The Complete Works of



Charles Dickens > Little Dorrit > Chapter 33

Little Dorrit

Chapter 33

Mrs Merdle's Complaint

Resigning herself to inevitable fate by making the best of those
people, the Miggleses, and submitting her philosophy to the draught
upon it, of which she had foreseen the likelihood in her interview
with Arthur, Mrs Gowan handsomely resolved not to oppose her son's
marriage. In her progress to, and happy arrival at, this
resolution, she was possibly influenced, not only by her maternal
affections but by three politic considerations.

Of these, the first may have been that her son had never signified
the smallest intention to ask her consent, or any mistrust of his
ability to dispense with it; the second, that the pension bestowed
upon her by a grateful country (and a Barnacle) would be freed from
any little filial inroads, when her Henry should be married to the
darling only child of a man in very easy circumstances; the third,
that Henry's debts must clearly be paid down upon the altar-railing
by his father-in-law. When, to these three-fold points of prudence
there is added the fact that Mrs Gowan yielded her consent the
moment she knew of Mr Meagles having yielded his, and that Mr
Meagles's objection to the marriage had been the sole obstacle in
its way all along, it becomes the height of probability that the
relict of the deceased Commissioner of nothing particular, turned
these ideas in her sagacious mind.

Among her connections and acquaintances, however, she maintained
her individual dignity and the dignity of the blood of the
Barnacles, by diligently nursing the pretence that it was a most
unfortunate business; that she was sadly cut up by it; that this
was a perfect fascination under which Henry laboured; that she had
opposed it for a long time, but what could a mother do; and the
like. She had already called Arthur Clennam to bear witness to
this fable, as a friend of the Meagles family; and she followed up
the move by now impounding the family itself for the same purpose.
In the first interview she accorded to Mr Meagles, she slided
herself into the position of disconsolately but gracefully yielding
to irresistible pressure. With the utmost politeness and good-
breeding, she feigned that it was she--not he--who had made the
difficulty, and who at length gave way; and that the sacrifice was
hers--not his. The same feint, with the same polite dexterity, she
foisted on Mrs Meagles, as a conjuror might have forced a card on
that innocent lady; and, when her future daughter-in-law was
presented to her by her son, she said on embracing her, 'My dear,
what have you done to Henry that has bewitched him so!' at the same
time allowing a few tears to carry before them, in little pills,
the cosmetic powder on her nose; as a delicate but touching signal
that she suffered much inwardly for the show of composure with
which she bore her misfortune.

Among the friends of Mrs Gowan (who piqued herself at once on being
Society, and on maintaining intimate and easy relations with that
Power), Mrs Merdle occupied a front row. True, the Hampton Court
Bohemians, without exception, turned up their noses at Merdle as an
upstart; but they turned them down again, by falling flat on their
faces to worship his wealth. In which compensating adjustment of
their noses, they were pretty much like Treasury, Bar, and Bishop,
and all the rest of them.

To Mrs Merdle, Mrs Gowan repaired on a visit of self-condolence,
after having given the gracious consent aforesaid. She drove into
town for the purpose in a one-horse carriage irreverently called at
that period of English history, a pill-box. It belonged to a job-
master in a small way, who drove it himself, and who jobbed it by
the day, or hour, to most of the old ladies in Hampton Court
Palace; but it was a point of ceremony, in that encampment, that
the whole equipage should be tacitly regarded as the private
property of the jobber for the time being, and that the job-master
should betray personal knowledge of nobody but the jobber in
possession. So the Circumlocution Barnacles, who were the largest
job-masters in the universe, always pretended to know of no other
job but the job immediately in hand.

Mrs Merdle was at home, and was in her nest of crimson and gold,
with the parrot on a neighbouring stem watching her with his head
on one side, as if he took her for another splendid parrot of a
larger species. To whom entered Mrs Gowan, with her favourite
green fan, which softened the light on the spots of bloom.

'My dear soul,' said Mrs Gowan, tapping the back of her friend's
hand with this fan after a little indifferent conversation, 'you
are my only comfort. That affair of Henry's that I told you of, is
to take place. Now, how does it strike you? I am dying to know,
because you represent and express Society so well.'

Mrs Merdle reviewed the bosom which Society was accustomed to
review; and having ascertained that show-window of Mr Merdle's and
the London jewellers' to be in good order, replied:

'As to marriage on the part of a man, my dear, Society requires
that he should retrieve his fortunes by marriage. Society requires
that he should gain by marriage. Society requires that he should
found a handsome establishment by marriage. Society does not see,
otherwise, what he has to do with marriage. Bird, be quiet!'

For the parrot on his cage above them, presiding over the
conference as if he were a judge (and indeed he looked rather like
one), had wound up the exposition with a shriek.

'Cases there are,' said Mrs Merdle, delicately crooking the little
finger of her favourite hand, and making her remarks neater by that
neat action; 'cases there are where a man is not young or elegant,
and is rich, and has a handsome establishment already. Those are
of a different kind. In such cases--'

Mrs Merdle shrugged her snowy shoulders and put her hand upon the
jewel-stand, checking a little cough, as though to add, 'why, a man
looks out for this sort of thing, my dear.' Then the parrot
shrieked again, and she put up her glass to look at him, and said,
'Bird! Do be quiet!'
'But, young men,' resumed Mrs Merdle, 'and by young men you know
what I mean, my love--I mean people's sons who have the world
before them--they must place themselves in a better position
towards Society by marriage, or Society really will not have any
patience with their making fools of themselves. Dreadfully worldly
all this sounds,' said Mrs Merdle, leaning back in her nest and
putting up her glass again, 'does it not?'

'But it is true,' said Mrs Gowan, with a highly moral air.

'My dear, it is not to be disputed for a moment,' returned Mrs
Merdle; 'because Society has made up its mind on the subject, and
there is nothing more to be said. If we were in a more primitive
state, if we lived under roofs of leaves, and kept cows and sheep
and creatures instead of banker's accounts (which would be
delicious; my dear, I am pastoral to a degree, by nature), well and
good. But we don't live under leaves, and keep cows and sheep and
creatures. I perfectly exhaust myself sometimes, in pointing out
the distinction to Edmund Sparkler.'

Mrs Gowan, looking over her green fan when this young gentleman's
name was mentioned, replied as follows:

'My love, you know the wretched state of the country--those
unfortunate concessions of John Barnacle's!--and you therefore know
the reasons for my being as poor as Thingummy.'

'A church mouse?' Mrs Merdle suggested with a smile.

'I was thinking of the other proverbial church person--Job,' said
Mrs Gowan. 'Either will do. It would be idle to disguise,
consequently, that there is a wide difference between the position
of your son and mine. I may add, too, that Henry has talent--'

'Which Edmund certainly has not,' said Mrs Merdle, with the
greatest suavity.

'--and that his talent, combined with disappointment,' Mrs Gowan
went on, 'has led him into a pursuit which--ah dear me! You know,
my dear. Such being Henry's different position, the question is
what is the most inferior class of marriage to which I can
reconcile myself.'

Mrs Merdle was so much engaged with the contemplation of her arms
(beautiful-formed arms, and the very thing for bracelets), that she
omitted to reply for a while. Roused at length by the silence, she
folded the arms, and with admirable presence of mind looked her
friend full in the face, and said interrogatively, 'Ye-es? And

'And then, my dear,' said Mrs Gowan not quite so sweetly as before,
'I should be glad to hear what you have to say to it.'

Here the parrot, who had been standing on one leg since he screamed
last, burst into a fit of laughter, bobbed himself derisively up
and down on both legs, and finished by standing on one leg again,
and pausing for a reply, with his head as much awry as he could
possibly twist it.

'Sounds mercenary to ask what the gentleman is to get with the
lady,' said Mrs Merdle; 'but Society is perhaps a little mercenary,
you know, my dear.'

'From what I can make out,' said Mrs Gowan, 'I believe I may say
that Henry will be relieved from debt--'

'Much in debt?' asked Mrs Merdle through her eyeglass.

'Why tolerably, I should think,' said Mrs Gowan.

'Meaning the usual thing; I understand; just so,' Mrs Merdle
observed in a comfortable sort of way.

'And that the father will make them an allowance of three hundred
a-year, or perhaps altogether something more, which, in Italy-'

'Oh! Going to Italy?' said Mrs Merdle.

'For Henry to study. You need be at no loss to guess why, my dear.

That dreadful Art--'

True. Mrs Merdle hastened to spare the feelings of her afflicted
friend. She understood. Say no more!

'And that,' said Mrs Gowan, shaking her despondent head, 'that's
all. That,' repeated Mrs Gowan, furling her green fan for the
moment, and tapping her chin with it (it was on the way to being a
double chin; might be called a chin and a half at present), 'that's
all! On the death of the old people, I suppose there will be more
to come; but how it may be restricted or locked up, I don't know.
And as to that, they may live for ever. My dear, they are just the
kind of people to do it.'

Now, Mrs Merdle, who really knew her friend Society pretty well,
and who knew what Society's mothers were, and what Society's
daughters were, and what Society's matrimonial market was, and how
prices ruled in it, and what scheming and counter-scheming took
place for the high buyers, and what bargaining and huckstering went
on, thought in the depths of her capacious bosom that this was a
sufficiently good catch. Knowing, however, what was expected of
her, and perceiving the exact nature of the fiction to be nursed,
she took it delicately in her arms, and put her required
contribution of gloss upon it.

'And that is all, my dear?' said she, heaving a friendly sigh.
'Well, well! The fault is not yours. You have nothing to reproach
yourself with. You must exercise the strength of mind for which
you are renowned, and make the best of it.'
'The girl's family have made,' said Mrs Gowan, 'of course, the most
strenuous endeavours to--as the lawyers say--to have and to hold

'Of course they have, my dear,' said Mrs Merdle.

'I have persisted in every possible objection, and have worried
myself morning, noon, and night, for means to detach Henry from the

'No doubt you have, my dear,' said Mrs Merdle.

'And all of no use. All has broken down beneath me. Now tell me,
my love. Am I justified in at last yielding my most reluctant
consent to Henry's marrying among people not in Society; or, have
I acted with inexcusable weakness?'

In answer to this direct appeal, Mrs Merdle assured Mrs Gowan
(speaking as a Priestess of Society) that she was highly to be
commended, that she was much to be sympathised with, that she had
taken the highest of parts, and had come out of the furnace
refined. And Mrs Gowan, who of course saw through her own
threadbare blind perfectly, and who knew that Mrs Merdle saw
through it perfectly, and who knew that Society would see through
it perfectly, came out of this form, notwithstanding, as she had
gone into it, with immense complacency and gravity.

The conference was held at four or five o'clock in the afternoon,
when all the region of Harley Street, Cavendish Square, was
resonant of carriage-wheels and double-knocks. It had reached this
point when Mr Merdle came home from his daily occupation of causing
the British name to be more and more respected in all parts of the
civilised globe capable of the appreciation of world-wide
commercial enterprise and gigantic combinations of skill and
capital. For, though nobody knew with the least precision what Mr
Merdle's business was, except that it was to coin money, these were
the terms in which everybody defined it on all ceremonious
occasions, and which it was the last new polite reading of the
parable of the camel and the needle's eye to accept without

For a gentleman who had this splendid work cut out for him, Mr
Merdle looked a little common, and rather as if, in the course of
his vast transactions, he had accidentally made an interchange of
heads with some inferior spirit. He presented himself before the
two ladies in the course of a dismal stroll through his mansion,
which had no apparent object but escape from the presence of the
chief butler.

'I beg your pardon,' he said, stopping short in confusion; 'I
didn't know there was anybody here but the parrot.'

However, as Mrs Merdle said, 'You can come in!' and as Mrs Gowan
said she was just going, and had already risen to take her leave,
he came in, and stood looking out at a distant window, with his
hands crossed under his uneasy coat-cuffs, clasping his wrists as
if he were taking himself into custody. In this attitude he fell
directly into a reverie from which he was only aroused by his
wife's calling to him from her ottoman, when they had been for some
quarter of an hour alone.

'Eh? Yes?' said Mr Merdle, turning towards her. 'What is it?'

'What is it?' repeated Mrs Merdle. 'It is, I suppose, that you
have not heard a word of my complaint.'

'Your complaint, Mrs Merdle?' said Mr Merdle. 'I didn't know that
you were suffering from a complaint. What complaint?'

'A complaint of you,' said Mrs Merdle.

'Oh! A complaint of me,' said Mr Merdle. 'What is the--what have
I--what may you have to complain of in me, Mrs Merdle?' In his
withdrawing, abstracted, pondering way, it took him some time to
shape this question. As a kind of faint attempt to convince
himself that he was the master of the house, he concluded by
presenting his forefinger to the parrot, who expressed his opinion
on that subject by instantly driving his bill into it.

'You were saying, Mrs Merdle,' said Mr Merdle, with his wounded
finger in his mouth, 'that you had a complaint against me?'

'A complaint which I could scarcely show the justice of more
emphatically, than by having to repeat it,' said Mrs Merdle. 'I
might as well have stated it to the wall. I had far better have
stated it to the bird. He would at least have screamed.'

'You don't want me to scream, Mrs Merdle, I suppose,' said Mr
Merdle, taking a chair.

'Indeed I don't know,' retorted Mrs Merdle, 'but that you had
better do that, than be so moody and distraught. One would at
least know that you were sensible of what was going on around you.'

'A man might scream, and yet not be that, Mrs Merdle,' said Mr
Merdle, heavily.

'And might be dogged, as you are at present, without screaming,'
returned Mrs Merdle. 'That's very true. If you wish to know the
complaint I make against you, it is, in so many plain words, that
you really ought not to go into Society unless you can accommodate
yourself to Society.'

Mr Merdle, so twisting his hands into what hair he had upon his
head that he seemed to lift himself up by it as he started out of
his chair, cried:
'Why, in the name of all the infernal powers, Mrs Merdle, who does
more for Society than I do? Do you see these premises, Mrs Merdle?

Do you see this furniture, Mrs Merdle? Do you look in the glass
and see yourself, Mrs Merdle? Do you know the cost of all this,
and who it's all provided for? And yet will you tell me that I
oughtn't to go into Society? I, who shower money upon it in this
way? I, who might always be said--to--to--to harness myself to a
watering-cart full of money, and go about saturating Society every
day of my life.'

'Pray, don't be violent, Mr Merdle,' said Mrs Merdle.

'Violent?' said Mr Merdle. 'You are enough to make me desperate.
You don't know half of what I do to accommodate Society. You don't
know anything of the sacrifices I make for it.'

'I know,' returned Mrs Merdle, 'that you receive the best in the
land. I know that you move in the whole Society of the country.
And I believe I know (indeed, not to make any ridiculous pretence
about it, I know I know) who sustains you in it, Mr Merdle.'

'Mrs Merdle,' retorted that gentleman, wiping his dull red and
yellow face, 'I know that as well as you do. If you were not an
ornament to Society, and if I was not a benefactor to Society, you
and I would never have come together. When I say a benefactor to
it, I mean a person who provides it with all sorts of expensive
things to eat and drink and look at. But, to tell me that I am not
fit for it after all I have done for it--after all I have done for
it,' repeated Mr Merdle, with a wild emphasis that made his wife
lift up her eyelids, 'after all--all!--to tell me I have no right
to mix with it after all, is a pretty reward.'

'I say,' answered Mrs Merdle composedly, 'that you ought to make
yourself fit for it by being more degage, and less preoccupied.
There is a positive vulgarity in carrying your business affairs
about with you as you do.'
'How do I carry them about, Mrs Merdle?' asked Mr Merdle.

'How do you carry them about?' said Mrs Merdle. 'Look at yourself
in the glass.'

Mr Merdle involuntarily turned his eyes in the direction of the
nearest mirror, and asked, with a slow determination of his turbid
blood to his temples, whether a man was to be called to account for
his digestion?

'You have a physician,' said Mrs Merdle.

'He does me no good,' said Mr Merdle.

Mrs Merdle changed her ground.

'Besides,' said she, 'your digestion is nonsense. I don't speak of
your digestion. I speak of your manner.'
'Mrs Merdle,' returned her husband, 'I look to you for that. You
supply manner, and I supply money.'

'I don't expect you,' said Mrs Merdle, reposing easily among her
cushions, 'to captivate people. I don't want you to take any
trouble upon yourself, or to try to be fascinating. I simply
request you to care about nothing--or seem to care about nothing--
as everybody else does.'

'Do I ever say I care about anything?' asked Mr Merdle.

'Say? No! Nobody would attend to you if you did. But you show

'Show what? What do I show?' demanded Mr Merdle hurriedly.

'I have already told you. You show that you carry your business
cares an projects about, instead of leaving them in the City, or
wherever else they belong to,' said Mrs Merdle. 'Or seeming to.
Seeming would be quite enough: I ask no more. Whereas you couldn't
be more occupied with your day's calculations and combinations than
you habitually show yourself to be, if you were a carpenter.'

'A carpenter!' repeated Mr Merdle, checking something like a groan.

'I shouldn't so much mind being a carpenter, Mrs Merdle.'

'And my complaint is,' pursued the lady, disregarding the low
remark, 'that it is not the tone of Society, and that you ought to
correct it, Mr Merdle. If you have any doubt of my judgment, ask
even Edmund Sparkler.' The door of the room had opened, and Mrs
Merdle now surveyed the head of her son through her glass.
'Edmund; we want you here.'

Mr Sparkler, who had merely put in his head and looked round the
room without entering (as if he were searching the house for that
young lady with no nonsense about her), upon this followed up his
head with his body, and stood before them. To whom, in a few easy
words adapted to his capacity, Mrs Merdle stated the question at

The young gentleman, after anxiously feeling his shirt-collar as if
it were his pulse and he were hypochondriacal, observed, 'That he
had heard it noticed by fellers.'

'Edmund Sparkler has heard it noticed,' said Mrs Merdle, with
languid triumph. 'Why, no doubt everybody has heard it noticed!'
Which in truth was no unreasonable inference; seeing that Mr
Sparkler would probably be the last person, in any assemblage of
the human species, to receive an impression from anything that
passed in his presence.

'And Edmund Sparkler will tell you, I dare say,' said Mrs Merdle,
waving her favourite hand towards her husband, 'how he has heard it
'I couldn't,' said Mr Sparkler, after feeling his pulse as before,
'couldn't undertake to say what led to it--'cause memory desperate
loose. But being in company with the brother of a doosed fine
gal--well educated too--with no biggodd nonsense about her--at the
period alluded to--'

'There! Never mind the sister,' remarked Mrs Merdle, a little
impatiently. 'What did the brother say?'

'Didn't say a word, ma'am,' answered Mr Sparkler. 'As silent a
feller as myself. Equally hard up for a remark.'

'Somebody said something,' returned Mrs Merdle. 'Never mind who it

('Assure you I don't in the least,' said Mr Sparkler.)

'But tell us what it was.'

Mr Sparkler referred to his pulse again, and put himself through
some severe mental discipline before he replied:

'Fellers referring to my Governor--expression not my own--
occasionally compliment my Governor in a very handsome way on being
immensely rich and knowing--perfect phenomenon of Buyer and Banker
and that--but say the Shop sits heavily on him. Say he carried the
Shop about, on his back rather--like Jew clothesmen with too much

'Which,' said Mrs Merdle, rising, with her floating drapery about
her, 'is exactly my complaint. Edmund, give me your arm up-

Mr Merdle, left alone to meditate on a better conformation of
himself to Society, looked out of nine windows in succession, and
appeared to see nine wastes of space. When he had thus entertained
himself he went down-stairs, and looked intently at all the carpets
on the ground-floor; and then came up-stairs again, and looked
intently at all the carpets on the first-floor; as if they were
gloomy depths, in unison with his oppressed soul. Through all the
rooms he wandered, as he always did, like the last person on earth
who had any business to approach them. Let Mrs Merdle announce,
with all her might, that she was at Home ever so many nights in a
season, she could not announce more widely and unmistakably than Mr
Merdle did that he was never at home.

At last he met the chief butler, the sight of which splendid
retainer always finished him. Extinguished by this great creature,
he sneaked to his dressing-room, and there remained shut up until
he rode out to dinner, with Mrs Merdle, in her own handsome
chariot. At dinner, he was envied and flattered as a being of
might, was Treasuried, Barred, and Bishoped, as much as he would;
and an hour after midnight came home alone, and being instantly put
out again in his own hall, like a rushlight, by the chief butler,
went sighing to bed.

< Back
Forward >

Index Index

Other Authors Other Authors

Charles Dickens. Copyright © 2022,
Contact the webmaster
Disclaimer here. Privacy Policy here.