- Rosa Bud Grows Out From Under Her Little Silk Apron
Charles Dickens created a visually compelling dramatic entrance for Rosa Bud, heroine of The Mystery of Edwin Drood: “a charming little apparition, with its face concealed by a little silk apron thrown over its head, glides into the parlor” (26; ch. 3). A little silk apron is both sign and travesty of bourgeois housewifery, of child and woman. An apparition that glides into the parlor, head shrouded under cloth, is both flesh and spirit, especially in the Nun’s House parlor, with its deep history of female incarceration and denial of nature beneath its current character as stronghold of gentility. The last of Dickens’s dimpled, ringletted, marriageable young women – “wonderfully pretty, wonderfully childish, wonderfully whimsical” (25) – Rosa is a pert, willful child on the threshold of maturity, ready to question its assumptions and consider her independence from them. Greeting her fiancé from under an apron presents Rosa as ready to play with convention and also to contemplate casting it off. Owing to the accident of his premature death, Rosa Bud is the culmination of Dickens’s reliance on charming young heroines; nonetheless, Rosa is more than last in the series. On the contrary, this essay will argue that she offers a remarkably modern point of view, voicing Dickens’s evolving awareness of an effective defense, with Helena Landless’s sisterly help, against sexual harassment.1 He explored sexual obsession in his previous novel, Our Mutual Friend; in this subsequent novel he delves further than ever before into a woman’s perspective as she responds to a dangerous, controlling man. It is Rosa’s task to escape John Jasper’s control by clearly articulating her situation, growing out from under the apron of genteel femininity, and running away.
She takes up this task immediately on entering the narrative; in her first conversation with her fiancé Edwin Drood, she is ruefully aware, not only of the silly awkwardness, but also of the more ominous consequences of [End Page 55] her inheritance from her father, who has tried to define and control her by engaging her in marriage from her birth. Rosa begins to take control of the masculine network of expectations surrounding her first of all by being uncomfortably aware of her received status; she explains clearly, like Miss Wade, that she feels a fool, and then dictates terms to Edwin that go well beyond coquetry. In creating the fantasy that will help avoid a quarrel, telling him that he is to pretend to be engaged to someone different, she rehearses withdrawing altogether from the insults of her betrothal. She makes clear her distaste for their future together, where she will be moved about as an accessory to his professional life. Her mockery emphasizes Edwin’s obtuse complacency, his readiness to impose the Empire on “undeveloped” countries as well as on his wife.
Dickens’s characterization of Rosa throughout the novel brings sex to a level of emphasis and near explicitness that is unprecedented in his work. Her formal name is by itself an affectionate, perhaps weary, reference to Rose Maylie and to all the other innocent, virtuous, helplessly incompetent heroines of Victorian fiction. Perhaps she is Rosa Dartle with her wound healed, with the dart softened into the gradual unfolding of a budding flower. Or perhaps she is the dart sharpened and made effective, a useful thorn to deflate the male ego. Before we meet her, however, she is her fiancé’s pussy.
Rosa’s suggestive entrance into the text has been carefully anticipated in the scene between John Jasper and Edwin Drood in Jasper’s rooms over the gatehouse to the cathedral precincts. The sexual meaning of “pussy” goes back centuries before Dickens, and in the March 2013 issue of this journal Natalie McKnight convincingly catalogues the many sexual allusions throughout the scene. Over dinner in the gatehouse, two men create an intensely androcentric, sexist atmosphere (Sedgwick). Indulging in the nickname Pussy characterizes Edwin’s disrespect as well as his exasperated affection, his casual complacency in taking Rosa for granted as his sex object, his pet, imaged by his portrait of her hanging like a...