The Story of Charles Dickens’s ‘Chaste Little Harem’ for Misfits

John Bowen in the TLS:

There is a lost book by Dickens, one that recorded some of the most remarkable encounters of his life. Within it, he catalogued the stories told him by the women – prostitutes, confidence tricksters, thieves and attempted suicides – whom he interviewed before they were admitted to Urania Cottage, the refuge for fallen women he established in Shepherd’s Bush in the 1840s and effectively directed for a decade or more. The money – substantial sums, for this was “high-end philanthropy” – came from the immensely wealthy Angela Burdett-Coutts, but the initial scheme and much of its everyday direction was Dickens’s alone, his most important and most characteristic charitable venture. Jenny Hartley’s excellent new book tells this extraordinary story with compassion, common sense and a lively awareness of the unruly, self-dramatizing energies (both Dickens’s and the women’s) at play within and beyond the home’s four walls.

He was the greatest novelist of the age, Burdett-Coutts its richest heiress, and they were determined to offer a chance to people who had none, or only bad ones. They could only help a tiny proportion of the great tide of vulnerable young women who washed up in the prisons and workhouses of mid-Victorian England, but they did so with determination, energy and imagination. The aged Duke of Wellington, with whom the much younger Miss Coutts was conducting a clandestine courtship, dismissed prostitutes as “irreclaimable”. More resistance came from the women themselves, many of whom rejected the prospect of a year’s quiet domesticity followed by emigration to a distant colony that were the conditions for entry.