Academic journal article Dickens Quarterly

Lowell Revisited: Dickens and the Working Girl

Academic journal article Dickens Quarterly

Lowell Revisited: Dickens and the Working Girl

Article excerpt

Journeying across the United States on his American tour, Dickens made a day's excursion to the fast-developing textile town of Lowell, Massachusetts on 3 February 1842 (Meckier 123). "The object of [his] visit" was, as often on the trip, to acquaint himself with the workings of a particular institution, in this case the town's factory system (American Notes 75). His experiences were later written up to appear in published form in his account of the four and a half month journey in American Notes (Drew 60). The framing of the day he spent at Lowell in the travel book suggests, moreover, that it had some special meaning for him which he wanted to convey to the book's readers. He purposely sets out the fact at the very start that: "I assign a separate chapter to this visit; not because I am about to describe it at any great length, but because I remember it as a thing by itself, and am desirous that my readers should do the same" (72).

The contours of Dickens's day at Lowell are, then, well known. Chapter four of American Notes, in which Dickens's visit is retold, has moreover attracted recent attention. Engaged in an intriguing debate within the pages of a special issue of this journal on Dickens in America, Jerome Meckier and Natalie McNight offer opposing readings of the significance of this short day by either accepting or questioning what Dickens writes above. McKnight, on the one hand, judges the importance Dickens initially places upon the experience to be plausible. She argues that Dickens's visit to Lowell "inspired him and helped to shape his own efforts as a writer" (McKnight 134). An important repercussion of his Lowell experiences for her is that "In Lowell, Dickens ... learned just how active, independent, and productive women could be, while still being attractive" (138). It follows, then, that "After Lowell, Dickens began creating more interesting, active, and independent female characters than he had before" (138). Meckier, in marked contrast, is more skeptical of the prominence Dickens gives the Lowell material. He sees it therefore not as an imaginative turning point, but rather as an unilluminating dead end. In summary, he suggests that "His afternoon in the mills survived as a pleasant memory but shrank in significance to an isolated experience, with which he could do little creatively except award it a chapter of its own" (130). He proposes, indeed, that Dickens's account is so uninspired and bland that "One does not question Dickens's sincerity in chapter four so much as marvel that his enthusiasms prove so lackluster--un-Dickensian in style and spirit" (125).

In what follows I add to this critical discussion about a seemingly small episode in Dickens's life and writing. There is yet more to be discovered about Dickens in general, I propose, by returning again to the impressions of the time spent in Lowell recorded in the fourth chapter of American Notes. What I want to draw attention to in particular is that the contrasting and equally convincing interpretations Meckier and McKnight make either omit or play down what seems a very significant part of the story: that the factory workers in Lowell are working women. As we shall also see, even more intriguing is the fact that the mill girls maintain markers of femininity in Dickens's account. This represents a challenge to preconceptions we might have about Dickens's views on women in the workplace; the anomaly that it reveals makes more sense when Dickens's work is considered not just within the frame of his growth as a creative artist but also within the context of the intense response to women's work that marked the early 1840s, to which Dickens himself contributed as what Macaulay labeled a journalistic "skirmisher and sharp-shooter" par excellence (qtd. in Drew 53).

Several critics working in gender studies have recently explored what has been broadly described as "the explosive debate that raged around women and industrial labor in the first half of the nineteenth century" (Johnson 19). …

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