I read with my class the interview in Oliver Twist between the whore Nancy and the lady Rose –both 17-year-old girls separated by a social abyss. Dickens speaks through each girl’s mouth, first to claim (through Nancy) that it’s not inborn malice but the bad luck of finding yourself in an appalling environment as a child that leads to prostitution. Then through Rose’s lips he impresses on Nancy the idea that any prostitute can be ‘saved’, as long as she’s willing to fight for herself (and show repentance for her sin… yes, so typically Victorian). Despite Rose’s perplexed tears, though, Nancy decides to return to her pimp, the brutal Sikes, to be, as she somehow foretells, murdered by him. She just can’t leave him. Or won’t.
Dickens was accused of being untruthful to human nature in making Nancy so defenceless –or, as we’d call her today, so emotionally dependent on her abuser. He lashed back in the 1841 preface to the novel claiming that Nancy’s plight was true enough. He could do no more, lacking the contemporary research on domestic abuse that so well explains why a victim will not abandon her victimiser, not even at the risk of dying. Women like Nancy, used to being abused and exploited from early childhood, end up believing that violence (physical or psychological) is a natural part of human emotional life and even confuse abuse with an expression of love.
One of Dickens’s most poignant sketches is, precisely, “The Hospital Patient” (1836) –which might well be the foundation for his assertion that Nancy is ‘true’ to life. Curious about a street crowd, Dickens reaches a police station where a “powerful, ill-looking young fellow” is being questioned “on the very common charge of having, on the previous night, ill-treated a woman, with whom he lived in some court hard by.” She’s dying in a nearby hospital and, with the police’s permission, Charles the inquisitive young journalist accompanies the magistrates to doublecheck the prisoner’s identity (there were witnesses) –and face, as he knows, a horrific scene. Thus they find the girl: “Her face bore deep marks of the ill-usage she had received: her hand was pressed upon her side, as if her chief pain were there; her breathing was short and heavy; and it was plain to see that she was dying fast.”
When asked to identify her murderer, the victim bursts into tears and claims she injured herself: “He didn’t hurt me; he wouldn’t for all the world. Jack, dear Jack, you know you wouldn’t!” Dear Jack, taken by surprise, starts sobbing –if you believe that. The dying girl assures him that ‘they shall not persuade me to swear your life away. He didn’t do it, gentlemen. He never hurt me.’ Her last words are of repentance (‘I hope God Almighty will forgive me all the wrong I have done, and the life I have led’), followed by a blessing for Jack and love for her poor, disappointed father. Dickens closes the sketch simply with her death, no comments added. It is understood that ‘dear Jack’ will be, anyway, hanged as his neighbours witnessed the attack and her testimony was just a formality.
One can always suspect that Dickens, so fond of sentimentalism, added tears to the already tearful scene and, perhaps, those words of repetance. Yet beyond all this claptrap there lies a truth which he describes as “very common,” at least among low-lives like Jack (Sikes’s predecessor) and his victim (Nancy’s). J.S. Mill later clarified in his The Subjection of Women that middle- and upper-class Victorian ladies were also subjected to all kinds of abuse (Anne Brontë had already made the point in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall). What is surprising is why it has taken us so long to react.
By the way, my class and I agreed that in that interview the less credible character is Rose, the lady. Her hands, joined as if in prayer, and her abundant tears when begging Nancy to reconsider her choice seem fantastic –yesterday and today. So far I haven’t found in the Sketches any evidence that angelic ladies like Rose existed -except in Dickens’s imagination.