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  • An Oblique Allusion to Barbauld in The Mystery Of Edwin Drood
  • Giles Whiteley (bio)

Chapter three of The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) introduces the reader to Rosa Bud, known affectionately as Rosebud, and also as Pussy by her fiancé, the eponymous Edwin Drood. An orphan, Rosa lives at The Nun’s House, the school for young girls run by Miss Twinkleton, based in part on Eastgate House, Rochester. Within this explicitly educational context, an oblique allusion to a key work in eighteenth and nineteenth century pedagogical theory on Dickens’s part appears to have gone unremarked upon. Commenting on the effect the prospect of her impending marriage has upon her younger peers, Rosa exclaims to Edwin: “‘It is so absurd to be an engaged orphan; and it is so absurd to have girls and servants scuttling about after one, like mice in the wainscot’”(26; ch. 2). Wendy S. Jacobson has suggested the line an allusion to Tennyson’s Maud (1855), and her “pitying womanhood,” hearing “the shrieking rush of the wainscot mouse” (1.6.260).1 But the explicit context of the conversation in an educational establishment, and the associations of Rosa’s pet-name, suggest the possibility of an alternative source: Anna Laetitia Barbauld’s Lessons for Children (1778–79).

John Manning, and more recently, Tess Cosslet, have already established the significance of Barbauld for Dickens in an educational context.2 Bitzer’s definition of a horse when quizzed by Gradgrind in Hard Times (1854) as “‘Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive’” (4; bk. 1, ch. 2), was drawn from Barbauld’s Evenings at Home (1792–96), co-written with her brother, John Aikin (Evenings 6: 124–25, 132). Undiscussed by Manning and Cosslet is the fact that Dickens uses the same description in a wider satirical context nearly [End Page 172] two decades earlier in The Pickwick Papers (1836–37). There, Mr. Winkle, of dubitable “equestrian skill,” is unable to convince the “tall quadruped” he has borrowed to ride to Manor Farm, an event which also occasions the rest of the party to dismount and the horses pulling their four-wheel chaise to absent themselves: “The depressed Pickwickians turned moodily away, with the tall quadruped, for which they all felt the most unmitigated disgust, following slowly at their heels” (72, 78; ch. 5).

However, it is worth noting that while Barbauld was Dickens’s source for this description, there is no guarantee that Evenings at Home was the precise text from which he drew. The definition of the horse as “quadruped” which Barbauld developed with Aikin in this later work rested on her earlier treatment of the exact same theme in the fourth part of her Lessons for Children (153–54). It is from the second part of these same Lessons that Dickens may have drawn his allusion to Pussy hearing “mice in the wainscot” in Edwin Drood. There, the narrator tells the young boy, based on Barbauld’s own nephew Charles, a story: “‘Look at puss! she pricks up her ears, and smells about. She smells the mice. They are making a noise behind the wainscot” (Lessons 26). Puss eventually captures the mouse, toying with it, as Deputy will with the lame sheep later in Dickens’s novel (203–04; ch. 18), perhaps also recalled in the “catlike” (263; ch. 23) Princess Puffer in the opium den laying her hand on Jasper’s chest and moving him to and fro “as a cat might stimulate a half slain mouse” (261; ch. 23). Barbauld’s narrator concludes by admonishing Puss “not [to] be so cruel” (Lessons 27).

Should Dickens’s reference here obliquely take in Barbauld, there are two potential reasons why such an allusion would be important. On the one hand, an allusion to Barbauld would reinforce the portrait of The Nun’s House by inscribing it within the context of gender-coded educational discourse. Such an allusion would also be significant to those critical readings of Dickens developing within the burgeoning field of animal studies: Barbauld’s texts are canonical insofar as her animal fables allegorize moral lessons, although in a somewhat less complex manner than...


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