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Charles Dickens > Little Dorrit > Chapter 57

Little Dorrit

Chapter 57

The History of a Self-Tormentor

I have the misfortune of not being a fool. From a very early age
I have detected what those about me thought they hid from me. If
I could have been habitually imposed upon, instead of habitually
discerning the truth, I might have lived as smoothly as most fools

My childhood was passed with a grandmother; that is to say, with a
lady who represented that relative to me, and who took that title
on herself. She had no claim to it, but I--being to that extent a
little fool--had no suspicion of her. She had some children of her
own family in her house, and some children of other people. All
girls; ten in number, including me. We all lived together and were
educated together.

I must have been about twelve years old when I began to see how
determinedly those girls patronised me. I was told I was an
orphan. There was no other orphan among us; and I perceived (here
was the first disadvantage of not being a fool) that they
conciliated me in an insolent pity, and in a sense of superiority.
I did not set this down as a discovery, rashly. I tried them
often. I could hardly make them quarrel with me. When I succeeded
with any of them, they were sure to come after an hour or two, and
begin a reconciliation. I tried them over and over again, and I
never knew them wait for me to begin. They were always forgiving
me, in their vanity and condescension. Little images of grown

One of them was my chosen friend. I loved that stupid mite in a
passionate way that she could no more deserve than I can remember
without feeling ashamed of, though I was but a child. She had what
they called an amiable temper, an affectionate temper. She could
distribute, and did distribute pretty looks and smiles to every one
among them. I believe there was not a soul in the place, except
myself, who knew that she did it purposely to wound and gall me!

Nevertheless, I so loved that unworthy girl that my life was made
stormy by my fondness for her. I was constantly lectured and
disgraced for what was called 'trying her;' in other words charging
her with her little perfidy and throwing her into tears by showing
her that I read her heart. However, I loved her faithfully; and
one time I went home with her for the holidays.

She was worse at home than she had been at school. She had a crowd
of cousins and acquaintances, and we had dances at her house, and
went out to dances at other houses, and, both at home and out, she
tormented my love beyond endurance. Her plan was, to make them all
fond of her--and so drive me wild with jealousy. To be familiar
and endearing with them all--and so make me mad with envying them.
When we were left alone in our bedroom at night, I would reproach
her with my perfect knowledge of her baseness; and then she would
cry and cry and say I was cruel, and then I would hold her in my
arms till morning: loving her as much as ever, and often feeling as
if, rather than suffer so, I could so hold her in my arms and
plunge to the bottom of a river--where I would still hold her after
we were both dead.

It came to an end, and I was relieved. In the family there was an
aunt who was not fond of me. I doubt if any of the family liked me
much; but I never wanted them to like me, being altogether bound up
in the one girl. The aunt was a young woman, and she had a serious
way with her eyes of watching me. She was an audacious woman, and
openly looked compassionately at me. After one of the nights that
I have spoken of, I came down into a greenhouse before breakfast.
Charlotte (the name of my false young friend) had gone down before
me, and I heard this aunt speaking to her about me as I entered.
I stopped where I was, among the leaves, and listened.

The aunt said, 'Charlotte, Miss Wade is wearing you to death, and
this must not continue.' I repeat the very words I heard.

Now, what did she answer? Did she say, 'It is I who am wearing her
to death, I who am keeping her on a rack and am the executioner,
yet she tells me every night that she loves me devotedly, though
she knows what I make her undergo?' No; my first memorable
experience was true to what I knew her to be, and to all my
experience. She began sobbing and weeping (to secure the aunt's
sympathy to herself), and said, 'Dear aunt, she has an unhappy
temper; other girls at school, besides I, try hard to make it
better; we all try hard.'

Upon that the aunt fondled her, as if she had said something noble
instead of despicable and false, and kept up the infamous pretence
by replying, 'But there are reasonable limits, my dear love, to
everything, and I see that this poor miserable girl causes you more
constant and useless distress than even so good an effort

The poor miserable girl came out of her concealment, as you may be
prepared to hear, and said, 'Send me home.' I never said another
word to either of them, or to any of them, but 'Send me home, or I
will walk home alone, night and day!' When I got home, I told my
supposed grandmother that, unless I was sent away to finish my
education somewhere else before that girl came back, or before any
one of them came back, I would burn my sight away by throwing
myself into the fire, rather than I would endure to look at their
plotting faces.

I went among young women next, and I found them no better. Fair
words and fair pretences; but I penetrated below those assertions
of themselves and depreciations of me, and they were no better.
Before I left them, I learned that I had no grandmother and no
recognised relation. I carried the light of that information both
into my past and into my future. It showed me many new occasions
on which people triumphed over me, when they made a pretence of
treating me with consideration, or doing me a service.

A man of business had a small property in trust for me. I was to
be a governess; I became a governess; and went into the family of
a poor nobleman, where there were two daughters--little children,
but the parents wished them to grow up, if possible, under one
instructress. The mother was young and pretty. From the first,
she made a show of behaving to me with great delicacy. I kept my
resentment to myself; but I knew very well that it was her way of
petting the knowledge that she was my Mistress, and might have
behaved differently to her servant if it had been her fancy.

I say I did not resent it, nor did I; but I showed her, by not
gratifying her, that I understood her. When she pressed me to take
wine, I took water. If there happened to be anything choice at
table, she always sent it to me: but I always declined it, and ate
of the rejected dishes. These disappointments of her patronage
were a sharp retort, and made me feel independent.

I liked the children. They were timid, but on the whole disposed
to attach themselves to me. There was a nurse, however, in the
house, a rosy-faced woman always making an obtrusive pretence of
being gay and good-humoured, who had nursed them both, and who had
secured their affections before I saw them. I could almost have
settled down to my fate but for this woman. Her artful devices for
keeping herself before the children in constant competition with
me, might have blinded many in my place; but I saw through them
from the first. On the pretext of arranging my rooms and waiting
on me and taking care of my wardrobe (all of which she did busily),
she was never absent. The most crafty of her many subtleties was
her feint of seeking to make the children fonder of me. She would
lead them to me and coax them to me. 'Come to good Miss Wade, come
to dear Miss Wade, come to pretty Miss Wade. She loves you very
much. Miss Wade is a clever lady, who has read heaps of books, and
can tell you far better and more interesting stories than I know.
Come and hear Miss Wade!' How could I engage their attentions,
when my heart was burning against these ignorant designs? How
could I wonder, when I saw their innocent faces shrinking away, and
their arms twining round her neck, instead of mine? Then she would
look up at me, shaking their curls from her face, and say, 'They'll
come round soon, Miss Wade; they're very simple and loving, ma'am;
don't be at all cast down about it, ma'am'--exulting over me!

There was another thing the woman did. At times, when she saw that
she had safely plunged me into a black despondent brooding by these
means, she would call the attention of the children to it, and
would show them the difference between herself and me. 'Hush!
Poor Miss Wade is not well. Don't make a noise, my dears, her head
aches. Come and comfort her. Come and ask her if she is better;
come and ask her to lie down. I hope you have nothing on your
mind, ma'am. Don't take on, ma'am, and be sorry!'

It became intolerable. Her ladyship, my Mistress, coming in one
day when I was alone, and at the height of feeling that I could
support it no longer, I told her I must go. I could not bear the
presence of that woman Dawes.

'Miss Wade! Poor Dawes is devoted to you; would do anything for

I knew beforehand she would say so; I was quite prepared for it; I
only answered, it was not for me to contradict my Mistress; I must

'I hope, Miss Wade,' she returned, instantly assuming the tone of
superiority she had always so thinly concealed, 'that nothing I
have ever said or done since we have been together, has justified
your use of that disagreeable word, "Mistress." It must have been
wholly inadvertent on my part. Pray tell me what it is.'

I replied that I had no complaint to make, either of my Mistress or
to my Mistress; but I must go.

She hesitated a moment, and then sat down beside me, and laid her
hand on mine. As if that honour would obliterate any remembrance!

'Miss Wade, I fear you are unhappy, through causes over which I
have no influence.'

I smiled, thinking of the experience the word awakened, and said,
'I have an unhappy temper, I suppose.'
'I did not say that.'

'It is an easy way of accounting for anything,' said I.

'It may be; but I did not say so. What I wish to approach is
something very different. My husband and I have exchanged some
remarks upon the subject, when we have observed with pain that you
have not been easy with us.'

'Easy? Oh! You are such great people, my lady,' said I.

'I am unfortunate in using a word which may convey a meaning--and
evidently does--quite opposite to my intention.' (She had not
expected my reply, and it shamed her.) 'I only mean, not happy with
us. It is a difficult topic to enter on; but, from one young woman
to another, perhaps--in short, we have been apprehensive that you
may allow some family circumstances of which no one can be more
innocent than yourself, to prey upon your spirits. If so, let us
entreat you not to make them a cause of grief. My husband himself,
as is well known, formerly had a very dear sister who was not in
law his sister, but who was universally beloved and respected .

I saw directly that they had taken me in for the sake of the dead
woman, whoever she was, and to have that boast of me and advantage
of me; I saw, in the nurse's knowledge of it, an encouragement to
goad me as she had done; and I saw, in the children's shrinking
away, a vague impression, that I was not like other people. I left
that house that night.

After one or two short and very similar experiences, which are not
to the present purpose, I entered another family where I had but
one pupil: a girl of fifteen, who was the only daughter. The
parents here were elderly people: people of station, and rich. A
nephew whom they had brought up was a frequent visitor at the
house, among many other visitors; and he began to pay me attention.

I was resolute in repulsing him; for I had determined when I went
there, that no one should pity me or condescend to me. But he
wrote me a letter. It led to our being engaged to be married.

He was a year younger than I, and young-looking even when that
allowance was made. He was on absence from India, where he had a
post that was soon to grow into a very good one. In six months we
were to be married, and were to go to India. I was to stay in the
house, and was to be married from the house. Nobody objected to
any part of the plan.

I cannot avoid saying he admired me; but, if I could, I would.
Vanity has nothing to do with the declaration, for his admiration
worried me. He took no pains to hide it; and caused me to feel
among the rich people as if he had bought me for my looks, and made
a show of his purchase to justify himself. They appraised me in
their own minds, I saw, and were curious to ascertain what my full
value was. I resolved that they should not know. I was immovable
and silent before them; and would have suffered any one of them to
kill me sooner than I would have laid myself out to bespeak their

He told me I did not do myself justice. I told him I did, and it
was because I did and meant to do so to the last, that I would not
stoop to propitiate any of them. He was concerned and even
shocked, when I added that I wished he would not parade his
attachment before them; but he said he would sacrifice even the
honest impulses of his affection to my peace.

Under that pretence he began to retort upon me. By the hour
together, he would keep at a distance from me, talking to any one
rather than to me. I have sat alone and unnoticed, half an
evening, while he conversed with his young cousin, my pupil. I
have seen all the while, in people's eyes, that they thought the
two looked nearer on an equality than he and I. I have sat,
divining their thoughts, until I have felt that his young
appearance made me ridiculous, and have raged against myself for
ever loving him.

For I did love him once. Undeserving as he was, and little as he
thought of all these agonies that it cost me--agonies which should
have made him wholly and gratefully mine to his life's end--I loved
him. I bore with his cousin's praising him to my face, and with
her pretending to think that it pleased me, but full well knowing
that it rankled in my breast; for his sake. While I have sat in
his presence recalling all my slights and wrongs, and deliberating
whether I should not fly from the house at once and never see him
again--I have loved him.

His aunt (my Mistress you will please to remember) deliberately,
wilfully, added to my trials and vexations. It was her delight to
expatiate on the style in which we were to live in India, and on
the establishment we should keep, and the company we should
entertain when he got his advancement. My pride rose against this
barefaced way of pointing out the contrast my married life was to
present to my then dependent and inferior position. I suppressed
my indignation; but I showed her that her intention was not lost
upon me, and I repaid her annoyance by affecting humility. What
she described would surely be a great deal too much honour for me,
I would tell her. I was afraid I might not be able to support so
great a change. Think of a mere governess, her daughter's
governess, coming to that high distinction! It made her uneasy,
and made them all uneasy, when I answered in this way. They knew
that I fully understood her.

It was at the time when my troubles were at their highest, and when
I was most incensed against my lover for his ingratitude in caring
as little as he did for the innumerable distresses and
mortifications I underwent on his account, that your dear friend,
Mr Gowan, appeared at the house. He had been intimate there for a
long time, but had been abroad. He understood the state of things
at a glance, and he understood me.

He was the first person I had ever seen in my life who had
understood me. He was not in the house three times before I knew
that he accompanied every movement of my mind. In his coldly easy
way with all of them, and with me, and with the whole subject, I
saw it clearly. In his light protestations of admiration of my
future husband, in his enthusiasm regarding our engagement and our
prospects, in his hopeful congratulations on our future wealth and
his despondent references to his own poverty--all equally hollow,
and jesting, and full of mockery--I saw it clearly. He made me
feel more and more resentful, and more and more contemptible, by
always presenting to me everything that surrounded me with some new
hateful light upon it, while he pretended to exhibit it in its best
aspect for my admiration and his own. He was like the dressed-up
Death in the Dutch series; whatever figure he took upon his arm,
whether it was youth or age, beauty or ugliness, whether he danced
with it, sang with it, played with it, or prayed with it, he made
it ghastly.

You will understand, then, that when your dear friend complimented
me, he really condoled with me; that when he soothed me under my
vexations, he laid bare every smarting wound I had; that when he
declared my 'faithful swain' to be 'the most loving young fellow in
the world, with the tenderest heart that ever beat,' he touched my
old misgiving that I was made ridiculous. These were not great
services, you may say. They were acceptable to me, because they
echoed my own mind, and confirmed my own knowledge. I soon began
to like the society of your dear friend better than any other.

When I perceived (which I did, almost as soon) that jealousy was
growing out of this, I liked this society still better. Had I not
been subject to jealousy, and were the endurances to be all mine?
No. Let him know what it was! I was delighted that he should know
it; I was delighted that he should feel keenly, and I hoped he did.

More than that. He was tame in comparison with Mr Gowan, who knew
how to address me on equal terms, and how to anatomise the wretched
people around us.

This went on, until the aunt, my Mistress, took it upon herself to
speak to me. It was scarcely worth alluding to; she knew I meant
nothing; but she suggested from herself, knowing it was only
necessary to suggest, that it might be better if I were a little
less companionable with Mr Gowan.

I asked her how she could answer for what I meant? She could
always answer, she replied, for my meaning nothing wrong. I
thanked her, but said I would prefer to answer for myself and to
myself. Her other servants would probably be grateful for good
characters, but I wanted none.

Other conversation followed, and induced me to ask her how she knew
that it was only necessary for her to make a suggestion to me, to
have it obeyed? Did she presume on my birth, or on my hire? I was
not bought, body and soul. She seemed to think that her
distinguished nephew had gone into a slave-market and purchased a

It would probably have come, sooner or later, to the end to which
it did come, but she brought it to its issue at once. She told me,
with assumed commiseration, that I had an unhappy temper. On this
repetition of the old wicked injury, I withheld no longer, but
exposed to her all I had known of her and seen in her, and all I
had undergone within myself since I had occupied the despicable
position of being engaged to her nephew. I told her that Mr Gowan
was the only relief I had had in my degradation; that I had borne
it too long, and that I shook it off too late; but that I would see
none of them more. And I never did.
Your dear friend followed me to my retreat, and was very droll on
the severance of the connection; though he was sorry, too, for the
excellent people (in their way the best he had ever met), and
deplored the necessity of breaking mere house-flies on the wheel.
He protested before long, and far more truly than I then supposed,
that he was not worth acceptance by a woman of such endowments, and
such power of character; but--well, well!--

Your dear friend amused me and amused himself as long as it suited
his inclinations; and then reminded me that we were both people of
the world, that we both understood mankind, that we both knew there
was no such thing as romance, that we were both prepared for going
different ways to seek our fortunes like people of sense, and that
we both foresaw that whenever we encountered one another again we
should meet as the best friends on earth. So he said, and I did
not contradict him.

It was not very long before I found that he was courting his
present wife, and that she had been taken away to be out of his
reach. I hated her then, quite as much as I hate her now; and
naturally, therefore, could desire nothing better than that she
should marry him. But I was restlessly curious to look at her--so
curious that I felt it to be one of the few sources of
entertainment left to me. I travelled a little: travelled until I
found myself in her society, and in yours. Your dear friend, I
think, was not known to you then, and had not given you any of
those signal marks of his friendship which he has bestowed upon

In that company I found a girl, in various circumstances of whose
position there was a singular likeness to my own, and in whose
character I was interested and pleased to see much of the rising
against swollen patronage and selfishness, calling themselves
kindness, protection, benevolence, and other fine names, which I
have described as inherent in my nature. I often heard it said,
too, that she had 'an unhappy temper.' Well understanding what was
meant by the convenient phrase, and wanting a companion with a
knowledge of what I knew, I thought I would try to release the girl
from her bondage and sense of injustice. I have no occasion to
relate that I succeeded.

We have been together ever since, sharing my small means.

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