chapter  1
32 Pages

Introduction: Jewels and the Formation of Identity in Victorian Literature and Culture

In Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit, Mrs. Merdle’s jewels enable her to “represent and express Society so well” (I.33). What sustains this portrayal of Mrs. Merdle is her husband’s exalted position within a materialist culture based on free-wheeling capitalism. Mr. Merdle is variously hailed “the mastermind of the age,” “an illustrious man and great national ornament,” “Gigantic Enterprise,” “The Wealth of England,” “Credit,” “Capital,” and “Prosperity”: in short, the very personification of prodigious capital accumulation (II.24). In the London high society depicted in the novel, Mrs. Merdle’s role as wife of the prestigious and wealthy Mr. Merdle is to display her valuable jewels as class markers. With revealing, typical hyperbole, Dickens informs his readers that Mrs. Merdle possesses “a capital bosom to hang jewels upon,” so that “the Bosom moving in Society with the jewels displayed upon it, attracts … general admiration” (I.21).