Deep South v.3 n.3 (Spring 1997)
Mary Hogarth and The Battle of Life Dilemma: Fidelity in a Dickensian Christmas Book.
Dicken's fourth Christmas book, The Battle of Life: A Love Story, of 1846 does not share the enduring popularity of a famous predecessor A Christmas Carol. That much is well known. The novel's earliest critics found flaws that emphasised its weakness when compared with other of Dicken's popular works. The Times' reviewers summarise the strongest and most bitter of these attacks by way of a description that suggests the book is `intrinsically puerile and stupid,' `a twaddling manifestation of silliness,' and `simply ridiculous' (Ford, 53). Later criticism, although less caustic in tone, recognises that the book's chief fault was its attempt to tell a tale concerning the complexities of passion and self-denial in three inadequately short chapters. Harry Stone speaks for the majority of readers by referring to The Battle of Life as `a savagely reduced work that sometimes reads like a scenario, sometimes like a breathless outline' (Stone, 132).
Breathless, no doubt, because Dickens was , at the time of writing the book, engaged on another consuming project: `I am horribly hard at work with my Christmas Book,' he wrote to Thomas Talfourd from Lausanne where he had sequestered himself in September 1846, `which runs (rather inconveniently) in a Curricle just now, with "Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son" (Letters, IV, 631). Additionally, Dickens was later to admit that his subject had warranted greater development than the scope of a Christmas book would allow. But in satisfying the demand for narrative closure he was haunted by not fulfilling his intention to write what he described to John Forster as `both a love story in the common acceptation of the phrase, and a story about love' (Letters, IV, 631). The distinction is, as I intend to argue, both exact and essential.
The result is, of course, the story of Marion Jeddler who seeks the opportunity to voice an individual expression of love while simultaneously exemplifying what Michael Slater describes as a strenuous celebration of the sisterly relationship: a relationship that in Dickens encompasses `a procession of gentle, devoted, self-effacing (not to say self-sacrificing) sisters from Kate Nickleby to Lizzie Hexam in Our Mutual Friend' (Slater, 39). In a similar sense, The Battle of Life is essentially concerned with Marion's desire to serve the will of others before allowing any regard for her own well-being.
Beyond attention to the self-sacrifice is the acknowledgment that the book is commemorative of a real sister, or sister-in-law, Mary Scott Hogarth [Figure 1], who biographers stress held an almost magnetic attraction for Dickens both before and after her death. Biographical readings of the story have to date been preoccupied with the supposedly displaced affection for Mary that the book seems to foreground. Freudian approaches make obvious connections between a story about a man who loves two sisters that was written by a man who loved two sisters. During the narrative one of the two sisters, Marion, performs the obligatory act of self-sacrifice; However, my interest lies in another, less disinterested, aspect of her behaviour, an aspect I might add that the novel avoids fully investigating: her lapse in submitting wholly to the desire of others.
I shall examine Marion's assertion of true feeling, and its implications for Dicken's short novel by contrasting the submissive and self-denying image of Mary Hogarth with that of the more wilful Marion. Following an introduction to this generally unfamiliar Christmas book, I briefly concentrate upon the companionship and devotion of the Mary Hogarth model from which Dickens partly derives his understanding of the `sisterly relationship.' Marion's apparent opposition to some of these accepted modes of behaviour comprises the second part of my paper. Although it takes a personal toll, the very pressing conflict played out in The Battle of Life between Marion's sense of self-control and the desire to break free from the will of other characters to manipulate her eventually enables her to assert control over her own life and love. My main contention is that the book reveals an underlying ambivalence with regard to the conventional image of the self-effacing sister.
1: Dickens and the sisterly ideal
The Battle's infamous reputation made it in the late 1840s to quote Wilkie Collins, the book `which everybody abused and which, nevertheless, everybody read' (Robinson, 50). Unlike Dicken's other Christmas books, The Battle of Life is set in the eighteenth century, and furthermore, it is devoid of the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future. No less than five Christmas books appeared for seasonal entertainment between 1843 and 1848 and Dickens worked elements of the supernatural into all but one of them. The plot, he later conceded, was the most difficult of all the Christmas book plots because of its lack of what he termed `supernatural agency.'
Marion is the younger of Dr Jeddler's two daughters, and she is loved by two men: Alfred Heathfield, a medical student to whom she has been betrothed, and a libertine named Michael Warden. Alfred leaves to complete his studies and entrusts Marion into the care of her older sister Grace. A servant in Dr Jeddler's house, Clemency Newcome, witnesses a secret liaison between Marion and Warden on the night of Alfred's expected return and when both Marion and Warden disappear it is presumed that they have eloped. Six years pass before Marion eventually returns to her father's house (she is now dead to him) to reveal the true reason behind her departure. She realised that Grace was in love with Alfred and explains that the `elopement' was a deception designed to allow Grace freedom to marry. instead of having lived with Warden, Marion has spent the last six years living with -- her Aunt Martha. Grace and Alfred have married and, furthermore, have a child whom they have named Marion.
This simple summary provides clear evidence of Marion's devotion to her sister. Self-effacement and modesty form only the periphery of her character. Both qualities are admittedly not unique to Marion's alleged life model, Mary Hogarth, but they are qualities that have nevertheless customarily been linked with Mary. It is possible to glean from his letter about his sister-in-law Dickens's belief that honour, devotion and companionship form the base of her character. Equally evident is the idea that these qualities are emphasised in frequent Victorian depictions of sisterhood.
Mary entered Dickens's Doughty Street household to offer support to her newly married sister and brother-in-law following the author's marriage to Catherine Hogarth in 1836. Historically, it was not unusual for the unwedded sister of a new wife to either live with, or offer significant help to, a newly married couple. To become, in a sense, a sister to both. But it is not what is remembered of Mary's domestic skill that makes her to Dickens so emblematic of the sisterly ideal.
What is remarkable about Mary Hogarth is the effect on Dickens, both immediate and lasting, of her sudden death at the age of seventeen, which occurred at his Mecklenburgh Square home in May 1837. Dickens notes that she was taken ill without an instant's warning:
she sank under the attack and died -- in such a calm and gentle sleep, that although I held her in my arms for some time before, when she was certainly living (for she swallowed a little brandy from my hand) I continued to support her lifeless form, long after her soul had fled to heaven ... They think her heart was diseased. (Letters, I, 268)
Recently, David Parker has contributed to the debate surrounding the nature of Dicken's relationship with Mary which, for so long has raised suspicion and enquiry, suggesting that ultimately such a relationship was `unremarkable.' Much sensationalism surrounds Dickens's apparent attraction toward Mary yet, according to Parker, it was an attraction that existed purely through mutual admiration. Clearly, Dickens's public response to Mary's death was controlled by the realisation that he could never lawfully entertain the idea of anything other than a platonic or familial relationship with his wife's sister. Mary, like Swift's Esther or Fielding's wife Charlotte, enters a realm of women who become the life models for female literary characters who exemplify goodness and love. Catherine Dickens later stated that "My dear Husband [Mary] as much as I did. She died in his arms. We have both lost a dear and most affectionate sister.'
Strong and not always complimentary speculations have been voiced by a generation of biographers about the closeness that Dickens' obviously felt towards his sister-in-law. the true extent of Dickens's love for Mary, innocently referred to by Catherine, remains unknown and continues to invite speculation. David Parker, perhaps, best summarises the interest when emphasising that it is a love which belongs to that kind `which blurs distinctions between the consanguineous and the erotic, love unaffected by marriage to other partners, love which persists even in the face of death' (Parker, 72)
Following Mary's death, Dickens reformulated this love, not surprisingly, into eulogy. Throughout his correspondence he reconstructs a personality who symbolises youth, loyalty, goodness and innocence. By expressing what her loss meant to him, Dickens recreated Mary not as a symbol of affection, but as an integral part of his household, a signifier of family unity. For example, he describes Mary to George Thomson as `the life of our home ... I could have better spared a much nearer relation of an old friend, for she has been to us what we can never replace;' to Richard Bently she was `our constant friend and companion;' and to George Cox `the grace and ornament of our home the whole time of our marriage;' and to Thomas Beard, Dickens acknowledges `I solemnly believe that so perfect a creature never breathed. I know her inmost heart, and her real worth and value. She had not a fault' (Letters, I, 257, 259).
It is, however, a dream experienced in Genoa in September 1844 which, of all remembrances, offers what is possibly the most distinct image of Mary. In a letter to Forster, Dickens insists `I was visited by a Spirit ... It wore blue drapery, as the Madonna might in a picture by Raphael ... I think (but I am not sure) that I recognized the voice. Anyway, I knew it was poor Mary's spirit' (Letters, IV, 196). The influence for this depiction may be traceable to the impression made by environment -- Dickens had confidently stated (presumably, he was relying on Raphael) in Pictures from Italy two years earlier that blue (as is well known) [is] that Madonna's `favourite colour' (Genoa and its Neighbourhood).
The vision is of obvious symbolic importance, and even if it only to be taken as an overtly sentimental recollection of Mary, does at least locate for Forster a definite image of Dickens's idealised sister. The association with purity, virtue and fidelity, even if recalled through a dream, is immediately apparent. Dickens's ensuing conversation with Mary (on the various merits and demerits of Catholicism) also suggests his determination to maintain at least a spiritual relationship with his sister-in-law that would transcend death. The strength of his attachment to Mary recurs at various significant moments, too, during the remainder of his life. For instance, during the separation from Catherine in 1858 he is reminded of Mary's unique ability to empathise, and later still, thirty-two years after he held the dying Mary in his arms she still seemed to him `inseparable' from his existence: devotion and innocence are the two qualities that define Mary; she came to signify emotional dependence, and each account of her suggested it unlikely that she would ever place her own well-being ahead of anyone else. Less than two years after this strange Genoese dream he was engaged in the portrayal of self-sacrifice in Marion Jeddler, a heroine whom, as the fist eight pages of manuscript reveal, was originally referred to as Mary.
However, due to the demands of the narrative, the figure Dickens portrays is not always fully reliant on constancy or comapnionship, neither can her experience in the story be said to preserve complete innocence. Rather than conform directly to the Madonna-like ideal, Marion threatens family unity through a strange alienation from those she values. her difficulty is to face the dilemma of either satisfying desirte r fulfilling obligation; a far from uncommon role among the Victorian heroine in literature or, for that matter, in life. A contemporary essayist writing about "The Relations of Brothers and Sisters" for Reynold's Miscellany voices a mid-century view of the self-effacing sister. The essay concludes with the belief that the sister's chief aim is `To do good and make other's happy [this] was her role in life, and in this she found the art of making herself so' (Reynold's Miscellany, 264). Creakings of convention are almost painfully audible as Marion at first appears to conform to this prescription of self-effacement in the latter part of the story. However, by focusing on the development of what I shall call the `elopement plot,' a more independent, less submissisve, image of Marion begins to emerge.
2: Transforming infidelity in The Battle of Life
Mary Hogarth, we can assume, symbolises for Dickens both dependence and dependability. That much is clear from the recurrent use of phrase and sentiment that appear in letters that follow Mary's death. She was, as Dickens describes her to Bentley, `our constant friend and companion.' It seems strange, therefore, that the plot of the fourth Christmas book relies on the idea of inconstancy. Despite emphasis on the sisters' friendship, one feels distanced from both shortly after their introduction. In contrast to her life model, Marion Jeddler is emotionally distant and not driven by the prescribed duty `to make others happy.' Dickens demonstrates an interest in The Battle of Life's opening pages in diminishing distances and equating ancient and modern experiences through description of a scene of battle that was fought one hundred years ago. The site of the battle is now an orchard where Grace and Marion dance `quite unconstrained and careless.'
From his writings on Mary it can be deduced that Dickens regards `constancy,' `friendship' and `companionship' as significant characteristics of the `sisterly relationship.' But the association of these characteristics with the Jeddler sisters seems forced, almost unnatural. They are so unconvincing, in fact, that flaws within the sibling relationship soon begin to emerge. Marion, already having knowledge of Grace's love for Alfred, is forced into a position of self-reliance because her sister almost wilfully creates a distance between them that is made up of duty and sacrifice. This early stage of the novel appears to rely on the sisters' ability to read one another's hearts but the image of sibling love is overemphasised; a stress on Victorian familial devotion is recast into an eighteenth century scenario where `the graceful figures of the blooming sisters, twined together, lingering among the trees, conversing thus, with earnestness opposed to lightness, yet with love responding tenderly to love' (Part the First, 143). In addition to the obvious physical discomfort occasioned by becoming `twined,' Marion is at first nothing more than a foil to her sister's charm and strength of character. It is soon clear that a burden of responsibility and obligation naturally rests with the elder sibling, who sacrifices her love for Alfred so that Marion may realise happiness. Yet, the companionship that is suggested through the sister's symbolic display of affection has little real basis because both Grace and Marion are in effect emotionally removed from one another. Marion soon exhibits sign of emotional unease and her ability to express expose a darker side of the siter's relationship. Familial roles wherein the older sister traditionally assumes responsibility are exchanged and the maternal part played by Grace does, infact, force a separation between them.
Grace, as often happens in such cases, when no mother watches both (the Doctor's wife was dead), seemed, in her gentle care of her sister, and in the steadiness of her devotion to her, older than she was; and more removed, in the course of nature, from all competition with her, or participation, otherwise than through her sympathy and true affection, in her wayward fancies, than their ages seemed to warrant. (Part the First, 143-4)
What is curious in the story that hinges so vitally on sibling love is the significant lack of communication between the two sisters. Neither finds it possible to describe their love for Alfred wihtout feeling a sense of shame or betrayal toward the other. The division widens as Grace, plying her sister's fiance suggests that `There is no truer heart than Alfred's in the world!' Marion's reply falls short of outright denial: `I --don't want him to be so very true. I never asked him. If he expects that I --. But , dear Grace, why need we talk of him at all, just now?' (Part the First, 143). As Marion retreats from discussion of Alfred we begin to see her entrapped by the expectation of her good matching with Dr Jeddler's ward. Grace's complete renunciation of Alfred is prolonged, and admittedly, selfless, yet in addition to its ironic denial of Marion's access to happiness it also repels her sister's freedom of choice and, it would seem, her freedom of expression.
Marion is essentially caught in a struggle with the demands of duty and desire; a far more demanding cause than Grace is able to imagine, and one which requires both maturity and independence from the younger sister. Dickens attends to Marion's wish to satisfy desire before concentrating on the more significant issue (or what appeared to be the more significant issue) regarding familial devotion. Not surprisingly, much of the tension within the novel arises from Marion's supposed succumbing to desire, but there is an inevitable link between the plot surrounding her apparent infidelity and her acquisition of self-knowledge. Dicken, I believe, showed clear interest in this connection, yet his own realisation concerning the novel's structural difficulty confirm his frustration about having to abandon the full development of Marion's character.
Marion's suspicious behaviour is an integral part of the novel's evolving tension. Her diffidence over Alfred indicates that there is something withheld from Grace. Therefore, when Michael Warden makes known his love for her to the two wonderfully named lawyers, Snitchey and Craggs, the wheels of what appears to be an elopement plot are firmly set in motion. Family unity is under threat through Marion's unthinkable liaison with Warden: `a man of thirty, or about that time of life, negligently dressed and somewhat haggard in the face, but well made, well-attired, and well-looking, who sat in the arm-chair of state, with one hand in his breat, and the other in his dishevelled hair, pondering moodily' (Part the Second, 166-7). The physical trademarks of rakishness are, however, undercut by expression of genuine feeling, regardless of the fact that it is directed toward another man's fiance. Significantly, Warden's indication of false or illicit love complements the signs of inconstancy that come from Marion earlier in the text:
I am not going to marry the young lady off, without her consent. There's nothing illegal in it. I was never Mr Heathfield's bosom friend. I violate no confidence of his. I love where he loves, and I mean to win where he would win, if I can. (Part the Second, 172)
Mary Hogarth's death prompted comments from Dickens on the quality of loyalty, or in Dicken's own words, her ability to know `his inmost heart.' Emotional closseness between sister and sibling perhaps traditionally suggests that there must also exist a close psychological relationship. The brother-sister relationship between Dicken's own Paul and Florence Dombey poses one such example. Marion, on the other hand, whose compassion for Grace is well stated, is cast into a situation that immediately raises question about her fidelity. Obviously, she has a sound knowledge of her sister's capacity for love, but the focus of the narrative soon shifts to love of a very different kind.
Warden's rakish behaviour in the lawyers' presence would signal the demise of Marion's familial responsibility, but he is a rake with a potentially sentimental tendency to alert Marion to his genuine feeling for her. Furthermore, he suggests that Marion repents her engagement to Alfred by persuading himself that `she may have fallen in love with me as I have fallen in love with her' (Part the Second, 172). Dickens undercuts full suspicion of Warden by dispesscing a sympathetic, if immature, tone through his declaration of love. Dickens takes a similar approach in his previous Christmas book, The Cricket on the Hearth, in which it seems that a devoted wife betrays her older husband by forming a secret liaison with a stranger who has entered the story disguised as an elderly man. Dickens purposely leads to contemplate the danger of Marion making the wrong choice, and thereby disrupting faamily unity. A similar reliance on the betrayal plot (without the aid of elaborate disguise) is at work in The Battle of Life. The apparent demise of the companionate marriage again rests with the young wife, or fiancee who takes matters into her own hands in that she can unite two lovers. In the Cricket on the Hearth Dot Peerybingle helps the Stranger gain the hand of Mary Fielding by preventing May's marriage to the toy-maker Tackleton. In comparison, Marion's involvement in helping the love match is if anything more personal and more wrenching as she must separate herself from Alfred to allow him to marry Grace. Even more damaging is the slur on her reputation that such a sacrifice incurs. In the eyes of her husband Dot risks a morally unlawful association with the Stranger, just as Marion risks involvement with Michael Warden.
Following the contentious debate that revolves around the possibly withheld passion for Mary Hogarth, it is not difficult to interpret any suggestion of Marion's apparent inconstancy as a type of wish-fulfillment on the part of Dicken's. The truth is that we shall never know if he displaces such feeling into the novel. Such speculation does lead on to a more fundamental issue which involves, I believe, the right of the sister to assert control, and to act independently, within the family. Marion is more aware of the disruption posed by physical attraction or misplaced love than was ever indicated in any reference to Mary. This is as it should be. Dickens could never break Victorian taboo of decorum by mentioning feelings that were anything other than brotherly affection for his sister-in-law. Mary remains an image of virtue whose character is shaped by Dicken's reflexive responses to her sudden death at the age of seventeen. She had little opportunity to face the sort of dilemma that Marion is forced to deal with. If she had faced such trauma it was, necessarily, omitted from Dicken's reference to her. The strongest distinction between Mary and Marion lies in the latter's awareness of illicit love.
Advice against Marion and Warden's union is given from minor characters, moral guides who also supply the only true comic interlude in a tale about inconstancy. Snitchey and Craggs, and the servant Clemency Newcome (a possible prototype of David Copperfield's compassionate Peggotty), pass judgement on the idea of elopement in the context their various meetings with the two `lovers.' For instance, when Warden declares that `the star of my destiny is Marion!' (Part the Second, 174), Snitchey rebuffs any hint of romance with his warning to Warden: `Take care of the stairs, Sir ... `for [your star] don't shine there. Good night!' (Part the Second, 174). Furthermore, Snitchey increases suspicion of Marion's true love when later remarking on Warden's infatuation, transferring the blame to Marion: `His self-love deceived him, I suppose. Perhaps the young lady coquetted a little. The evidence would seem to point that way' (Part the Second, 194). There is little point in arguing with such an observation. Indeed, Dickens attempts to downplay evidence that might protest Marion's innocence.
Snitchey's speculation provides only a foretaste of the fall that is to come. Immorality, transgression; not plausible to associate Mary Hogarth, she who `had not a fault,' become prime motivators in shaping our view of Marion, further encouraging us to view her as emotionally distant. On the night when Alfred returns to reclaim his bride, Marion resolves to meet with Warden outside her father's house. Clemacy Newcome, begging Marion to rethink her decision, pleads with her:
`Don't cross the door-step to-night. I'm sure no good will come of it. Oh, it was an unhaappy daay when Mr Warden was vere brought here! Think off your father, darling: of your sister.' `I have,' said Marion, hastily raising her head. You don't know what I do. I must speak to him. You are the best and truest friend in all the world for what you have said to me, but I must take this step.' ... `For Mr Alfred's sake,' said Clemency with earnestness. `Him that used to love so dearly once!' [Marion] hid her face upon the instant, in her hands, repeating `Once!' as if it rent her heart. (Part the Second, 187)
As I mentioned above, Marion's complete guilt is downplayed both here and in her farewell to the sleeping Grace which immediately follows. Clemancy forces Marion to consider the conflict between her sense of duty, self-knowledge and her desire to become Alfred's wife. Surely, Clemancy's perspective equates with that of the majority of Dicken's morally charged Victorian readership; the idea of substituting an illicit love for a respectable relationship becomes the focal point of the story, unfairly outweighting consideration of Marion's need to describe her private dilemma. Dickens does not lose sight of Marion's anguish, but the dramatic inclusion of elopement becomes a distraction from her private torment.
Significantly, it is the elopement scene that, in Clemency's eyes, reduces Marion's devotion toward her family to nothing: the same instance that confirms, again in Clemancy's eyes, Marion's decision to reject Alfred. Marion hides a secret that, if it was to be known, would absolve her all susspicion. More importantly, it would give voice to the dilemma that plagues her, and undermines her true position within the family. Furthermore, Warden, her partner in crime, comes across as more immature than deeply immoral. He does not pose the threat of violence to an innocent and unsuspecting young woman (one thinks, say, of Dombey and Son's Carker the manager), and it must be remembered that he will not carry Marion off `without her consent.' In fact proof conclusively points toward Marion's participation in forbidden love.
In the dark night he joined her, and they spoke together earnestly and long: and the hand that held so fast by Clemency's now trembled, now turned deadly cold, now clasped and closed on hers, in the strong feelingg of the speech it emphasised unconsciously. When they returned he followed her to the door; and pausing there a moment, seized the other hand, and pressed it to his lipds. Then stealthily withdrew. The door was barred aand locked again, and once again she stood beneath her father's roof. Not bowed down by the secret that she brought there, though so young. (Part the Second, 187)
The sanctity of daughterly and sisterly devotion is here in greatest danger, and yet Dickens shows an overwhelming sense of reluctance to cast Marion into the elopement plot. The scene forms a crucial turning point as Marion to all intents and purposes agonises over the betrayal she feels toward Alfred. There is obviously some secret purpose to her refusal to be `bowed down' but the meeting with Warden intentionally draws us away from considering Marion's innocence and leads to a consideration of her giving in to his desire for her. The agony over whether to appear `fallen' in her family's eyes is certainly addressed, yet Dickens avoids fully confronting the conflict at the heart of Marion's dilemma (the issue is only touched on in moments such as the elopement scene): her attempt to balance her love for Grace and her love for Alfred. Sexual desire, as Lynda Nead has rightly pointed out, has had little or no association the virtuous woman (Nead, 19), yet Dickens attempts to counter this by casting doubt over his heroine's fidelity to Alfred. The depiction of Marion's response to Warden's proposal is intentionally ambiguous, thus raising tension in the mind of his reader. It is impotant to bear in mind, though, that suspense was invariably a key factor in the development of the Christmas book plot, and that what appears to be a case of infidelity becomes essential to the creation of suspense in The Battle of Life.
The point is made explicit -- too explicit for Dickens who wishes to maintain suspense -- in Daniel Maclise's accompanying illustration "The Secret Interview" [Figure 2]. Maclise follows the text by portraying the two `lovers' standing to the right of Clemancy Newcome wwho, thinking the worst condemns the liaison as an act of betrayal and hides her face in despair. Marion displays a look of undeniable shame as she turns toward Warden to deny her former life and embrace a new an immoral relationship. Moreover, the scene is set in a hortus inclusus, near an open gate, and is appropriately indicative of the Victorian view of illicit love. Similarly, the plate "The Night of the Return," by John Leech [Figure 3], makes Marion's elopement overly explicit. A lightly etched ballroom scene is juxtaposed with a darker landscape in which two figures appear to share emotions of guilt (they depart a threshold of yet another hortus). Dickens originally took issue over Leech's depiction in a leetter to Forster (on, or about, 12 December 1846), stating that as he wrote it `Warden has no business in the elopement scene. He was never there!' (Letters, IV, 679). However, despite the depiction of elopement, Dickens later cooled down during the course of the letter enough to concede that he believed the illustrations were `the best that have been done for any of the Christmas book. You know,' he added to Forster, how I build up temples in my mind that are not made with God's hands (or expressed with pen and ink, I am afraid), and how liable I am to be disappointed in these things. But I really am not disappointed in this case. Quietness and beauty are preserved throughout' (Letters, IV, 679-80). But Dickens's own use of the term `elopement' leaves little doubt as to the type of impression that he was attempting to create, and that Leech was certainly influenced artistically by the tension arising out of infidelity--an issue that was directly related to Dickens's intention to create suspense. His eventual approval of Leech's illustration enables him to avoid a very circular and ultimately futile argument: Dickens wishes to create suspense, but can only maintain tension through casting specific doubt over Marion's loyalty to Alfred and Grace. As it appears at the conclusion of Part the Second, her decision to depart with Warden has destroyed family unity and simultaneously transformed the purpose of love. Maclise and Leech's illustrations only conform to the direction that is taken by Dickens's narrative.
The emphasis upon Marion's potential infidelity is more stated in Maclise and Leech's respective depictions of elopement. Yet, both portrayals raise awareness of Dickens's own apparent dilemma over how to destroy Marion's reputation while simultaneously saving her virtue. This, he said, was his `chief difficulty' in the book, for without suggesting a moral fall he loses essential tension in the narrative; a tension that is maintained until Marion's fateful re emergence into the lives of Grace and Alfred. The difficulty of such a task is to a small extent overcome by report, rather than a transcription, of Marion and Warden's forbidden conversation. However, the question as to where Marion's true desire lies is treated too lightly. The determination to preserve Mary Hogarth, `the `perfect creature' of Dickens's imagination, clashes with the need to represent an imperfect heroine, for the success of the story hinges on what is perceived to be Marion's imperfection. In his portrayal of Marion, Dickens is less concerned with perfection of character and more interested in a subjective response to a dilemma; a response that reveals human weaknesses as well as independence and strength.
Marion's return brings a relief of sorts to the suspicion that has surrounded her absence, but it also raises problems in dealing with the resolution to narrative tension. On one hand, her absense can be recognised as a controlling factor within the novel. She succeeds in curbing her desire for Alfred while at the same time manages to bring about her former fiance's marriage to Grace. Anxiety that was expressed during the moment of elopement earlier in the story is now replaced witha sense of empowerment. Nevertheless, the point is laboured. Dr Jeddler has regarded his daughter as good as dead during her six year absence, and the idea that her fallen reputation must signify a spirirtual, if not physical, death is certainly implicit. Dickens's readings of Sterne, Fielding and particularly Goldsmith would have shaped an idea of the fate of the ruined eighteenth-century maiden. Emerging, quite literally from the shadows of shame, Marion is `so elevated and exalted in her loveliness, that as the setting sun shone brightly on her up-turned face, she might have been a spirit visiting the earth upon some heavenly mission' (Part the Third, 223). Marion not only experiences a form of empowerment that has previously been denied her, she also experiences a renewal of life after enduring the metaphorical battle implied by the novel's title.
Problems also arise in regard to Marion's reintegration into the Jeddler family. Depsite her intention to re-embrace the family that she left behind, therre is still a barrier dividing Marion from her sister: a self-imposed barrier whereion Marion locks herself away emotionally. `I have abjured a misplaced passion' she proclaims to Grace and she offers potential visions of herself as living without love, to `retire into hopeless solitude; close the world against [myself] and cut off worldly loves and hopes forever ... to assist and cheer [the world] and do some good' (Part the Third, 225-6). Such a declaration of sacrifice leads to consideration as to whether or not Marion's reunion with the family will ensure Grace and Alfred's happiness. Surely, an act of complete sacrifice would be to remain `dead' to both her sister and brother-in-law, without proclaiming herslef martyr. Marion appears to have attained both self-knowledge and assurance, but this occurs at the expense of an inbred passion. The marion who was prepared to meet emotional torment in the elopement scene is replaced by an altogether dispassionate and overtly moral creature who seems scarcely human. (At such a point it is tempting to agree with Edward FitzGerald's comment that this unabashed display of self-devotion is a truly `wrethed affair!'). The reasons behind Marion's decision to rejoin her sister are various and, I believe, as significant as her reasons to absent herself.
Dickens affords painfully little space for expanding on the preocess that has led to Marion's choice: attention to this process would clarify how and why she achieves such a degree of self-knowledge and self-realisation. Clearly, the process involves Marion's dislocation from the family unit and, specifically, from the influence that Grace has supposedly had upon her since her mother's death. I believe that Dickens begins to investigate the complexities of the process when he focuses on the moment of Marion and Warden's elopement but that a Christmas book format does not allow full development of Marion's need to assert independence. This, however, reiterates Dickens's difficulty in describing the implications for self that Marion experiences as she abandons Alfred. The abrupt change in Marion that is so apparent in the conclusion also points, in his own words, to the novel's chief deficiency.
Marion's struggle, then, provides a unique version of the sisterly ideal. The story also raises questions over the derivation of that ideal from the Mary Hogarth model. By first appearing to destabolise family unity and then by actively drawing it together again Marion gradually assumes a type of power that is not evident, nor possibly to be expected, as the story opens. The depiction of her struggle also reveals a compulsion to remedy the misrepresentation of love. Yet, Dickens presents this remedy in the guise of a ruined reputation. the elopement plot raises, for the first time in Dickens, the possibility of a good heroine's moral decline. It contrasts the distinctly moral sie of her character with the powers of her own imagination. Each of the three brief chapters deals with emotional conflicts concerning constancy and betrayal, purity and immorality, activity and submissiveness. The question of easing one's conscience through the service of others is also raised. Mary Hogarth exemplifies the selfless sister, yet Marion's act of selflessness is over-stated and she appears at the conclusion of the novel to draw attention to the suffering that she has endured.
The subject of personal crisis and dilemma would occupy Dickens again as he reworked similar problems to do with fidelity and integrity into his fifth and final Christmas book, The Haunted Man of 1848. However, the challenge to present even what appeared to be ambivalence over love voiced by the devoted sister was one that he was content to leave unanswered.
1. See Ruth Glancy, "The Shaping of The Battle f Life: Dickens's Manuscript Revisions," Dickens Stuies Annual, 17, (1988), 72-73.
2. For discussion of Maclise's work in The Battle of Life and other Dickens Christmas books, see John Turpin, "Maclise as a Dickens Illustrator," The Dickensian, 76, (1980), (specifically, 75).
Ackroyd, Peter, Dickens, London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1990.
Carolan, Katherine, "The Battle of Life: A Love Story," The Dickensian, 69, 1973, 105-110.
Dickens, Charles, The Christmas Books, Two Volumes, edited by Michael Skater, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971.
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Ford, George, Dickens and his Readers: Aspects of Novel Criticism since 1836, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1955.
Forster, John, The Life of Charles Dickens, edited by J.W.T. Ley. London: Cecil Palmer, 1928.
Glancy, Ruth, "The Shaping of The Battle of Life: Dickens's Manuscript Revisions," Dickens Studies Annual, 17, 1988, 67-89.
Letters of Charles Dickens, Volume I, 1820-1839, edited by Madeline House and Graham Storey, Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1965.
Letters of Charles Dickens, Volume IV, 1844-1846, edited by Kathleen Tillotson, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977.
Marcus, Steven, Dickens; From Pickwick to Dombey, London: Chatto and Windus, 1965.
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Parker, David, "Dickens and the Death of Mary Hogath," Dickens Quarterly, 13 1996, 67-75.
"The Relation of Brothers and Sisters," Reynolds's Miscellany, Volume NS VIII, 1852.
Robinson, Kenneth, Wilkie Collins: A Biography, London: The Bodley Head, 1951.
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Stone, Harry, Dickens and the Invisible World: Fairy Tales, Fantasy and Novel Making, London: Macmillan, 1980.
Turpin, John, "Maclise as a Dickens Illustrator," The Dickensian, 76, 1980, 67-77.
Welsh, Alexander, The City of Dickens, Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1971.