Page 576. " I thowt this girl, Martha, a'most like the dirt underneath my Em'ly's feet. "
Angela Burdett-Coutts in the 1840s
Public DomainAngela Burdett-Coutts in the 1840s

Martha’s behavior would have been considered sinful and shameful, but following Emily’s own disgrace, Mr. Peggotty has greater understanding towards fallen women.

Charles Dickens had already assisted in altering public opinion towards fallen women through his depiction of Nancy in Oliver Twist (1837-1839), and in 1846, Dickens agreed to assist Angela Burdett Coutts (1814-1906) in establishing a home for the redemption of fallen women.

Page 578. " As if she were a part of the refuse it had cast out "

During the 1800s, the River Thames was visibly polluted. This was in part due to the waste generated in large quantities by the Industrial Revolution, compounded by an undeveloped sewer system. At times the Thames produced an unbearable stench.

Charles Dickens memorably recorded the filthy state of the river in Our Mutual Friend (1864 -1865).


Page 581. " I am bad, I am lost. I have no hope at all. "

Martha regards herself as tarnished and irrevocably blighted. This view was commonly held towards young women who shared Martha’s past. Repentance and contrition were seen as the only path to rectitude. Read about the plight of the 'fallen woman' as depicted in Victorian art here.

Page 584. " I am to be trusted, for the first time in a long while, with my miserable life, on account of what you have given me to try for. "
In his novels, Charles Dickens often revisits the theme of redemption. Many of his characters, who regard themselves as unsalvageable, rise to the occasion for the sake of others.

This is true of the character Nancy who attempts to take care of the orphaned Oliver Twist, as well as of Sydney Carton who sacrifices himself to spare the Manette family in A Tale of Two Cities (1859).


Page 588. " He was taken to Bow Street "

A street in London where the Metropolitan Police were situated.   


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Page 590. " My dear Dora, unless we learn to do our duty to those whom we employ, they will never learn to do their duty to us. I am afraid we present opportunities to people to do wrong "

There was a prevalent idea that “social betters” had a duty to lead and guide servants, as if they were children in need of parenting.

Page 593. " But that it would have been better for me if my wife could have helped me more, and shared the many thoughts in which I had no partner; and that this might have been; I knew. "
Here, through David, Charles Dickens seems to express his own desire for such a wife. He criticized his wife, Catherine, for not being a better partner, and he eventually looked to his sister-in-law, Georgina, as his confidante.

When Charles and Catherine later separated in 1858, Georgina sided with her brother-in-law, and mothered the nine Dickens children who remained with Charles in the family home, while Catherine and Charles Dickens, Jr. (1837-1896) moved from the residence.

It was at the time of the separation that Charles Dickens felt the need to justify publicly his marital circumstances by writing an article about the situation in his journal, Household Words.

Page 594. " I had hoped that lighter hands than mine would help to mould her character, and that a baby-smile upon her breast might change my child-wife to a woman. It was not to be. The spirit fluttered for a moment on the threshold of its little prison, and, unconscious of captivity, took wing. "

Charles Dickens seems to have had mixed feelings about his own ten children. While some accounts record him as a caring father, he is said to have blamed his wife for having had too many, a situation which caused some financial strain.

Following the birth of each child, Catherine Dickens suffered what would probably now be diagnosed as postpartum depression, which would only have added to the strain in their marriage.