Tattycoram’s rage

A passage from Little Dorrit that particularly struck me is in chapter 2. (LD is public domain, so we can quote as much as we like. Ima quote a lot.)

The Meagles adopted a girl from the “foundling home” in Coram’s Fields in London, to be a maid for their beloved pampered daughter. (There’s a very funny but touching section where Mr Meagle narrates the story to Arthur, and he keeps saying, “as practical people, we” etcetera – it’s his story about them that they’re immensely practical – and then going on to describe compassionate generous behavior that’s not at all practical.) The daughter and maid are grown now, just barely.

A character named Miss Wade goes upstairs in the hotel where this set of characters have happened to meet each other.

Quoting now:

Now, there were many stairs and passages that she had to traverse
in passing from that part of the spacious house to the chamber she
had secured for her own occupation. When she had almost completed
the journey, and was passing along the gallery in which her room
was, she heard an angry sound of muttering and sobbing. A door
stood open, and within she saw the attendant upon the girl she had
just left; the maid with the curious name.

She stood still, to look at this maid. A sullen, passionate girl!
Her rich black hair was all about her face, her face was flushed
and hot, and as she sobbed and raged, she plucked at her lips with
an unsparing hand. 

‘Selfish brutes!’ said the girl, sobbing and heaving between
whiles. ‘Not caring what becomes of me! Leaving me here hungry
and thirsty and tired, to starve, for anything they care! Beasts!
Devils! Wretches!’

‘My poor girl, what is the matter?’

She looked up suddenly, with reddened eyes, and with her hands
suspended, in the act of pinching her neck, freshly disfigured with
great scarlet blots. ‘It’s nothing to you what’s the matter. It
don’t signify to any one.’

‘O yes it does; I am sorry to see you so.’

‘You are not sorry,’ said the girl. ‘You are glad. You know you
are glad. I never was like this but twice over in the quarantine
yonder; and both times you found me. I am afraid of you.’

‘Afraid of me?’

‘Yes. You seem to come like my own anger, my own malice, my own–
whatever it is–I don’t know what it is. But I am ill-used, I am
ill-used, I am ill-used!’ Here the sobs and the tears, and the
tearing hand, which had all been suspended together since the first
surprise, went on together anew.

The visitor stood looking at her with a strange attentive smile.
It was wonderful to see the fury of the contest in the girl, and
the bodily struggle she made as if she were rent by the Demons of

‘I am younger than she is by two or three years, and yet it’s me
that looks after her, as if I was old, and it’s she that’s always
petted and called Baby! I detest the name. I hate her! They make
a fool of her, they spoil her. She thinks of nothing but herself,
she thinks no more of me than if I was a stock and a stone!’ So
the girl went on.

‘You must have patience.’

‘I WON’T have patience!’

‘If they take much care of themselves, and little or none of you,
you must not mind it.’

I WILL mind it.’

‘Hush! Be more prudent. You forget your dependent position.’

‘I don’t care for that. I’ll run away. I’ll do some mischief. I
won’t bear it; I can’t bear it; I shall die if I try to bear it!’

The observer stood with her hand upon her own bosom, looking at the
girl, as one afflicted with a diseased part might curiously watch
the dissection and exposition of an analogous case.

The girl raged and battled with all the force of her youth and
fulness of life, until by little and little her passionate
exclamations trailed off into broken murmurs as if she were in
pain. By corresponding degrees she sank into a chair, then upon
her knees, then upon the ground beside the bed, drawing the
coverlet with her, half to hide her shamed head and wet hair in it,
and half, as it seemed, to embrace it, rather than have nothing to
take to her repentant breast.

‘Go away from me, go away from me! When my temper comes upon me,
I am mad. I know I might keep it off if I only tried hard enough,
and sometimes I do try hard enough, and at other times I don’t and
won’t. What have I said! I knew when I said it, it was all lies.
They think I am being taken care of somewhere, and have all I want.

They are nothing but good to me. I love them dearly; no people
could ever be kinder to a thankless creature than they always are
to me. Do, do go away, for I am afraid of you. I am afraid of
myself when I feel my temper coming, and I am as much afraid of
you. Go away from me, and let me pray and cry myself better!’

And then the chapter ends. Dickens was quite a psychologist, along with his other talents.



  1. says

    Have read the whole of chapter 2. I pondered on the role of the very aloof Ms. Wade. It then became apparent at the end of the chapter outlined in the post here. There had been a sense of foreboding with respect of TattyCoram and her role in the family. To give one example, midway through the chapter we read that “The reserved Englishwoman took up Mr Meagles in his last remark. ‘Do you mean that a prisoner forgives his prison?’ said she, slowly and with emphasis.” Isn’t that exactly how TattyCoram had felt about her position in the household, as she sobbed and raged her heart out. She, too, was as aloof and cold as Ms. Wade. They were a pair in it together at that moment in time.

  2. says

    I’ve only read one Dickens (Hard Times, which I loved). But I have a complete collection. I may have to start correcting that. It would help Mr. Dickens case if there were dragons or starships in any of his works 😉

  3. says

    To make some comparisons. I noted specifically at OB’s ‘Women in Secularism’ talk given in Dublin earlier on in the year, that it had been briefly rounded off in the same manner that it had begun. I also recently watched a video by a professional speech coach, Darren LaCroix. He also confirmed the actions that OB had taken with her talk. So to bring me to my final point regarding TattyCoram’s rage nearing the end…. when her last words to Ms. Wade were: “Go away from me, and let me pray and cry myself better!’ I note too that the author rounds off the chapter with small snippets from the first chapter. Ie.,: “The wide stare stared itself out;” and about the landscape. Interesting.

  4. Jimmy Boy says

    As well as loving Dickens, your piece also brought back memories of time spent in Coram’s Fields which is still very much on the same site, together with the Foundling Museum – both right next door to the truly extraordinary Great Ormond’s Street Hospital for Sick Children.

    Set in the heart of Bloomsbury (to any familiar at all with English literature, the name of the area itself is pretty evocative), Coram’s Fields today (a park and mini petting zoo in central London) has a wonderful little quirk: you’re not allowed in without a child. I’ve always assumed that this rule was nothing to do with keeping out dodgy adults – though it probably does that too – but it seems to be more a focus on the importance of the child as a person in their own right. Coming from an era where children were not really that valued as individuals, this stands out. I can only imagine Dickens, with his own appalling childhood, would have approved!

  5. Claire Ramsey says

    A long time ago I was one of the interpreters in an English lit course at UC Berkeley. And they read Little Dorrit, and discussed it and discussed it.

    It’s a damn shame that the process of interpreting from one language to another precludes any ability to remember what has passed through the interpretation black box upstairs in my head.

    I guess I will need to read it for myself so my own head can grasp it!

  6. says

    Yes, this is a very powerful passage. One that can be so easily identified with in real life, if one is coming from an underprivileged background. I know of one survivor who went out to a family on holidays, and when she got there was treated like a doormat in comparison to the only daughter, who had been the apple of the parents’ eyes. The survivor too felt like TattyCoram when the latter had cried out: ‘But I am ill-used, I am ill-used, I am ill-used!’ The survivor became terribly distressed and ill, because she could not vent the adverse effects that being with that family had on her psyche. Luckily for the survivor, though, as she did have a real mother who occasionally visited her in Goldenbridge. [Ironically, the mother was in employment that entailed looking after children in a household, whilst her own three children were incarcerated in an institution.] The mother kicked up a stink. The survivor was relieved of her suffering with that family.

    TattyCoram had to come to terms with her inner demons. It can’t have been easy coming from a foundling home into a family environment that doted on their only daughter. Pet was given enough love for two, as the ‘dead’ twin was relived through her… which can’t have been very healthy. It would have been much better served to have given TattyCoram that love, after all she was so much in need of it. She was a living person. But then, once a product of a foundling home, always a product of a foundling home. Even though the Meagles had wanted to be kind to TattyCoram, it was at the expense of being a maid to Pet. However, in days of yore that would have been a real blessing to have been rescued in that form from destitution.

    So TattyCoram’s tantrums were preempted.

    ‘So I said next day: Now, Mother, I have a proposition to make that I think you’ll approve of. Let us take one of those same little children to be a little maid to Pet. We are practical people. So if we should find her temper a little defective, or any of her ways a little wide of ours, we shall know what we have to take into account. We shall know what an immense deduction must be made from all the influences and experiences that have formed us–no parents, no child-brother or sister, no individuality of home, no Glass Slipper, or Fairy Godmother. And that’s the way we came by Tattycoram.’

    Indeed – ‘no Glass Slipper, or Fairy Godmother.’ for TattyCoram – just the job of a maid.

    @5. Jimmy Boy.

    That’s very interesting information about the zoo in London that puts the rights of the child to the fore.

  7. says

    Jimmy Boy – yes about Coram’s Fields. I like that bit of London (along with many other bits), and Coram’s Fields is most of why I do. Just the name alone…and then the rest of it.

    Claire, it’s well worth it, I think. I keep getting frustrated when I try to read some contemporary novel and just find myself shouting or thinking “I don’t care” three pages in and giving up. Dickens isn’t like that.

  8. Jimmy Boy says

    Yes – Coram’s Fields is a really important place for us. My little boy spent quite a while in the hospital across the road (all good now) – and the missus and I sat and cried there when we got an initial diagnosis. It was a beautiful August day 10 years ago, and I was really aware – in a moment of life-anguish – of being part of a place in London that has seen a lot of children’s suffering – and healing too. Now we get to go back once a year and going to the Fields is an important part of the trip. We love it!

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