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Since the Law’s a Bachelor: Reconsidering the Epistemology of Dickens’s Grumpy Frumpy Woman of Property

Claudia Martin, Binghamton University

In 1898 the late-Victorian novelist and critic, George Gissing, pronounced Dickens’s fictions as lacking appeal to women, concluding that “with female readers Dickens was never a prime favourite” (Gissing 111). According to Gissing women eschewed Dickens’s novels because they contained violence and vulgarity, emphasizing the “coarser aspects of life,” and offending normal female sensibilities (111). Like many critics, Gissing assumes that Dickens endorses a form of Victorian realism that neither favors, nor appeals to women. Yet, Dickens’s texts often display an understanding of, and even a genuine empathy for the plight of women, particularly those women whose rights of property ownership were largely unprotected by British law, suggesting a much more complex and even progressive approach to women’s rights then has been generally recognized. In her recent study of divorce in Dickens’s novels Kelly Hager finds that he shows a clear preference for the failed marriage plot. She argues that after more than two decades of Foucauldian readings a “revisionary” examination of Dickens is mandated because he presents himself as a writer who is “neither the agent of the patriarchy nor a kind of novelistic Bentham,” (Hager 41). Hager’s reassessment of Dickens concludes that the author had a much more complex, and at times a seemingly contradictory relationship to conventional Victorian family and gender roles. This ambivalence on women’s issues may be seen, for example, in a November 8, 1851 cover essay in Household Words (No. 85) entitled “Sucking Pigs,” in which Dickens attacks the transplanting of American Bloomerism to British shores, decrying both the way these bloated garments make the female form appear porcine, while expressing vexation at this trans-Atlantic invasion into his cozy nest of English domesticities. Despite his initial declination to enter “upon the great question of the Rights of Women,” Dickens proceeds headlong into the subject, asking why women would want to vacate their position as “a haven of refuge” for the Members of Parliament, High Sheriffs and Parochial Guardians who populate the respectable middle class of mid-Victorian society, claiming that the role of women as comforters to men is a genuine position of “influence in the civilised world” (Dickens HW 145). Yet, for all the sport he makes of those women who desire voting parity and increasing roles in the public sphere, including the right to don peculiarly unfeminine and unflattering garb to do so, Dickens unequivocally acknowledges women’s rights: “we will freely admit your inalienable right to step out of your domestic path into any phase of public appearance and palaver that pleases you best…” (145). It is the acknowledgment that women have inalienable rights independent of their husbands that may provide some insight into Dickens’s complicated attitude towards the rights of women, and particularly the property rights of older women who are no longer on the marriage market, and thus must make their way independently.
Dickens’s recognition of female property rights, even if offered somewhat grudgingly at times, appears to undermine the view of an earlier generation of critics such as David Holbrook and Diane Sadoff, who see him as absolutely hostile to assertive women, arguing that his characterizations are retaliation for his own mother wanting him to remain at the blacking factory (McKnight 187). He seems to be viewed as particularly hard on the propertied woman of a certain age who is portrayed with either overt or covert mockery, such as his aging coquette Flora Finching in Little Dorrit, the donkey-averse Betsey Trotwood in David Copperfield, and her “baleful inversion,” Miss Havisham of Great Expectations (Meisel 281). According to Martin Meisel, Dickens was drawing upon well-known archetypes of disappointed, deranged and mean-spirited older women from theatrical pantomimes and real life in creating his two most iconic spinsters, the Misses Trotwood and Havisham, women made grotesque, ridiculous and hardened by an early romantic disappointment that deprived them of the opportunity to fulfill their feminine destinies as wives and mothers. Analysis of these characters invariably focuses on the manifestations of their lost or stunted femininity. Linda Raphael notes that Dickens’s eccentric spinsters represent “a gap between the opportunity and desire which frequently occurred in the lives of Victorian women,” (218). Similarly, Natalie and Ronald Schroeder view the initially prickly and eccentric Miss Trotwood as gradually shedding her tokens of witchcraft only when she becomes a maternalized variant of the “angel in the house,” by becoming an “authentic female hero” (268). For Curt Hartog, Miss Havisham’s perverse and eccentric behavior after her devastating matrimonial jilt, results from her having to suppress all her capacity for love in order to survive (Hartog 249). The body of criticism regarding Dickens’s treatment of these mature and apparent spinsters such as Miss Havisham and Aunt Betsey invariably focuses on their deviation from the conventional role of femininity that is narrowly defined as encompassing only matrimony and maternity. Such approaches elide the fact that these two older women are narratively linked by their freehold ownership of property which becomes the source of their financial security, and provides them with an authority free of the male dominion of father or husband. Without a husband to blot out her legal existence each woman is free to manage her own assets aided by a trusted lawyer, an employed man over whom she has control. At a time when property ownership represented social and economic stability, but property laws and common law marital practices such as coverture deprived married women of most forms of ownership and agency, Dickens’s creation of older women such as Betsey Trotwood, who achieve a form of maternity while managing to retain control of their property suggests a largely unexamined sympathy for the anomalous situation of women caught between married and unmarried states, demonstrating how the law actually threatened the very property that gave unattached women a right of place, and the means to assist others.
Certainly, Dickens’s preference for self-sacrificing and stoic domestic angels, the Biddys, Agnes Wickfields and Clara Barleys who populate his fictions as paragons of the feminine virtues is well-documented, as is his sympathy for the tragic female figures like Lady Dedlock or, poor Betty Higden in Our Mutual Friend. Yet, as Natalie McKnight points out, Dickens’s domestic young women are the ones most open to the charge of stereotypes because they all share the same docile, dutiful and devoted characteristics of the “Angel in the House” ideal that Dickens expected but didn’t quite get from his own wife (McKnight 195). McKnight suggests that Dickens’s use of the angel stereotype is “almost always [done] in a way to reflect the fault-lines of the image” (195), indicating a recognition that this idealized construction of womanhood is an unrealistic standard against which women were to be judged. However, it is suggested that Dickens uses the mature women of property to expose the inadequacy of a legal system predicated on male stewardship of assets, and the assumption that men would protect women under their jurisdiction. His fictions persistently use marital breakdowns to expose how marriage is a specious guarantee to women of benevolent male support, and that property ownership is a surer guarantor of comfort, protection and support for women. Through characters such as Betsey Trotwood, Dickens underscores this point since her liminal status as a woman neither married, nor unmarried, exposes the tenuousness of her rights in the very property that provides the secure domicile for herself and her ersatz family.
Analysis of Dickens and the law invariably focuses on his exposure of untenable and unfair laws and practices: the Poor Law’s horrific treatment of orphans in Oliver Twist, or the dilatory and inequitable chancery proceedings of Bleak House. However, very recent critical assessments of Dickens’s work offer an alternative view that sees him much more directly challenging the deleterious effects of Britain’s gender-disparate laws, such as Susan Zlotnick’s discussion of how Oliver Twist exposes the way the New Poor Laws unfairly favored bachelor fathers while penalizing pregnant mothers. Similarly, Hager’s analysis of the divorce debates, which necessarily involved a woman’s right to independent property, concludes that Dickens’s repeated use of the failed-marriage plot intentionally exposes the institutional weaknesses of marital laws and practices, aligning him more closely at mid-career with contemporary feminists on issues of child custody, divorce and married women’s property than his “apparently conservative plots and politics” would suggest (Hager 6-7). In Betsey Trotwood, Dickens demonstrates the inequitable anomalies associated with the legal and social constraints on female ownership, particularly the complications arising from the lack of accessible divorce procedures that leave women contractually bound to dissolute men, and render them susceptible to losing the one thing that offers them identity, stability and safety-- their property. Hager contends that Dickens uses the failed-marriage plot to deconstruct the “myth of marriage as an institution that stabilizes society,” by exposing the wholesale dependency of marriage on the man’s fulfillment of his duties and obligations as husband to financially support and not abuse his spouse. However, it may be that Dickens goes further with characters such as Aunt Betsey by making clear that existing laws and legal practices fail to protect female property rights regardless of marital situation, and this failure actually destabilizes the property rights of everyone, including disrupting lines of male inheritance. This point is made clear in the re-marriage of Clara Copperfield to the odious Mr. Murdstone. Lacking the legal wherewithal to place her property in trust for her son, Mrs. Copperfield unwittingly loses her son’s patrimony forever since all of her property becomes her husband’s upon her re-marriage under the common law practice of coverture. Thus, from the onset of David Copperfield, Dickens exposes how marriage not only deprives women of ownership rights, but it also facilitates a disruption of male inheritance.
The Murdstone Predation

That Dickens’s intends to expose the failings of the legal contract of marriage, and particularly the way wives must rely upon the good will and good behavior of their husbands is made evident in the way he invites comparison between Clara Copperfield’s first and second husbands, as well as with Miss Trotwood’s own marital experience. When Aunt Betsey arrives at the Rookery on the eve of David’s birth one of the first things she asks Mrs. Copperfield is, “Do you know anything?...About keeping house, for instance,” (DC 8). This question bears a double-meaning, querying both Mrs. Copperfield’s ability to perform the conventional wifely duties of managing the expenses for servants, food, and furnishings for the home, but the word “keeping” also implies the concept of retaining ownership and possession, something that Mrs. Copperfield will shortly fail to do upon her marriage to the rapacious Mr. Murdstone. While Betsey may seem aggressive and even brusque to the child-like Clara, her queries are well-intentioned, demonstrating concern for the welfare of her godchild because this feckless young woman appears unprepared to manage her income and property competently. In fact, David’s father was training Clara to be a good housewife, teaching her how to manage the household expenditures: “I kept my housekeeping-book regularly, and balanced with Mr. Copperfield every night,” she explains under Aunt Betsey’s cross-questioning (DC 8). While this interrogation intimidates Mrs. Copperfield, Aunt Betsey understands the benefits of being educated in household economics since the collapse of her own unfortunate union forced her to learn about finance and property management until she mastered the skill, earning the title of “the magnate of our family,” (DC 3). Although Clara had enough to live on—an income of £105 from the reversion of her husband’s annuity, and absolute title to the Rookery, David’s childhood home, all of this property disappears the moment Clara remarries—since not only is she deprived of her housekeeping responsibilities, having to cede the keys immediately to Miss Murdstone, but she is made to understand that it is no longer her property. When Clara asserts that, “It is very hard,…that in my own house…” she is cut-off by Murdstone who changes the pronoun to “my” meaning his, underscoring the transfer of ownership to which Clara must accede because it is the law (DC 47). Indeed, Dickens makes clear that the Murdstones are predators in the marriage business, out to acquire assets and wear out their female owners, since they sell the Rookery shortly after Clara’s death, and later Mr. Murdstone marries again, a young lady “just of age”, a match Miss Murdstone characterizes as “rather a good marriage,” and which a David, now educated by his Aunt Betsey, realizes means that she is inexperienced and has money (DC 465). This next Mrs. Murdstone is soon bullied to death as well.
In David Copperfield, Dickens underscores how unprotected women and their property are under existing law. When Aunt Betsey confronts the Murdstones on their visit to her home to reclaim David, she learns that not only did Mrs. Copperfield’s annuity die with her, but that “there was no settlement of the little property—the house and garden—upon her boy” even though Murdstone admits that Clara had the property “left to her unconditionally by her first husband,” (DC 205). Aunt Betsey declares the situation a “most disastrous step” condemning Clara Copperfield as a “most unworldly, most unhappy, most unfortunate baby,” because her unquestioning faith that her second husband would be as good and kind as her first hastened her death, and effectuated the loss of her son’s inheritance (DC 206). Here, Dickens reveals the fallacy of marital laws intended to effectuate property stability and perpetuate male inheritance by showing how easily family property can be irrevocably lost upon marriage where women lack independent rights of ownership.
The Uncertainty of Separation: Miss Betsey and the Bad Man

That Dickens’s was increasingly concerned with the rights of women to property, and the failure of the law to offer finality and resolution to women whose marital situations had irrevocably broken down is made clear within a year of his Bloomer essay, in his serialization of David Copperfield with its dominant subplot that sympathetically lays out the social and legal problems of an aging woman of property. Although David’s Aunt Betsey appears on the eve of his birth, and soon departs like “a discontented fairy” upon learning that the baby is male, she reappears in his life nine years later, and thereafter remains his true fairy-godmother, wresting him from the abusive clutches of the Murdstones, educating him, and becoming a more competent and caring mother to him than the one he lost (Dickens DC 12). Within the first few pages of the narrative Dickens creates sympathy for Miss Betsey when it is explained that years earlier she married a handsome, younger man who physically abused her by beating her, and even throwing her out a window (DC 3). According to Hager, nineteenth century novels that addressed the deleterious impact of marriage did so with the clear purpose of effecting the legalization of divorce, and establishing laws that protected wives’ persons, property, and the custody of their children. Through Aunt Betsey, Dickens intentionally and explicitly reveals the lack of lawful remedy to an abusive marriage, and society’s failure to accord a means for women to retain control of their property, effectively aligns him more closely with those who would reform the laws, than those intent on retaining contemporary constructs of patriarchal marriage (Hager 26). Indeed, Miss Trotwood’s story closely mirrors that of Helen Huntingdon, Anne Bronte’s heroine in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, published in 1849, a scant three years before Dickens began serializing David Copperfield. Like Aunt Betsey, Helen is an abused wife trapped in an unbearable marriage with a drunk, dissolute and philandering husband who has quickly gone through her marriage portion. Intent on protecting her son from his father’s pernicious influence, Helen flees the marital home, and while her escape is unlawful, her tenancy at Wildfell, much like Betsey’s purchase and occupancy of her Dover cottage, appears legitimate. Like any other legal tenant Helen occupies the hall with the permission of the owner, her brother, and she publicly asserts the lawfulness of her tenancy by attending church and occupying the family pew, thereby demonstrating her right to independently hold such property rights (Bronte TTWH 14).
The narrative’s progress allows Helen to reclaim everything that she lost through marriage by reconstructing a new identity for herself and her son, posing as a widow, just as Aunt Betsey does (Bronte 351, 374). Nichole Diedrich concludes that Helen’s self-defined position as a widow and artist allows her to earn wages that she is able to retain under the reclaimed legal status of feme sole, or single woman (31). What is key is that Bronte constructs the narrative in a way that demonstrates how an abused wife can incrementally reclaim all the tangible and intangible possessions that marriage took from her. The radical feminism often attributed to Anne Bronte’s Tenant because it advocates that women leave their abuser and establish financial independence, seems closely replicated in Dickens’s story of Betsey Trotwood, suggesting that Dickens’s position regarding women’s right to legal protection of their person and property even within marriage, may indeed situate him closer to the goals of the mid-century women’s movement than is generally acknowledged.
Certainly, Dickens makes clear that marriage proved a trap for Betsey because the option of legally severing herself and her assets permanently from her abusive spouse is ostensibly impossible: the first civil divorce law, the 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act, was still years away, and the only other lawful method for divorce, a special bill in Parliament, required the advocacy of a Member of Parliament, and was unlikely to succeed since only four divorces had been granted women by special bill during the entirety of the prior century (Hager 37). The process was also legally complicated as it first required a separation, a divorce a mensa e thoro (literally from bed and board) in the ecclesiastical courts before a Parliamentary bill for divorce a vinculo matrimonii, an absolute divorce, could be sought. Divorce was costly, lengthy and had little likelihood of success (Hager 37).
Miss Trotwood’s only practical option to protect her person, and as much of her property as she could retain, was to leave her husband, and negotiate a separation settlement by paying him a sufficient sum to induce his staying away, a fact that she reveals in the “frumpy, grumpy story” of her life revealed to a grown and newly-married David: “I left him…generously. I may say at this distance of time, Trot, that I left him generously. He had been so cruel to me that I might have effected a separation on easy terms for myself, but I did not,” (DC 3; 670). However, as Dickens seems to emphasize, this type of self-help arrangement made solely between the married parties and without the external imprimatur of law, only works if both parties scrupulously honor the terms agreed upon, something Betsey’s dissipated husband does not do, returning time and again to terrify her, and to extract as much as he can from her coffers. Betsey relents each time because it is she who has everything to lose: the cottage she purchased outright for herself with her remaining funds “in a hamlet on the sea-coast a long way off,” and her safety and station as a single woman, since she “took her maiden name again” immediately after the separation (DC 3). Betsey maintains the pretense of being a widow to her relations who believe her husband perished in India, and a spinster to the rest of the world (DC 3). As a single woman, a feme sole, she assiduously guards and maintains her property, not only demonstrating her prudent stewardship of her land, but by actively protecting it from tourists on donkeys anxious to view the sea, and from mischievous boys (DC 187). While the scenes of Aunt Betsey and her faithful servant, Janet, shooing trespassers off the lawn, and secreting buckets of water about the property to throw as further deterrent to uninvited quadrepeds may seem humorous, clear evidence of her unsociable eccentricities, in fact, there is a rational, legal justification for her behavior, as Dickens would well have known from his days as a law clerk copying deeds and trust instruments. Under the common law principle of adverse possession an irrevocable right-of-way can be created across a parcel of land if there is regular, open and obvious use that the lawful owner does not defend against. In this way property interests could be diminished if such a right is established, resulting in an easement by prescription, a permanent legal right-of-way which irrevocably becomes a burden on the land. Thus, underlying the seemingly ridiculous behavior of Aunt Betsey is really a landowner asserting her right to protect her property both from damage, but more importantly from the prospect of losing her full and intact ownership interest.
While Aunt Betsey may effectively defend her property from the encroachment of strangers, she is defenseless against her erstwhile husband because if he were to pursue his spousal rights through the courts he would likely prevail, and she would lose all: her freedom, her home, and all her other assets since these would revert to the control of her husband under the tenets of coverture. Throughout David Copperfield, Dickens underscores how the law repeatedly fails to protect woman, and indeed perpetuates marital abuse and property instability, divesting competent female stewards of rights of ownership or occupancy. By the time a grown and married David sees his aunt arguing with her husband about how much she can give him, she can spare little, having lost much of her wealth to the incompetence of another man, her lawyer, Mr. Wickfield, who has become lax in his duties, and prey to the manipulations of his clerk, Uriah Heep. Aunt Betsey calls her prodigal spouse a “bad man,” a characterization that summons up his legacy of physical and emotional abuse, but even more, suggests that he has not fulfilled his expected role as a man, as a husband—by not protecting his wife, nor providing for her financial security, or at least preserving her assets, as coverture and social convention presume—making him quite simply, a bad man. The destruction or loss of property by men whom the law presumed would protect Miss Trotwood’s assets seems to parallel Dickens’s later creation, Great Expectations's Miss Havisham, a more damaged version of Aunt Betsey, since, as Herbert reveals to Pip, Miss Havisham also was swindled out of “great sums of money” by men she trusted, her half-brother, and a fiancé who probably did not marry her and thus acquire all her property because he was already married (GE 179-80). While Miss Havisham may be the extreme case of a swindled woman assiduously guarding her broken heart, as well as her assets, yet Dickens also demonstrates that female property management can be socially beneficial since she later accedes to Pip’s request to secretly aid Herbert Pocket by providing the enormous sum of £900 to complete the payments for Herbert’s partnership (GE 392-3). She has managed to retain sufficient assets over the years, and it is her money that enables Herbert to prosper in business, to marry, and to employ Pip in his firm.
Tim Dolin and other law and literature critics see the reform of property laws affecting married women as dominating both the legal and social reforms of the nineteenth century, as well as the plots of many fictions (Dolin 4). While common law legal practices such as coverture clearly made a married woman’s situation an infantilizing erasure of her legal and social being, what mid-Victorian fictions by the Brontes, Wilkie Collins, Dickens and others also suggest is that even single women, or those who are separated and appear single, face a loss of autonomy and ownership rights because of the vulnerability of their legal status. The failure of the law to protect their property rights, made their most precious possessions—their homes, furnishings and income unstable. Despite the codification of marriage through the 1753 Clandestine Marriage Act, in which marriage became a binding legal contract, the law offered no options for termination or equitable distribution of assets, leaving the majority of the population in unhappy marriages with little recourse but to “draw up a private separation agreement,” (Hager 37), a solution that Dickens exposes as especially ineffective because it is wholly dependent upon the husband’s compliance with the terms of such a private agreement. A married woman, even one separated, has no right to seek judicial enforcement of any such settlement against a husband because she doesn’t legally exist—only he does (Dolin 2). In David Copperfield,  and in subsequent texts Dickens demonstrates that many women possess a “frumpy, bumpy” story,” underscoring the precariousness of a woman’s right to control her property under existing laws and practices.
In an anonymous essay published on June 25, 1870 in All the Year Round, just two weeks after Dickens’s sudden death and three weeks after he transferred editorial responsibilities to his eldest son, Charley who vowed to carry on his father’s work and “advocate what is right and true,” there is an extensive discussion of the primary issue underpinning all other goals in the Woman’s Suffrage Movement: resolving the inequities associated with women’s property (Dickens, Jr. AYR 89; cited in Dolin 69). The author, who may well have been Dickens himself, notes that,
“It is of no use to women to open more extended fields for work and for earning money, so long as large numbers of them are deprived of any control over their own earnings. Until married women’s property is protected by the same laws that protect the property of the rest of Her Majesty’s subjects, it is idle to talk of the emancipation of women." (AYR 25 June 1870:89).
Some twenty years before the publication of this editorial Dickens seems to have begun questioning the inequity of a legal system that renders a woman’s property rights uncertain and at risk through characters such as Betsey Trotwood and Clara Copperfield. It suggests that Dickens’s views on women’s property rights may well have been closer to the goals of those bloomer-wearing women as early as the publication of David Copperfield.
Works Cited
Ayres, Brenda. Dissenting Women in Dickens’ Novels: The Subversion of Domestic Ideology. Westport, CT and London: Greenwood Press, 1998.
Brontë, Anne. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. 1848 Oxford: Oxford U Press, 1998.
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--“Sucking Pigs.” Household Words: A Weekly Journal. 4.85. Nov. 8, 1851. GoogleBooks: 145-147.
Dickens, Charles, Jr., ed. All The Year Round: A Weekly Journal. No. 82 (new series). 25 June 1870. “Married Women’s Property.” 89-93. Collections of Texas Tech. Univ. Web. 25 Sept. 2011.
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Hartog, Curt. “The Rape of Miss Havisham.” Studies in the Novel. 14.3 (Fall 1982): 248-265.
McKnight, Natalie M. “Dickens and Gender.” A Companion to Charles Dickens. David Paroissien, ed. Malden, MA and Oxford: Blackwell, 2008. 186-198.
Meisel, Martin. “Miss Havisham Brought to Book.” PMLA. 81.3 (Jun. 1966): 278-285.
Raphael, Linda. “A Re-Vision of Miss Havisham: Her Expectations and Our Responses.” Great Expectations. Roger D. Sell, ed. and intro. New York: St. Martin’s, 1994. 216-232.
Schroeder, Natalie E. and Ronald A. Schroeder. “Betsey Trotwood and Jane Murdstone: Dickensian Doubles.” Studies in the Novel. 21.3 (Fall 1989): 268-278).


Claudia Martin is an Adjunct Lecturer at Binghamton University (SUNY) teaching a variety of undergraduate English courses that examine the relationship of law and literature in the Long Nineteenth-Century. She also teaches Engineering Communications in the Thomas J. Watson School of Engineering. She is an active member of the New York and California Bars, and has been a trial attorney for over 30 years. Currently, she is completing her doctoral dissertation at Binghamton University entitled “Place and Displacement: The Unsettling Connection of Fiction, Law and Women’s Property Rights in the Long Nineteenth Century.”