little Nell’s death, (in one of the last installments, since Dickens wrote serially) people were outraged. Some claimed to have thrown the chapbook out the window of the train they were on, or to have burst in to tears in public, not what we imagine the stiff-upper-lip British reader to do. The orphaned Little Nell--like Mary Hogarth--does not live to sexual maturity, and spends the entire novel on the streets of London, giving charity and compassion to others, while sacrificing her health and happiness (and finally her life) for the sake of the few surviving family members that she loves. Her grandfather, to the end of the story, refuses to believe that she is dead, and sits by her grave every day, waiting for her to come back, until he dies himself.
My college was a Jesuit school, and the Jesuit motto is, “Men and Women for Others.” There is a community service requirement for graduation, but I took that requirement a little further. During my time in college, I worked at a women’s shelter in south Boston, by the Boston University Medical Center. It was a dry shelter, meaning that you couldn’t stay unless you were clean and sober. I always felt quite safe, but unlike Dickens’s Urania cottage, there was never dull moment. I taught math to some fifth-graders, organized the library of used books, found a fantastic recipe for oven-baked Cajun tilapia in a moment of desperation, and made friends with the nuns and monks near Saint Francis House in Chinatown. There were the ones who staffed rooms full of beds for the homeless to have a place to sleep on winter nights (a third of Boston’s homeless die each winter, from exposure). Working at the shelter for six years, I recognized the same faces each week, and heard some amazing stories. These were the same six years when my cousin Susan was in and out of our lives without any regularity. I spent many nights looking for her, trying to see her face in the crowds of over a hundred women and some of their children who ambled up to the coffee machine, asked for free sugar packets, and complained about the arrests and drug-busts by Northeastern University. I was helping one of my favorite young girls with an English homework assignment when I picked up Dickens’s Bleak House one night, and turned to the chapter where Lady Dedlock, despairing over her lost love and the fact that she can never acknowledge the birth of her illegitimate daughter, dies in the street in front of Potter’s Field, the pauper’s cemetery. I don’t know if I was looking for Susan, if that is what kept me coming back each night, but I do know that is where my thesis began.
Charles Dickens was obsessed with the frivolous melodramas of the eighteenth century. He managed to take their sparkling, (occasionally vulgar) plot lines, clean them up, repurpose them, and write an advice manual for human behavior. Like all advice manuals, Dickens’s work had to impose his code of values, and his judgments to create the reality that he wanted. The eighteenth century didn’t combine the raw materials of narrative and plot the way that the Victorians did. Or at least, they didn’t institutionalize it, the way Dickens did. As I move forward with my own dissertation, I am drawn back to the tools that Dickens used, advice manuals that pre-date him: the stuff that Jane Austen read, like Fordyce’s Sermons, A Father’s Legacy to his Daughters by John Gregory, and Letters on the Improvement of the Mind by Hester Chapone. But I can’t just give up Dickens, because his world-making was so complete that it became my world, too. My minor obsession is quite well known in my department. I was lucky for the bicentennial of his birth, last year to take out my bobble-head from London, who now bobs his greeting to my students during conferences. I call him “Chazz, my Officemate” when my friends ask. For Christmas, I got a necklace with the famous image of Dickens at his writing desk on it, which I wear to teach. I don’t think “Chazz” would mind. He liked to keep an eye on his women.
This year on January 28th is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice. In it, Jane Austen mocks Fordyce’s Sermons, when Mr. Collins takes out the book, (written to advise the conduct of young ladies) in front of the Bennet family after dinner. The most fun Bennet sister, Lydia, rudely ignores him. But Lydia is punished later, experiencing her own sexual fall to the rake-ish George Wickham. I am drawn to the scene of Elizabeth Bennet, finding out about her sister’s “ruin,” and falling into hysterics in front of Mr. Darcy at the inn at Lambton. (“She is lost forever,” Elizabeth Bennet, played by Jennifer Ehle in the 1996 A&E version, exclaims to Mr. Darcy/Colin Firth.) Those are the moments of melodrama that probably shouldn’t make their way into my creative writing. Academically though, I follow this scene, and this plot to its “natural” conclusion.
Other creative writers, including screen-writers are better are seeing the drama for the trauma that it really is. In the Lizzie Bennet Diaries, on YouTube, Lydia has thus far remained quieter, more sedate, and more repentant after the modern equivalent of a sexual fall (a sex tape is almost released to the internet). The series is still running, so we will see how much Lydia has changed--for better or for worse--when it concludes. Like any writer, I have tried to learn from these drama/trauma moments of un-reality. Writing academically is hard, but maybe writing creatively is harder. It’s good that I have found that each genre I write has informed, enhanced, and fortified the other. Sitting in my friend’s car one night after a creative writing class, I explained the reasoning behind one of my early drafts of a short piece of fiction. I was trying to get at why it mattered to me, to tell the story “correctly,” at least according to my own standards. It was as a story about a girl who had run away. “Well,” he replied to me gently, “we write about what we are obsessed about.” And therein lies the reason for everything that I have written, and everything that has happened. I am just following an obsession down the path of my own understanding, and trying to give that obsession a voice. Unlike a Dickens novel, the results are not predetermined.