[This essay was originally written for Dr. Anita Rose's Spring 2001 course at Concord College.]
n Our Mutual Friend, Dickens takes a wry look at class attitudes in nineteenth-century England against the backdrop of the sanitary movement, but this is not the only social ill under scrutiny. In the chapter "Presentation of Characters," E. D. H. Johnson writes: "The victimized child is a recurrent figure in Dickens' fiction from his earliest work; but in the mature novels the all but universal neglect or abuse of children by their parents is systematically elaborated as one of the signs of the times" (129). At least one cause of this systematic abuse and neglect was alcohol. Cleverly woven in between the intrigues at Boffin's Bower and the social dinners at the Veneerings, is the story of the doll's dressmaker Jenny Wren and her father. Using Jenny as his canvas, Dickens creates a startlingly graphic representation of the effects of adult alcoholism on children.
Jenny Wren is first introduced through the eyes of Lizzie Hexam's brother Charley. As he looks into the house he sees "a child — a dwarf — a girl — a something" (222). Her bizarre behavior prompts Charley to ask his sister, "How came you to get into such company as that little witch's" (227)? Charley is not the only person who disapproves of Jenny. Johnson quotes the novelist Henry James, who reviewed Dickens did not care for her either:
Like all Mr. Dickens's pathetic characters, she is a little monster, � she belongs to the troop of hunchbacks, imbeciles, and precocious children, who have carried on the sentimental business in all Mr. Dickens's novels, the little Nells, the Smikes the Paul Dombeys." 
However, there is nothing sentimental about Jenny's business. In order to understand Jenny, one must also consider the father. In Working With Children of Alcoholics, Bryan Robinson writes, "No family member can be understood in isolation from the other members of the family system"; "the same is true of an alcoholic family" (34). Jenny is the daughter of an alcoholic; she has been surrounded by alcoholic adults all of her life. Lizze explains to Charley that Jenny's
father is like his own father, a weak wretched trembling creature, falling to pieces, never sober. . . . The mother is dead. This poor ailing little creature has come to be what she is, surrounded by drunken people from her cradle — if she ever had one, Charley" (227).
In light of this information, Jenny's behavior appears more logical than monstrous.
A cradle is not the only thing Jenny has never had. Surrounded by alcoholic adults for the twelve years of her life, she has never had a childhood. In her best seller Adult Children of Alcoholics, Janet Woititz writes, "When is a child not a child? When the child lives with alcoholism" (1). Children of alcoholics, who grow up early, take over the responsibilities their alcoholic parents have abdicated. In "Alcoholism and the Family," Robert J. Ackerman explains how these children tend to adopt adult roles: "When parents are unable or unwilling to assist in the home, their children consistently may be forced to organize and run the household. They may be picking up after their parents, and assuming extremely mature roles for their ages" (18). Robinson states it more bluntly: "Ultimately, they miss childhood altogether" (85).
Just how far Jenny is removed from her childhood is demonstrated by her view of children. She says on numerous occasions "my back's bad, and my legs are queer" (222), a condition that segregates her from the other children in the neighborhood who are in the habit of teasing and tormenting her. She tells Bradley Headstone, "Don't talk of children. I can't bear children. I know their tricks and their manners" (224). Jenny's physical condition is an appropriate metaphor for life with an alcoholic father — a physical representation of the effect of alcoholism on her life. As Jenny's "bad back and queer legs" segregate her from the other neighborhood children, so are children of alcoholics segregated from their peers by the alcoholism in their family. Robinson writes, "As a reaction to shame and embarrassment, children often withdraw and isolate themselves from peers" (Robinson 64). Jenny exhibits this embarrassment when she tells Eugene, "I would rather you didn't see my child" (239).
Another trait of children of alcoholic parents is that they often become "in a very real way" the parents of their parents (Woititz 5). Jenny's father is introduced when Jenny says to Eugene, "Well, it's Saturday night . . . and my child's coming home. And my child is a troublesome bad child, and costs me a world of scolding" (239). And scolded he is until a fly would not light on him. "Go along with you! Go along into your corner! Get into your corner directly! . . . I wish you had been taken up, and locked up . . . I wish you had been poked into cells and black holes, and run over by rats and spiders and beetles" (239, 241). Like an irate mother, she makes him empty his pockets, turn over what money he has not wasted on rum (241) and sends him to bed without supper (242). Although treatment of her "child" seems excessive and abusive, it is also learned a learned behavior. She had to learn her parenting skills somewhere, and Dickens offers an indirect look into another aspect of Jenny's earlier years by reflecting them in Jenny's treatment of her father. Furthermore, he softens the effect of her behavior for the reader by editorializing: "Poor doll's dressmaker! How often so dragged down by hands that should have raised her up; how often so misdirected when losing her way on the eternal road, and asking guidance" (243)! Clearly, Dickens' recognizes the harshness of Jenny's behavior, yet he wants the reader to sympathize with her in spite of it.
Just in case his readers have missed the point, Dickens gives them another reason to avoid alcohol. If they do not care about how their behavior will affect their children, then maybe they need a selfish reason. When Jenny is first introduced, she tells Charley and Bradley Headstone that she is "the person of the house" (222). Dickens repeats this title for her throughout the novel. If she is the person of the house, then her father — by default — is not a person of the house. Indeed, it seems he has long since ceased to be remotely human. Dickens' description of Mr. Dolls more closely resembles a whipped dog than anything human.
The swollen lead-coloured under lip trembled with a shameful whine. The whole indecorous threadbare ruin, from the broken shoes to the prematurely-grey scanty hair, groveled. Not with any sense worthy to be called a sense, of this dire reversal of the places of parent and child, but in a pitiful expostulation to be let off from a scolding. . . . The very breathing of the figure was contemptible. [239-241]
After he goes up to bed, Jenny contemplates how she would cure him should he "turn out to be a drunkard" (242). When Lizzie responds that she is sure that Jenny would not even like to do something so terrible, Jenny answers: "Well, you generally know best. Only you haven't always lived among it as I have lived — and your back isn't bad and your legs are not queer" (243).
It is fitting that Charley is confused about who he sees sitting in the parlour at their first meeting. Jenny is confused as well. Is she the child or the mother? Is her "child" a drunkard already or not? Confusion defines the life of the child of an alcoholic. The confusion these children is explained by Woititz:
The only thing you were sure of was that you never knew what you would find or what was going to happen. And somehow, no matter how many times things went awry, as soon as you walked in the door, you were never prepared. 
"This confusion carries over into how these children develop a sense of self. Because the messages they receive from the "significant people" around them are confused and contradictory, their sense of self becomes somewhat distorted (Woititz 15). In an effort to control the chaos, these children become "little adults who also learn to manipulate the actions of others" (Ackerman 88). Jenny is likewise able to manipulate her father:
"I'll circumstance you and control you too," retorted the person of the house, speaking with vehement sharpness, "if you talk in that way. I'll give you in charge to the police, and have you fined five shillings when you can't pay, and then I won't pay the money for you, and you'll be transported for life. How should you like to be transported for life?"
"Shouldn't like. Poor shattered invalid. Trouble nobody long," cried the wretched figure.
"Come, come!" said the person of the house, tapping the table near her in a business-like manner, and shaking her head and her chin; you know what you've got to do. Put down you money this instant."
Thus, Jenny is able to control his drinking and the family budget, at least for the rest of the day.
In the character of Jenny Wren, Dickens displays an uncanny awareness of the effects of adult alcoholism on children. Every aspect of Jenny's character is defined by her father's drinking. She may not be a "little monster," but neither is she a "cortable" character. She is not supposed to be. Rather, she is a goad, a pebble in the shoe, or maybe even a frighteningly accurate mirror meant to illustrate in startling detail what can happen to alcoholics and their children.
Ackerman, Robert J. "Alcoholism and the Family." Growing in the Shadow: Children of Alcoholics. Robert J. Ackerman, ed. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, 1986.
Dickens, Charles. Our Mutual Friend. Adrian Poole, ed. New York: Penguin, 1997.
Johnson, E. D. H. "Presentation of Characters." Charles Dickens: An Introduction to His Novels. New York: Random House, 1969. Rpt. on The Victorian Web. Internet.
Robinson, Bryan E. and J. Lyn Rhoden. Working With Children of Alcoholics. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 1998.
Woititz, Janet G. Ed.D. Adult children of Alcoholics. Expanded edition. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, 1983, 1990.
Last modified 26 July 2001