Middle-Class Erasures: The Decreations of Mrs. General and Mr. Podsnap

Article excerpt

Vereen Bell has suggested that in Little Dorrit Dickens holds "up a mirror to those whom he considered responsible [for the social inequalities of England]--apparently with the hope that if they could see nothing else they could at least see themselves,"(1) and that Mrs. General typifies the social indifference of the middle class: "Her attitudes are hers, and at the same time, Dickens implies, they are England's--vague, unoriginal, evasive" (p. 179). Evasion is a key issue here, for William Dorrit has employed the governess to shape his daughters, or rather to reshape them by censoring their history. To that extent Mrs. General inverts the figure of Pygmalion (as recharacterized in Shaw's play of social transference). She is a scupltress who turns women into lifeless simulacra. One of her methods is to empty their minds. Just as in classical mythology those who drank the waters of Lethe forfeited their human identity, so Mrs. General decreates her charges by enjoining inhuman forgetfulness--"Accidents, miseries, and offences, were never to be mentioned before her"(2)--and she bowdlerizes experience in a way reminiscent of Mrs. Clennam, who herself locks up evidence of impropriety (Arthur)--"there was the old dark closet, ... in which he had many times been the sole contents, in days of punishment" (p. 33):

   Even her propriety could not dispute that there was impropriety in the
   world; but Mrs. General's way of getting rid of it was to put it out of
   sight, and make believe that there was no such thing. This was another of
   her ways of forming a mind--to cram all articles of difficulty into
   cupboards, lock them up, and say they had no existence. It was the easiest
   way, and, beyond all comparison, the properest. (P. 450)

The paradox here derives from the application of the creative verb "form" to the act of nullification: formation issues in shapeless detachment. There is something decorously demonic in this--she is, after all, a "Ghoule in gloves" (p. 612), and, like Goethe's Mephistopheles, a Geist, der stets verneint/Und das mit Recht; denn alles, was entsteht, / ist weft, das es zugrunde geht(3) --in Bayard Taylor's version, "the Spirit that Denies! / And justly so: for all things, from the Void / Called forth deserve to be destroyed."(4)

In Our Mutual Friend, too, we will remember that Dickens gives Mr. Podsnap similar powers of decreation, for his arm flourishes recall those of the Deus Artifex on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. And if, as Michael Squires suggests, the later fiction demonstrates how "`self-command' translates into escape from experience,"(5) then Podsnappish "self-advance" translates into the denial of experience altogether:

   Mr. Podsnap had even acquired a peculiar flourish of this right arm in
   often clearing the world of its most difficult problems, by sweeping them
   behind him (and consequently sheer away) with those words and a flushed
   face. For they affronted him.

   Mr. Podsnap's world was not a very large world, morally; no, nor even
   geographically: seeing that although his business was sustained upon
   commerce with other countries, he considered other countries, with that
   important reservation, a mistake, and of their manners and customs would
   conclusively observe, "Not English !" when, PRESTO! with a flourish of the
   arm, and a flush of the face, they were swept away.(6)

For the Podsnaps of Victorian England, not to be English in the fullest (yet most limiting) sense of the word often meant to be French, and not for nothing does Dickens (who envied the artistic freedom of his novelist counterparts across the Channel) choose a Frenchman as victim for Podsnap's patronage at his dinner party. The yellow covers of a French novel were, in the eyes of the middle class, a virtual inventory of Mrs. General's cupboards of oblivion, and the purified, half sentient beings she (and Podsnap) fashioned from living girls, the measure of universal experience:

   A certain institution in Mr. …