English, Department of



Beryl Gray

Date of this Version


Document Type



The George Eliot Review 32 (2001) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/


The George Eliot Review 2019 (32)


Doughty Street, where Dickens lived for three years (1836-9), is within a stone's throw of the site of London's Hospital for Foundling Children, which was established in 1739 by the retired sea-captain, Thomas Coram, whom Dickens venerated. Tavistock House - Dickens's home 1851-60, and where he wrote Little Dorrit, the novel in which Tattycoram appears - was also only a short walk from the Hospital.

Dickens entirely approved of the way the 'Foundling' was managed in his own day. The Household Words article 'Received, a Blank Child’,' which he co-authored with his sub-editor, W. H. Wills, unreservedly praises the establishment's system of rearing, training, and apprenticing its charges. It is also unstinting in its admiration of the building's spacious orderliness, of the displayed works of art, and of the chapel with its organ donated by Handel, and where visitors could listen to the music performed by the children (and where Dickens rented a pew).

While Dickens's proximity to, and interest in, the Hospital may have had some bearing on the fact that a considerable number of foundlings (not all from the Hospital) appear in his fiction, my concern here is principally with one: Tattycoram. Before turning to her, however, I want briefly to acknowledge her predecessor, Tilly Slowboy.

Tilly Slowboy is Dot Peerybingle's maid-cum-nursemaid in The Cricket on the Hearth (1845). In contrast to her diminutive, chubby, bustling little mistress, whom we are clearly meant to find delectably feminine (Dickens certainly did), the bony, oddly-clad, maladroit Miss Slowboy, is defeminized.

Being always in a state of gaping admiration at everything, and absorbed, besides, in the perpetual contemplation of her mistress 's perfections and the Baby's, Miss Slowboy, in her little errors of judgment, may be said to have done equal honour to her head and to her heart; and though these did less honour to the Baby's head, which they were the occasional means of bringing into contact with deal doors, dressers, stair-rails, bed-posts, and other foreign substances, still they were the honest results of Tilly Slowboy's constant astonishment at finding herself so kindly treated, and installed in such a comfortable home. For the maternal and paternal Slowboy were alike unknown to Fame, and Tilly had been bred by public charity, a Foundling; which word, though only differing from Fondling by one vowel's length, is very different in meaning, and expresses quite another thing.'