Charles Dickens: The Women of Urania Cottage | Opinion


An image of Urania Cottage.
An image of Urania Cottage.

Charles Dickens was always very clear about the social causes of child labor and prostitution; not even Marx, ruthless forgivers, could detract merit from the author’s legislative reform campaigns. Little Dorrit.

However, at the individual level and beyond the laws, the outlets that the novelist could conceive for a prostituted woman in the England of his day were only two: emigration – to remote Australia, for example, or Canada – or marriage. Desirably, according to him, both solutions at once.

The profuse and long correspondence that Dickens had in the course of his life with Angela Burdett-Coutts, a wealthy and philanthropic single lady and a fervent admirer of the novelist, enabled the British historian Jenny Hartley of the University of Roehampton to brilliantly appropriate the genesis and process of the experiment that made Charles Dickens, for fifteen years, a determined rehabilitator of London prostitutes.

In his book Charles Dickens and the House of Fallen Women (Charles Dickens and the house of fallen women, Methuen, London, 2008) we read that, after enthusiastically welcoming Dickens’s proposal, Burdett-Coutts became a major financier and insisted that the respected and influential writer take the lead. They chose as the headquarters of the institution a semi-farm property called Urania Cottage. Dickens changed the cottage for college, thus giving the strict Victorian reformatory a rotten school name.

The admission protocol required the applicant to give the novelist a detailed account of her misfortune in private. This confidentiality had to be done only once and, from then on, the woman forced herself to keep absolute silence forever about her past. No one else, not the institute staff, not her high school classmates, should have known the circumstances of her downfall. The silence must extend into their future lives.

With this requirement fulfilled, the woman entered what Dickens called an “alternative domesticity”: a routine of industry, trades, and household skills that prepared her for marriage. Dickens kept a jealous record of the interviews, as well as the progress and failures of the pupils in a volume that characteristically called Case book and that no one but the writer could ever read.

Despite this reservation, the correspondence between Dickens and Burdett-Coutts reveals Rehna Pollard, who may be the model for the willful Tattycoram, the unforgettable character of Little Dorritt. La Pollard, a quarrelsome, stubborn former convict, was the subject of an ultimatum from Dickens: if she persisted in not abiding by the rules of the house, she would be unceremoniously expelled.

The threat seemed to have worked, for Dickens still had fond memories of the unruly Rehna at the end of his life. Rehna Pollard was the only tenant of Urania who, instead of emigrating to Australia, traveled to Canada, where she began the new life with which the novels of her guardian and mentor used to end. There she married a lumberjack caller Oris Cole Jr. and had eight children.

About 100 women passed through Urania during the three decades that it served as a “corporate refuge”, as Dickens called it. In a report sent to Burdett-Coutts in 1853, Dickens details that 26 of the first 54 pupils emigrated to Australia and successfully rebuilt their lives. Fourteen decided to leave Urania and take to the streets again. Another ten had to be expelled.

Reading Jenny Hartley’s book suggests a play that began with an interview with the impoverished prostitute in search of a second chance and ran like a black parody of Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. The girl could well be called Emma Spencer, after one of the pupils mentioned in the correspondence with Burdett-Coutts.

Emma was fifteen when she applied to Urania College. Before prostituting herself, she lived a real ordeal as a child laborer in the very shoe polish factory where, as a child, Dickens had worked from dawn to dusk to support his father, a prisoner for debtors. This coincidence had a profound effect on Dickens and aroused a special sympathy for Emma.

Nothing else, I am afraid, we will never hear from Emma Spencer because Charles Dickens’ fallen women casebook was destroyed by the novelist after major causes, including the shortfall in funding, forced the definitive closure of the establishment in 1862 .

The entrance ceremony required the aspirant to give the novelist a detailed account of her misfortune. This confidentiality had to be done only once and, from then on, the woman forced herself to keep absolute silence forever about her past. No one else, not the institute staff, not her high school classmates, should have known the circumstances of her “downfall.” The silence must extend into their future lives.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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