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by Audrey Thomas

When Wayne Johnston released The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, a few commentators took him to task for creating a fictional inner life for the very real Joey Smallwood and (in the opinion of some of those commentators) getting it wrong. Audrey Thomas has gone Johnston one better: she has taken a very fictional character out of Dickens and written an entire novel about that character’s “real” life.

Tattycoram is a memorable creature who inhabits a subplot in Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit, a novel about the myriad ways humans find to imprison themselves and others. Tatty’s real name (and all this naming stuff is crucial) is Harriet Beadle, and she comes from the London Foundling Hospital, founded in the 18th century by the philanthropist Thomas Coram. She is “adopted” into a well-meaning family where her job is to wait on her “half-
sister,” Pet. From Harriet her name becomes Hattie, then Tatty, and her benefactor, not liking the connotations of the word “beadle,” changes her last name to Coram, thus ensuring she will never escape her ignominious origins.

Tattycoram’s resentment of her situ-ation bursts out periodically, and her “father” admonishes her to count to “five-
and-twenty, Tatty, five-and-twenty.” Soon Tattycoram falls under the spell of another resentful female, Miss Wade, and runs away to be with this woman in what appears to be the only incidence in Dickens of a lesbian relationship. Little Dorrit being a high Victorian novel, however, Tattycoram repents in the last few pages and returns to her duty with her adopted family. Miss Wade is consigned to darkness.

In the lively exercise that Audrey Thomas has set for herself, we hear the whole story of the “real” Tattycoram’s life from her point of view. It begins with a baby girl being left at the Foundling Hospital, where she is christened Harriet Coram. The baby is then whisked out to the countryside for her first five years (foundling girls were destined for domestic service, but giving them a healthy head start away from London’s noxious air was seen as a good protection of the investment).

Hattie is lucky to spend her infancy in the bosom of a kindly rural foster family that includes two boys, Sam and Jonnie. But at age five, it’s back to the city and 10 years of dreary imprisonment in the hospital, until one day a famous writer named Charles Dickens offers her domestic employment with his small but rapidly growing family.

Life with the Dickenses has its ups and downs. Among the ups are the author himself, who, in spite of his obsessive harping on rules and quiet, has an antic and generous spirit. He likes Hattie and eventually begins feeding her books from his library. The downs are represented by Mrs. Dickens’ sister, Georgina, who adores Charles and resents his fondness for the little serving girl. She secretly trains Dickens’ pet raven to make a mockery of Hattie by calling her the hated name of Tattycoram.

Hattie eventually leaves the Dickens household and becomes a teacher, only to be drawn back into the author’s progressive scheme to rehabilitate women of the streets, educate them a little, and then ship them off to the colonies as potential wives. Among these girls is one Elisabeth Avis, an orphan with a monstrous chip on her shoulder. Hattie feels sorry for her, sharing her orphan feelings of abandonment and emotional hunger.

Many years later, when Hattie is happily married to her old foster brother, Sam, Elisabeth Avis appears in high dudgeon with a book in her hand:Little Dorrit. “He has caricatured us,” she announces. “He calls you Tattycoram.” Hattie is astounded by this low blow, this utter betrayal by a man she had admired. Was an author, then, no better than Dickens’ old raven, Grip, which would steal bits of cheese and shiny stones and bury them in the dirt, only to dig them up later for his amusement? Hattie’s husband, Sam, pronounces on Dickens’ deeds with Victorian censoriousness: “There is no excuse for bad behaviour of this kind, this careless cruelty, this disregard for the feelings of others.”

But Hattie herself has more sympathy for the thieving tendencies of fiction writers: “He saw how deeply I resented it [the name Tattycoram]. He is a man who notices such things. It isn’t nice, what he’s done, but he understands my resentment, and he understands about foundlings and children born out of wedlock.”

Thomas has written a very clever little novel. On one level, it is highly readable and apes the conventions of popular Victorian fiction in a satisfying way. On another more postmodern level, the novel allows the reader to chew over all those fascinating questions about fact and fiction, the integrity of private stories, and the sinister power of writers.