Margaret Flanders Darby: Rosa Bud Grows Out From Under Her Little Silk Apron


HARLES Dickens created a visually compelling dramatic entrance for Rosa Bud, heroine of The Mystery of Edwin Drood: "a charming little apparition, with its face concealed by a little silk apron thrown over its head, glides into the parlor". A little silk apron is both sign and travesty of bourgeois housewifery, of child and woman. An apparition that glides into the parlor, head shrouded under cloth, is both flesh and spirit, especially in the Nun's House parlor, with its deep history of female incarceration and denial of nature beneath its current character as stronghold of gentility. The last of Dickens's dimpled, ringletted, marriageable young women — "wonderfully pretty, wonderfully childish, wonderfully whimsical" — Rosa is a pert, willful child on the threshold of maturity, ready to question its assumptions and consider her independence from them. Greeting her fiancé from under an apron presents Rosa as ready to play with convention and also to contemplate casting it off. Owing to the accident of his premature death, Rosa Bud is the culmination of Dickens's reliance on charming young heroines; nonetheless, Rosa is more than last in the series. On the contrary, this essay will argue that she offers a remarkably modern point of view, voicing Dickens's evolving awareness of an effective defense, with Helena Landless's sisterly help, against sexual harassment. [Wendy Jacobson of Rhodes University, South Africa, wrote about Rosa Bud in the June 2001 issue of this journal. Although my focus here is less on the friendship of Helena and Rosa, and more on Rosa's self-determination, I find the earlier work helpful and congruent with my own.] He explored sexual obsession in his previous novel, Our Mutual Friend; in this subsequent novel he delves further than ever before into a woman's perspective as she responds to a dangerous, controlling man. It is Rosa's task to escape John Jasper's control by clearly articulating her situation, growing out from under the apron of genteel femininity, and running away.

She takes up this task immediately on entering the narrative; in her first conversation with her fiancé Edwin Drood, she is ruefully aware, not only of the silly awkwardness, but also of the more ominous consequences of her inheritance from her father, who has tried to define and control her by engaging her in marriage from her birth. Rosa begins to take control of the masculine network of expectations surrounding her first of all by being uncomfortably aware of her received status; she explains clearly, like Miss Wade, that she feels a fool, and then dictates terms to Edwin that go well beyond coquetry. In creating the fantasy that will help avoid a quarrel, telling him that he is to pretend to be engaged to someone different, she rehearses withdrawing altogether from the insults of her betrothal. She makes clear her distaste for their future together, where she will be moved about as an accessory to his professional life. Her mockery emphasizes Edwin's obtuse complacency, his readiness to impose the Empire on "undeveloped" countries as well as on his wife.

Dickens's characterization of Rosa throughout the novel brings sex to a level of emphasis and near explicitness that is unprecedented in his work. Her formal name is by itself an affectionate, perhaps weary, reference to Rose Maylie and to all the other innocent, virtuous, helplessly incompetent heroines of Victorian fiction. Perhaps she is Rosa Dartle with her wound healed, with the dart softened into the gradual unfolding of a budding flower. Or perhaps she is the dart sharpened and made effective, a useful thorn to deflate the male ego. Before we meet her, however, she is her fiance's pussy.

Rosa's suggestive entrance into the text has been carefully anticipated in the scene between John Jasper and Edwin Drood in Jasper's rooms over the gatehouse to the cathedral precincts. The sexual meaning of "pussy" goes back centuries before Dickens, and in the March 2013 issue of this journal Natalie McKnight convincingly catalogues the many sexual allusions throughout the scene. Over dinner in the gatehouse, two men create an intensely androcentric, sexist atmosphere (Sedgwick). Indulging in the nickname Pussy characterizes Edwin's disrespect as well as his exasperated affection, his casual complacency in taking Rosa for granted as his sex object, his pet, imaged by his portrait of her hanging like a trophy over Jasper's chimney piece.

What could it mean that Dickens and his readers, at least the adult men, would have had the obscene meaning of pussy in their heads simultaneously with what David Paroissien calls a "playfully familiar term of endearment"? Clearly Edwin Drood is both playful and familiar, and John Jasper is neither one. Rather it is a woman who offers a barbed yet ambiguous response:

'I'd Pussy you, young man, if I was Pussy, as you call her,' Mrs Tope blushingly retorts, after being saluted [with a kiss from Edwin]. 'Your uncle's too much wrapt up in you, that's where it is. He makes so much of you, that it's my opinion you think you've only to call your Pussys by the dozen, to make 'em come.'

What transformation exactly characterizes Edwin's new respect for Rosa eleven chapters later when "He called her Pussy no more. Never again"? By the time Edwin forswears his nickname for Rosa, he has been disciplined by her mature resolution in initiating the dissolution of their engagement to be married, not realizing, of course, that one reason he will never again call her Pussy is that he will never see her again. His new attitude will disappear with him. Dickens knows Edwin is about to vanish, and of course he cannot know that he, too, will shortly die. Nonetheless, as his daughter Katey informs us in a magazine article near the end of her own life, he knew what he wished had been different as he looked back: his parenting of Mamie and Katey; the expediencies he had been forced to in his compromised love for Ellen Ternan; the mortifications he had imposed on his wife and the rest of his family. [Katey wrote about one of her last conversations with her father that "he went on to speak of other subjects — [than her proposed stage career] with regret. He wished, he said, that he had been 'a better father — a better man'" (quoted in Storey 133—34).] The nurture of bourgeois daughters, and more broadly of genteel femininity, in this last novel is surely suffused with regret, danger and failure. In his development of Rosa's character, her actions in response to the men around her, Dickens is not only clearly longing for a different past, but as he looks back, he sees that the problems are not yet solved. Rosa's circumstances when the text breaks off show us a Dickens not only sensitive to the conflicts inherent to her privileged situation and probably to his memories of raising his own daughters, but also unsure of the future he can imagine for her. The rescue he seems to be planning is precariously reliant on fairy tale and nostalgia, shot through by doubts of the efficacy of chivalry. Unlike Edwin and Neville Landless, both of whom Jasper manipulates and controls easily, the women in the novel, Helena Landless, the Princess Puffer, even Mrs. Tope, are on to him. Rosa is terrified and rightly so, because she alone understands the full extent of his malice. She figures him out and escapes, but to what? To Lieutenant Tartar — perfect suitor, gardener, housekeeper and sailor. This suggests a rescue by sea in the tidiest and trimmest of ships, but it can be in reality an escape no further than to the Thames at high tide or to a garden of pots high on a balcony — confined, marooned, ungrounded.

The narrative proceeds through contrasting spaces, each with its linguistic and environmental constraints: first the opium den, then Jasper's bachelor quarters where "pussy" can be bandied about, the cathedral, then Miss Twinkleton's seminary. Rosa and her schoolmates are cloistered in Cloisterham more than any other of its citizens. The enclosed garden at the Nuns' House supplies the maiden's traditional hortus conclusus, but it is one overlooked by dangerous window glass, an exposure Jasper will exploit. It summarizes her betrayal by the four men she has known, all of whom either abuse or, in spite of good intentions, fail her: her father, her guardian Mr. Grewgious, her fiancé Edwin Drood, and her music master, John Jasper. With practiced ease, Dickens inhabits them all, juxtaposing their perspectives against hers. But women in flight or pursuit have come only gradually to Dickens. The opium den's Princess Puffer is going to have a hand in trapping Jasper, and so probably will Helena Landless. In contrast, it is Harry Maylie, not Rose, who brings Sikes down, Nicholas Nickleby rather than his sister Kate, who thwarts their uncle's evil designs, and Traddles and Micawber, not Agnes, who bring Heep to book. Jasper cannot manipulate the young women as he does the young men whose roles he has designed. Rosa does not succumb to Jasper's vaunted hypnotic power. She feels it; she knows he is capable of great evil, but once she gets the help she needs from Helena, he cannot force her to submit. To have both Jasper — murderer, dope addict, would be rapist — in the same masculine network enclosing Rosa with Grewgious — the dry, stiff "angular man," lawyer of few words and fewer social graces in spite of deep benevolence — shows us Dickens's poignant suspicion that chivalry, however protective and well meaning, must fail her. In a way new for a Dickens heroine, Rosa must escape by herself.

Rosa's father has lived up to his responsibilities to protect and guide her by engaging her in marriage from birth to his friend's son. Her father's Will, the cherished plan of Edwin's father as well, is not only the basis of the novel's plot, but is also a familiar metaphor for the bourgeois daughter's predicament. The fathers' Wills rise immediately from the literal to a symbolic level of meaning: Rosa is burdened by extension to a societal mandate.

Yet paradoxically her escape is fueled by the integrity of the law of inheritance from the same culture as the one that has produced the oppressive conventions of femininity. The law is embodied in Mr. Grewgious, acting for her father, her most reliable protector and guide, whose leading characteristics are his fruitful combination of obedience to his duty, as defined by the law, and his warm sensibility as benevolent protector. In addition, the Will, her direct inheritance from her father, is at bottom protective of her free choice, equally with Edwin's, as long as she has the strength of her own will to exercise that free choice. Genteel daughters must somehow read their fathers' Will, interrogate it and then outgrow it, set it aside in favor of self-knowledge. In order to find their own will, they must overcome a culture that readily consigns women to an identity reflective only of masculine understanding. There are few models of self-determination, especially for one so young, but Grewgious sets out the task in his brief memoranda, being a man with no ready flow of language:

"Well and happy." Truly. You are well and happy, my dear? You look so. [•••]
'"Pounds, shillings, and pence" is my next note. A dry subject for a young lady, but an important subject too. Life is pounds, shillings, and pence. [...]
'"Marriage." Hem! [...] I now touch, my dear, upon the point that is the direct cause of my troubling you with the present visit. [...]
'Memorandum. "Will." Now my dear, [...] although I have before possessed you with the contents of your father's will, I think it right at this time to leave a certified copy in your hands. [...] Memorandum, "Wishes": My dear, is there any wish of yours that I can further?'

With stunning brevity, this set of notes, made by the lawyer to supplement his "conversational powers," sums up in a series of phrases the whole problem. The Will protects her right to choose, but it also demands what is so difficult for women raised as she has been, that she be fully conscious of her true desires. Rosa takes the initiative to discover this, in her interview with Grewgious under propriety's roof at Miss Twinkleton's, where she carefully, if tentatively, explores its limits. What is remarkably liberated in her, and today in a girl her age it would be almost equally so, is her readiness to question the Will, to test the outer limits of her freedom within its terms. When she discovers that there are actually no legal or financial constraints on her engagement, that in fact she is free to do as she wishes, she takes the lead over her fiancé in dissolving their engagement. Finally, it is her will that really matters.

Grewgious intends to hold her fiancé responsible for earnestness, and he does so by admonishing Edwin's use of the term "pussy." Grewgious may be a man of few words, but he makes each one tell. Without explicit reference to carnal meanings, he destroys Edwin's complacency. When he gives Edwin the ring he explains that it is to stand for serious choice, given in a renewed commitment to marry, or to be returned. The narrator attributes "far less force of purpose" to Edwin, who decides to be "guided by what she says". And when she is first to propose the dissolution of their engagement, he acknowledges that he could not have done it nearly so well, "so sensibly and delicately, so wisely and affectionately". The narrator speaks directly for Dickens's understanding of patriarchal failure:

It was new and strange to him [Edwin] to have himself presented to himself so clearly, in a glass of her holding up. He had always patronized her, in his superiority to her share of woman's wit. Was that but another instance of something radically amiss in the terms on which they had been gliding towards a life-long bondage?

Her exercise in wise assertiveness gives Rosa the strength to resist Jasper's advances with integrity.

The first time Jasper attempts to control Rosa, at Crisparkle's dinner party, she collapses in traditional feminine evasion, but is able to share her fears with Helena and thereby break Jasper's spell. The second time she runs away, traveling alone to London. She has never before been alone, even in Cloisterham High Street. Highly protected, well brought up young ladies were hardly ever alone; in order to preserve the fragility of the prized feminine dependence, their freedom of movement beyond the home was sharply constrained.

While Jasper has access to her at his pleasure, simply by exercising his privilege as music master, she has few options of her own. Until she flees, Rosa leaves the Nuns' House only with her fiancé. Dickens makes us feel her panic, her fear of entrapment; he is sensitive to the genteel schoolgirl's point of view. Her fear is dignified by our understanding of Jasper's villainy; her judgment is more reliable than the more restrained suspicions of Grewgious and Crisparkle. What could be dismissed as hysteria — when Rosa sings at Crisparkle's dinner party — is validated by events. She is correct, and she does not give in; she leaves. As he has throughout the canon, Dickens returns again and again in this last narrative to the conventional diminutives "little" and "small" to characterize femininity, but in Rosa's case convention is juxtaposed against her articulate analysis of the danger she faces. Inexperienced traveler, yes. The narrator makes much of her insufficient luggage, but what luggage would really be helpful in such a bid for self-determination, given her upbringing? What from her given world could she profitably take? What she needs is to leave it all behind, so she does. This flight is the strongest action she could credibly take against Jasper, both literally and metaphorically.

His advances, both in the scene where Rosa sings to Jasper's accompaniment, and in the later episode in the enclosed garden, are presented in entirely modern terms. Dickens gives Rosa the same language that sexual assault victims use today. [I served on Colgate University's Student Conduct Board as well as on its Equity Grievance Panel from 2009-15. Both heard cases involving sexual assault by perpetrators known to the victim, in an upper middle-class setting. Rosa Bud's description of her experience with John Jasper closely matches victim testimony in the first two decades of the twenty-first century.] As is appropriate to the role of music in the novel, Jasper's abuse of Rosa is in terms of his position as her music master:

He has made a slave of me with his looks [Rosa says to Helena]. He has forced me to understand him, without his saying a word; and he has forced me to keep silence, without his uttering a threat. When I play, he never moves his eyes from my hands. When I sing, he never moves his eyes from my lips. When he corrects me, and strikes a note, or a chord, or plays a passage, he himself is in the sounds, whispering that he pursues me as a lover, and commanding me to keep his secret. I avoid his eyes, but he forces me to see them without looking at them. [...] to-night when he watched my lips so closely as I was singing, besides feeling terrified I felt ashamed and passionately hurt. It was as if he kissed me, and I couldn't bear it, but cried out. [...]You [Helena] said to-night that you would not be afraid of him, under any circumstances, and that gives me — who am so much afraid of him — courage to tell only you.

In this passage Rosa articulates a detailed and compelling analysis, both of his power and how to break it. Like all victims of psychological abuse, Rosa is trapped by her fear that her feelings will be dismissed by those more "rational," more authoritative, that the burden of proof that would be hers is too degrading to disclose. Jasper's intimate blackmail relies on her shame in being implicated, on the coercion of respectability - his, hers, Miss Twinkleton's — to bind her to submission and silence. As with any blackmail, the cure is publicity, beginning with confession to a friend to rob the secret of its power. By the garden scene, strengthened by this confession to Helena, as well as her interrogation of the Will, Rosa is able to dismiss Jasper's services as music master on her own authority, in spite of her continuing fear of his mesmeric power. She does not submit, but she cannot escape before he humiliates her with his pleasure in her angry independence. The more she resists him, the more he likes it:

'How beautiful you are! You are more beautiful in anger than in repose. I don't ask you for your love; give me yourself and your hatred; give me yourself and that pretty rage; give me yourself and that enchanting scorn; it will be enough for me.'

Pretty rage and enchanting scorn, of course, are rage and scorn made impotent. The only effective solution is to run away.

Never before has Dickens so explicitly described not only an evil man's readiness to abuse a woman sexually, but also his satisfaction, his pleasure in it. Not even pretending to ask for her love, Jasper wants her against her will and is prepared to threaten her directly by asserting his readiness to harm those she loves if she does not give in.

Wendy Jacobson finds a comparison between Rosa and Lizzie Hexam of Our Mutual Friend instructive in measuring the distance Dickens has traveled since his last completed novel before The Mystery of Edwin Drood (Jacobson). Both heroines must respond to sexual threat in novels where sexual relations are not to be made fully explicit. Neither can evade unwanted attention; both are dangerously accessible until they run away. Both fall at the end of Dickens's creative life, Lizzie's story completely realized and Rosa's half finished. Self-absorbed obsession rules both Bradley Headstone and John Jasper; Dickens is intensely engaged by his exploration in both novels of the violence engendered by the compulsion of unrequited passion for a woman. But the differences are more instructive. Lizzie is defined by her physical prowess and by her virtue. Both she and Rosa are beautiful and vulnerable to the men they must evade if they can and confront if they cannot, but Lizzie is not a bourgeois daughter, carefully protected, with an education, a dowry and a lawyer to safeguard her well being. Lizzie is as vulnerable to the carnal danger posed by the man she loves, until his physical strength is destroyed, as she is to her brother's ambitions and the explosive attentions of the man she does not love. Rosa is immediately recognizable as a lady, whereas Lizzie has none of the lady's advantages and so must claim refinement through beauty and virtue alone. Her physical strength and occupational skills on the river must be transmuted into gentility, but they make her fully persuasive as a strong, mature woman, so that she is mentor to Bella as Helena is to Rosa, in spite of all four being about the same age. The primary difference is linguistic. Lizzie speaks her mind just as clearly, but Rosa is given much more to say about the impact of verbal violence on a woman's personhood.

Just as Dickens has never before explored so fully the darkest sexual threat, so also has he never before made a victim so precisely and analytically aware of the exact nature of her plight and so ready to take immediate action. Rosa publishes her point of view to all Cloisterham. Running away to London so precipitously sets in motion the investigation that eventually will help to expose Jasper for what only the women in the novel perceive him, correctly, to be. Helena, Rosa and the Princess Puffer, who is clearly embarked on her own investigation, all escape Jasper's power. Only the men, especially the young men Edwin Drood and Neville Landless, are successfully duped.

Rosa's experience of Grewgious culminates Dickens's frustration, but it also defines his achievement. When the plot's development is cut off by Dickens's death, Rosa's conventional protectors — Grewgious, Crisparkle, Tartar — are no more efficacious than the sisterhood of Rosa, Helena (who may also be Datchery), and the Princess Puffer. Had Rosa been able to speak fully and frankly to Grewgious of what threatened her, she might have saved Edwin Drood's life. As it is, the ring of true betrothal, freely undertaken, must be returned to the family's coffers. Dickens might have intended that the ring would be given to Rosa as a legacy from her mother in the final unspooling of the threads of the plot, but for now, as for so many bourgeois marriageable daughters, it must remain the property of men, theirs to exchange and value.

Just as Mr. Grewgious, "for whose ear the timid emphasis was much too fine," was unable to understand Rosa's full import in spite of his warm support, so the narrator's sensibility struggles to catch the finer shades of meaning in her circumstances. Mr. Grewgious's memorandum might stand for the categories of Dickens's zealous but tentative investigation. Are you young ladies well and happy? Is your allowance sufficient to your needs? Can you manage within the constraints both social and financial, the pounds, shillings and pence of it all? Do you understand the necessities of marriage? Have you read your father's Will? And most haunting, as well as most difficult to answer, what are your wishes? What do you really want? Who are you? Quoting Mr. Grewgious:

'Memorandum, "Wishes": My dear, is there any wish of yours that I can further?
Rosa shook her head, with an almost plaintive air of hesitation in want of help.

The development of women throughout the canon can be read as Dickens's search for an articulation of the genteel woman's predicament in his culture. Like Rosa's guardian, Dickens's narrator has no accurate language ready at hand to understand her point of view; he is still learning to listen. He is still in the process of writing his way out of his culture's failure to encourage women to speak and men to listen.