"We must marry 'em"

July 20, 2020

Sophia Jochem, a Ph.D. candidate at Freie Universität Berlin, points us to an interaction between the beadle and the pew-opener in Dombey and Son, to explore issues of money, status, gender, and marriage in Victorian England. She attended the Dickens Universe in 2017.



Hello, I’m Sophia Jochem. I’m really pleased to take part in this lovely project and share one of my current favourite Dickens passages from the comfort of my home, in Germany.

The passage I want to talk about is from a dialogue between Mrs. Miff, a little old pew-opener, and Mr. Sownds the beadle towards the end of Dombey and Son. It takes place as they prepare the church for a high-society wedding—Mrs. Miff has even heard rumours that the groom ‘could pave the road to the church with diamonds and hardly miss them’. Accordingly,

Mrs. Miff is more intolerant of common people this morning, than she generally is; and she has always strong opinions on that subject, for it is associated with free sittings. Mrs. Miff is not a student of political economy..., but she can never understand what business your common folks have to be married. “Drat ’em,” says Mrs. Miff, “you read the same things over ’em, and instead of sovereigns get sixpences!”

Mr. Sownds the Beadle is more liberal than Mrs. Miff—but then he is not a pew-opener. “It must be done, Ma’am,” he says. “We must marry ’em. We must have our national schools to walk at the head of, and we must have our standing armies. We must marry ’em, Ma’am,” says Mr. Sownds, “and keep the country going.”

There are a lot of things going on in this passage and I want to begin with Mrs. Miff’s intolerance of common people and free sittings. As a pew-opener, Mrs. Miff is tasked with seating —for a tip—those people who don’t formally rent a pew throughout the year. Most churches also offered free sittings for those who couldn’t afford to pay for a seat—but that would have been socially unacceptable for everyone else.

Mrs. Miff, as we see, has a purely monetary interest in christenings, weddings, and funerals, and this reflects the way the church works in Dombey and Son. Little Paul’s christening, for instance, concludes with ‘the register [being] signed, and the fees paid, and the pew-opener (whose cough was very bad again) remembered, and the beadle gratified, and the sexton (who was accidentally on the door-steps, looking with great interest at the weather) not forgotten’.

The church is presented as a capitalist enterprise here: like many of the marriages Mrs. Miff has witnessed, including Mr. Dombey and Edith’s, it is all about money. With Mrs. Miff, Dickens satirically exaggerates this monetisation of the church and its mercenaries: capitalism is her religion. She ‘would rather not allude to’ Mr. Miff, who has been dead twenty years, on the grounds that ‘[h]e held some bad opinions, it would seem, about free-seats; and though Mrs. Miff hopes he may be gone upwards, she couldn’t positively undertake to say so’. In Mrs. Miff’s book, such charity as free-seats for the poor is blasphemous, and Mr. Miff may well have gone to hell for it.

The Beadle, Mr. Sownds, makes a point of pacifying Mrs. Miff’s resentment of those unprofitable common people. This may sound generous, but the beadle’s conservatism—the idea that traditional values must be preserved to ensure social stability, to keep the country going—is not quite as sound as it seems. ‘We must marry ’em.’ he says, as ‘We must have our national schools to walk at the head of’. Now, ‘Our national schools’ were in fact highly controversial; Dickens himself was strongly opposed to this scheme. And of course the beadle pleads for their preservation not for the sake of the education of the poor, but for himself to be able to walk at the head of them. That was one of the duties a beadle was remunerated for. The beadle, then, is just as self-interested as Mrs. Miff. And a hypocrite on top!

The only reason Mr. Sownds can afford to talk in this liberal way is that, as the text emphasises, he is not a pew-opener. He doesn’t depend on sixpences and the occasional sovereign like Mrs. Miff, but draws a fixed salary. Mrs. Miff, of course, couldn’t be a beadle because she’s female. Behind the beadle’s seemingly selfless conservatism is then not so much an interest in social stability than the knowledge that in order to stay in business as beadle, others, in this case women, must be kept out of it. Another way of keeping women out of business is, of course, to marry them. Which, according to Mr. Sownds, we also must.

Mrs. Miff is dusting the church as they chat in this way, and this is important. For the title of this chapter, ‘Another Wedding’, refers not only to the wedding Mrs. Miff is getting this church ready for, but also to the wedding of Florence and Walter in a different, much humbler church. And that wedding is, first and foremost, dusty.

There is a dusty old clerk, who keeps a sort of evaporated news shop underneath an archway opposite.... There is a dusty old pew-opener who only keeps herself, and finds that quite enough to do. There is a dusty old Beadle.... There are dusty wooden ledges and cornices poked in and out over the altar.... There are dusty old sounding-boards over the pulpit and reading-desk.... There is every possible provision for the accommodation of dust, except in the churchyard, where the facilities in that respect are very limited. (Ibid.)

The clergyman ‘put[s] on his surplice in the vestry, while the clerk walks round him, blowing the dust off it’; Walter and Florence finally ‘sign[] their names in one of the old sneezy registers’, and then ‘the clergyman’s surplice is restored to the dust’—as though nothing at all had taken place to disturb it.

The whole scene would be rather like a funeral, if it weren’t so thoroughly, comically pathetic. But the ceremony is interspersed with ‘the tearful Nipper sneezing’, for ‘the wormy registers diffuse a smell like faded snuff’. And Captain Cuttle roars several extra ‘amens’, overcompensating when ‘[t]he amens of the dusty clerk appear, like Macbeth’s, to stick in his throat a little’—not really a surprise with all that dust in the air.

All this doesn’t in any way mar Florence and Walter’s happiness. ‘Youthful, and how beautiful, the young bride looks, in this old dusty place’, the narrator observes. But the dust steals the show. For the people at the church, Walter and Florence’s wedding, so dear to the novel, is only a mild disturbance of the dust, just ‘another wedding’, as the title of the chapter suggests.

Marriage is presented here as a rather dusty tradition that is perfunctorily dispensed and easily corrupted. This is rather curious in a novel that has an uncounted number of weddings and seems to marry people off almost by compulsion, including blatantly mismatched couples like Bunsby and Mrs. MacStinger—I mean look a them! And so I wonder if Mr. Sownds the beadle’s assertion that ‘we must marry ’em’ perhaps also applies, at least a little bit, to the generic state of novel endings. So far, all of Dickens’s novels had ended with a marriage, and most of his future ones would, too, and this would certainly seem to corroborate a famous claim Ian Watt made in 1957, that ‘the great majority of novels’ during this time ‘concentrated their main interest upon a courtship leading to marriage’. Dombey and Son in fact ends with several weddings, but at the same time it seems to wonder, must we really marry ’em in the end, just because that’s how we’ve always done it?

Mrs. Miff, for one, doesn’t think so. She has learned her lesson the first time round, and, as the narrator informs us, ‘wouldn’t be the wife of Mr. Sownds for any money he could give her, Beadle as he is’. Dickens has cleverly slipped in another allusion here to what we call the gender pay gap. When she adds, Beadle as he is, Mrs. Miff’s point isn’t that a beadle is a hell of a catch. ‘Beadle as he is’ refers to ‘any money he could give her’. As a man, greedy Mrs. Miff is aware, Mr. Sownds makes a lot more money than her. For the simple reason that it’s always been like that.

Mrs. Miff’s extreme capitalism is demonstrated in all its horribleness in this passage, but at the same time it helps expose a systemic problem. Dombey and Son here implies that social injustice is fostered by the kind of conservatism we get from the beadle: a half-heartedly veiled desire of the privileged to keep things as they are, regardless of the social cost. Intriguingly, the text extends this concern to the kind of literary conservatism Dickens himself is involved in, specifically his going along with the convention of the marriage-plot ending. It leaves its reader with the question, who suffers by the perpetuation of that literary tradition and how? A question which I think can also be productively asked in the context of Dickens’s next novel, which I’m sure many of you have already started reading, David Copperfield.

Thank you.



Portrait of Sophia JochemSophia Jochem has a BA in English and Related Literature and an MA in Modern and Contemporary Literature and Culture, both from the University of York. Her interests lie in nineteenth-century British fiction, especially its comical and satirical passages, and feminist theory. She is currently completing a Ph.D. project at Freie Universität Berlin, which re-evaluates the margins of Charles Dickens’s novels from the point of view of feminist methodology. Other research interests include ‘elegant economies’ – middle-class practices of frugality – in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century British literature; the relationship of early feminist writing with the concept of the separation of spheres; and waste, vegetables, and gardening in Dickens’s London.



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