SPOILER ALERT – Not of information, rather of a lack thereof. My discussion here will not spoil the resolution of the novel, but will, I think, add substance to it.
So, at the risk of a spoiler, let me begin by saying we are never told in “The Old Curiosity Shop” who the Marchioness is, where she comes from, or how she came to be in the Brass household. To address these questions I’d like to share three very interesting, and short, articles regarding her parentage (Bennett, Grubb, Esson), and a fourth (Steig) regarding Phiz’s drawings of her. Bennett opens the door to speculation on her parentage using clues in the published text. Grubb follows up by finding actual evidence in the galley proofs of the manuscript to support Bennett’s speculation. Based on these findings Grubb, Esson, and Steig (using Phiz’s illustrations) discuss possible reasons why Dickens chose to “de-emphasize” and “omit” his original intention for her.
Please read these articles first before moving on to my discussion – I really want you to initially experience the information in an unmediated fashion.
This is an early example of Dickens altering or reworking his text as he progressed from week to week or month to month. Typically his aim in doing so was to tap into or adjust to what he perceived to be either the demands or sensibilities of his audience (think of the expanded role given to Sam Weller in “Pickwick Papers” or the ending of “Great Expectations”). In “Curiosity Shop”, however, the alteration/reworking was for the purpose of maintaining the integrity and supremacy of Nell, as argued by Grubb, et al. I think these arguments are sound, and what they expose and describe adds another, missing, layer to Dickens’s tale of curious characters trying to find their way in a hostile world, to wit, the Marchioness is the illegitimate daughter of Sally Brass and Quilp.
This piece of information is never directly given in the text, though hints remain as described in the articles. As written the Marchioness is very sympathetic, yet Dickens chose to stunt our sympathy by omitting the key to her struggle. He knew his audience’s identification with, or understanding of, her struggle to overcome her pedigree would dwarf Nell’s struggle to run away from temptation and remain pure. He just could not take the risk of his favored character being superseded by one whose background was morally questionable. Further, had he followed through with his original intent for the Marchioness, the novel would have become less of an ode to the memory of Mary Hogarth – a prospect he was not willing to risk. Dickens’s decision to alter the Marchioness’s narrative is, in my humble opinion, a HUGE missed opportunity. What he expunged has terrific potential.
I believe the Marchioness’s backstory would have made the novel more palpable to future audiences (e.g., us) by giving it much more substance. Not only would the Marchioness have been rounded out, but also a whole other dimension to Sally and Quilp, individually and collectively, would have been added. Sally’s behavior toward her “servant”, together with her meanness towards her brother, would have meaning and explanation, though no justification. The pathology of her behavior would show a woman rebelling against her own womanhood – more able than a man in a man’s world, yet tripped up and compromised by the inherent nature of a woman’s. We would also see how very real is Quilp’s sexual threat to Nell. His coupling with Sally would confirm/corroborate Mrs Quilp’s statement in Ch 4, “Quilp has such a way with him when he likes, that the best-looking woman here couldn’t refuse him if . . . he chose to make love to her”. Further, we would have an explanation for Quilp’s impulsive, uncontrollable laughter after his close observation of Sally’s “servant” in Ch 51, for he undoubtedly – literally – sees her parentage written all over her face. What interesting interactions between Quilp and Sally might have sprung from Quilp’s new-found knowledge, but they, unlike the Marchioness, were never to be born.
In illustrations of the Marchioness by Phiz below (and in Steig), we can see how her image changes based on Phiz’s revised perceptions of her over time. In the 1848 illustration Phiz’s more sympathetic eye draws her as less of a grotesque and as a more comely maiden. Ironically, as her appearance becomes less like Quilp and Sally and more like Nell, it also places her squarely in Quilp’s and Sally’s camp of “sexual vitality” and further from Nell’s purity. She becomes one of Dickens’s “little” nubile women. This, like her checkered pedigree, flies in the face of the sacred memory of Mary Hogarth for it makes her vastly more interesting and desirable than Mary’s avatar, Nell – yet another reason for Dickens to excise her backstory. I wonder, but have not found evidence for, what Dickens thought of Phiz’s revised conception of the Marchioness. As Steig suggests, Dickens harbored “a strong ambivalence in his attitude toward his character” and, I suspect, in his attitude toward Mary as well.
The Marchioness in 1841 and then in 1848 – both by Phiz
In conclusion, I can only imagine what Dickens would/could have done with this raw and really human material – it’s a shame he excised it in favor of sentimentality and pathos.