- Betwixt and Between:Mrs. Gummidge’s “Homely Rapture”
Though we are now accustomed to find strife and contestation within the felicities of Dickensian domesticity, we can detect a still more sensitive register of the familial milieu by turning to characters that live as outsiders within the family. In this category, aging widows comprise an especially illuminating class: Mrs. Pipchin, Mrs. Brown, Mrs. Woodcourt, Mrs. Sparsit, Mrs. General, Mrs. Skewton, and the particular widow upon whom I will centre this analysis, Mrs. Gummidge. Such figures subtly offset the sweeter harmonies of the older men—Old Nandy or the Aged P—and let us hear a murmuring dissonance within the family circle.
Mrs. Gummidge, the widow of a poor fisherman, joins the household of Daniel Peggotty, which comprises his “drowndead” brother’s child, Ham, and his “drowndead” brother-in-law’s child, “little Em’ly.” The “parents” of this household—Mrs. Gummidge and Mr. Peggotty—are unmarried, and their “children” are not of their making. We are accustomed to Dickens’s praise of reconstituted familial units, but we should be more attentive to the structural and dynamic shifts that accompany such alternatives to a bio-nuclear family structure. [End Page 68]
Mr. Peggotty captures the indeterminate status of the widow when he explains to young David that the woman in question is not his wife but simply “Missis Gummidge.” Neither Miss nor Mrs., the impoverished widow has no place to occupy between the workhouse and the overturned boat that has become home to the Peggotty circle. Moreover, her signature disposition is that she misses “the old ’un,” her husband. She describes herself as “a lone lorn creetur’,” who, though not physically alone, is most definitely “lone”: she feels both lonely and isolated from family sociality (31, 36). Finally, although Dickens assigns Mrs. Gummidge no age, her domestic indeterminacy, coupled with physical indisposition and temperamental querulousness, makes her a figure of elderly provocation.
Initially, David describes “a very civil woman in a white apron,” who curtseys in greeting when he and Clara Peggotty are still a quarter of a mile away. Apparently, she is an exemplary housekeeper (the interior of the boat-house “was beautifully clean … and as tidy as possible”) and a conscientious hostess (30–31). But the good that Mrs. Gummidge brings to the household is stained by her conviction that she has been singled out for special misery: “Mrs Gummidge did not always make herself so agreeable as she might have been expected to do, under the circumstances of her residence with Mr. Peggotty” (36). Her greatest provocation of others arises from the claim to feel “more” than others, and she therefore demands extra shares of comfort and acknowledgment.
But suppose that what she says is true? “She was constantly complaining of the cold, and of its occasioning a visitation in her back which she called ‘the creeps’” (36). Any number of bodily conditions (including rheumatoid arthritis) may contribute to her “fretful disposition” (36). “I know what I am,” she confesses. “I know that I’m a lone lorn creetur’, and not only that everythink goes contrairy with me, but that I go contrairy with everybody” (37–38). Despite Daniel Peggotty’s generosity, manifest in the way he meets bitterness with sympathy and refuses to let such bitterness reduce him to her level, Mrs. Gummidge suffers from the egotism born of physical infirmity and social displacement. Her inability to thrive produces intolerance and critique in David, and, following his cue, impatience—perhaps even indignation—in the reader. We stand in need of correction, however. In the bio-nuclear family, the parent conventionally plays the role of instructor, but in this rougher, looser Dickensian version of the family, even the aged widow can improvise changes to her role. Initially identified as embodying a negative space in the household (not wife, not mother), Mrs. Gummidge faces the task of transforming base metal into gold—by using the energies of complaint in order to forge affirmation instead of negation.
Dickens allows Mrs. Gummidge a late chance to remake herself, suggesting that a widowed old age is neither more nor less susceptible to influence than other phases in life. When...