Captain Cuttle and Jack Bunsby

I promised I would not usurp this blog for off-topic book reviews. The last post was indeed a book review, but very much on-topic. Here I post a brief extract from my latest review (Dombey & Son), which again is on-topic. One of the foundations of the feminist mindset is a distorted view of history as unrelenting oppression of women. Academic history is poor at exposing the nature of intimate relations in the past. Even so-called social histories tend to be written on a large scale, not the personal scale. So, perhaps the best guide to the relations between the sexes in the past can be found in novels, which have the advantage of focusing on the personal and the intimate. That novels are, obviously, works of fiction is not as significant an objection as it might first appear. Authors would deploy character types which their audience would readily recognise. That Lady Catherine de Bourgh did not exist outside the pages of Pride & Prejudice is irrelevant to the accuracy of her depiction as representative of a type of powerful dowager of whom readers of the time would be able to think of real-life examples. Dickens’ Dombey & Son is particularly illustrative as its main theme is Mr Dombey’s appalling distain for his daughter in favour of his son, so ostensibly a novel which might appeal to feminists – except that the reader is clearly expected to find Mr Dombey monstrously unnatural. However…. here is an extract involving two minor characters which gives us an insight into the historical realities of what we would now call domestic abuse.

Captain Cuttle and Jack Bunsby

Captain Cuttle, retired old sea Captain, is one of those irresistibly endearing Dickens characters, as simple as he is staunch, the salt of the earth – or, rather, a salt of the sea in this case. Here is Dickens’ description, “No child could have surpassed Captain Cuttle in inexperience of everything but wind and weather, in simplicity, credulity, and generous trustfulness. Faith, hope and charity shared his whole nature among them.”

The Captain’s difficulties with his landlady, the termagant Mrs MacStinger, is an object lesson in domestic abuse, illustrating that there is no need for any intimate relationship for this term to apply. Captain Cuttle was, simply put, terrified of Mrs MacStinger who had a hold over him that we can understand as coercive control. The Victorians clearly had no trouble recognising the phenomenon, though perhaps no specific term for it. At one point we read the Captain explaining his recent absence, saying: “‘We had some words about the swabbing of these here planks, an she – in short’, said the Captain, eyeing the door and relieving himself with a long breath, ‘she stopped my liberty.’”

The Captain’s flight from the abusive Mrs MacStinger did not relieve him of this fear. Rather, now lodging in old Sol Gay’s shop, he remained fearful whenever he ventured out, in case he should run into her. “The Captain never dreamed that in the event of his being pounced upon by Mrs MacStinger, in his walks, it would be possible to offer resistance. He felt it could not be done. He saw himself, in his mind’s eye, put meekly in a hackney-coach, and carried off to his old lodgings. He foresaw that, once immured there, he was a lost man: his hat gone; Mrs MacStinger watchful of him day and night.” How much clearer could a case of coercive control possibly be?

Captain Cuttle’s greatly respected friend Bunsby also suffered under the hand of a controlling landlady, and we intuit that Dickens must have had some first-hand experience of the breed. Relating to Bunsby’s removal of the gangway which led to his dwelling on a boat, we read: “That the great Bunsby, like himself (Cuttle), was cruelly treated by his landlady, and that when her usage of him for the time being was so hard that he could bear it no longer, he set this gulf between them as a last resource.”

Alas, poor Bunsby. Having had the goodness to retrieve the Captain’s trunk from his previous dwelling with Mrs MacStinger, Bunsby becomes ensnared as her next victim.

The main theme of Dombey & Son may be quasi-feminist, but Dickens repeatedly reminds us throughout the book that, not only is this an aberrant behaviour specific to Mr Dombey but, if any more widely characteristic of popular sentiment, is confined to the bourgeoisie. The lower orders, we are reminded at many points, experienced very different conditions as regards relations between the sexes. So, the feminists do not get this story all their own way.

In a scene towards the end, Captain Cuttle runs across his old friend Jack Bunsby now securely captured by Mrs MacStinger. They are on their way to church to be wed. Captain Cuttle is justifiably alarmed, not least because Bunsby’s demeanour does not speak of voluntary action. Here they are nearing the altar,

“‘Jack Bunsby,’ whispered the Captain, ‘do you do this here of you own free will?’

Mr Bunsby answered, ‘No’.

‘Why do you do it, then, my lad?’ inquired the Captain, not unnaturally.

Bunsby, still looking, and always looking with an immovable countenance, at the opposite side of the world, made no reply.

‘Why not sheer off?’ said the Captain.

‘Eh?’ whispered Bunsby, with a momentary gleam of hope.

‘Sheer off’, said the Captain.

‘Where’s the good?’, retorted the forlorn sage. ‘She’d capter me agen’.

‘Try!’ replied the Captain. ‘Cheer up! Come! Now’s your time. Sheer off, Jack Bunsby.’

Mr Bunsby merely uttered a suppressed groan.

‘Come!’ said the Captain, nudging him with his elbow, ‘now’s your time! Sheer off! I’ll cover your retreat. The time’s a flying. Bunsby! It’s for liberty. Will you once?’

Bunsby was immovable.

‘Bunsby!’ whispered the Captain, ‘will you twice?’

Bunsby wouldn’t twice.

‘Bunsby!’ urged the Captain, ‘it’s for liberty; will you three times? Now or never!’

Bunsby didn’t then, and didn’t ever; for Mrs MacStinger immediately afterwards married him.

One of the most frightful circumstances of the ceremony to the Captain, was the deadly interest exhibited therein by Juliana MacStinger; and the fatal concentration of her faculties, with which that promising child, already the image of her parent, observed the whole proceedings. The Captain saw in this a succession of man-traps stretching out infinitely; a series of ages of oppression and coercion, through which the seafaring line was doomed.”

4 thoughts on “Captain Cuttle and Jack Bunsby

  1. Groan

    On the theme of the past being “another country” I do find Sweden fascinating. Illustrating the differences between cultures in time and beliefs we have the continued perplexity on behalf of the Swedish Gov. (Still the one that declared itself “feminist”) as it grapples with all those toxic Swedish men. As reported by the BBC it seems those toxic Swedish males are even more horrible now than they were a few years ago. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-56977771
    Out comes the usual “structure of society” explanation and halfway down there is a graph. Have a look. All of a sudden Swedish men got twice as dangerous ……… or did they. For the graph also mirrors another sudden change (clue Angela Merkel) . A little further one there is an embarrassed discussion of “imported culture” , as if let’s skate over that.
    Could it possibly be that cultures are different in time and even in the present? For instance I doubt there has been a time in Christian Sweden’s history that family “honour” required death. Yet to cover up these evident differences the Swedish Minister for Equality is happy to declare such things are “deeply, deeply ingrained” .

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  2. Groan

    Brings to mind Mrs Bumble. At the time I referred to in my other comment almost all feminism at the University was in the English Lit and Law schools with a smattering in sociology. Having been to a Secondary Modern Technical school my “classic” reading had been Defoe Dickens, Gaskell and Engels. Hence at the time it was noticeable that feminists seemed to revere Austin/s as social history.
    To me of course the immediate problem was that this was in fact the account of a very specific and protected part of the society of that day. A world of incomes derived from property rather than the hard work the rest of the society of the day actually did. Even then it seemed to me feminists appeared to understand the world as about entitlements and incomes. Being from a long line of absolute nobodies from Scotland and Ireland of course all women in my family tree had worked (often in some intriguing industries) like the men, because the “choice” was that or at best the workhouse. Andbof course my city described by Gaskell or Engels was one in which you worked or starved. As Catgerine Hakim, the economist , points out the proportion of economically active women in 1900 was not much less than 2000, with a bit of a dip in the late 1950s and 60s .
    In the modern world, if one wants to find women in a wide range of industries, in senior management and in STEM one has to look at rapidly industrialising nations not the wealthy ones. Because without either a welfare state or hoards of high earning husbands the simple truth is few are free to choose not to work.
    Somehow modern feminism in the English speaking world is inevitably an ideology of Austin like entitlement and income. Uninterested in the reality of how the oft quoted “incomes” were actually generated. Hence its remarkably “bourgeois” nature. As if every woman simply deserves a good income while dabbling in some light work.

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  3. Brad

    I gather from my reading that women’s biggest problem before the 20th century was the same as men’s biggest problem: poverty — and that many of the sorrows of which women (or feminist historians) complained — were due not to misogyny but to lack of money. However, in the monied classes (aristoctratic and upper-middle), women not only had considerable freedom, but also — contrary to the familiar “women-owned-no-property” refrain — they also had considerable financial resources. I have noted, both in the English and the French literature of the 18th and 19th centuries, that upon marriage, upper-class women recieved, usually from their husbands, huge settlements in land or financial capital or both, from which they derived their own private incomes, on which their husbands had no legal claim. In England this was known as “women’s separate estate,” but the custom was also widespread in France, Switzerland, Holland, etc. And, of course, women could inherit huge estates from their husbands, of which they were awarded the status of full, legal possessors. Also, although men were not permitted in law to divorce their wives, their wives could easily obtain a “summary separation” from their husbands, by which they were permitted to set up their own, separate home and claim some portion of their former husband’s income for their support. Feminist “historians” never discuss such facts.

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    1. Groan

      Interesting. Way back in the late 70s I took an interest in feminism. At University, the classic Wilson “first in family to go to university working class lad” I did Economics but was hungry for all the experiences, and one could then just sit in on lectures. My father had died in the late 60s just at the time the laws on loans/ property were changing, enabling my mother to take over the mortgage. So I studied these laws and found they were not ancient but from the mid Victorian era, lobbiec for by the likes of Dickens and the many womens societies (usually Church related) popular with the growing bourgeoisie. So it turned out making husbands, fathers or other make relatives responsible for loans was to prevent the horror of women being put into gaol for debt. (As was not uncommon in the previous century) andbof course the laws prohibiting “hard” work were a piece with the same protections for children. So “women” had been in the forefront of lobbying for the same laws “wimmin” were protesting against less than a century later. I also learned that women had been a much greater proportion of the prison population at the begining of the 19th Century(20%) than at the end, and this had continued on to the 70s as women were treated with “benign” sexism by the Victorians and after. Often presumed to be led astray or sick if caught. Hard to credit now but there was quite a lot about how the privileges accorded to women “put on a pedestal” had denied them the right to properly participate in economic life and be taken seriously. It seems a world away from modern entitlement feminism.

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