BRADLEY HEADSTONE/EUGENE WRAYBURN
AND THE BRITISH CLASS SYSTEM
Bradley Headstone and Eugene Wrayburn, characters in “Our Mutual Friend,” are rivals for the affections of Lizzie Hexham. They come from the opposite ends of the social scale: one is described as born a “pauper lad,” and the other is the son of an improvident upper-class landowner. The first has repressed half his nature under the pressure of striving towards a goal, education. He has paid a heavy toll. The second has no goal. Birth has brought him social position without effort or merit on his part; he has no ambition and is involved with no-one but himself. He too is only half alive.
These two men are natural antagonists.
When we look at Bradley Headstone, we see more than just a twisted, driven man, we see a man shaped (or rather misshaped) by a social system: the British class system. Under this system at its most rigid, a man was what he was born; the aristocracy (or upper class) were privileged in perpetuity; the lower class were there to serve the upper class, and “to know their place.”
I came across an apposite quote recently, in a charming fantasy named “The War for the Oaks,” by Emma Bull. A character says:
“. . . . where there are those who think themselves noble folk, there must
be some poor sod to play the commoner.”
In other words, it is no fun being an “upper,” if there are no “lowers” for you to look down on.
In this instance, Bradley Headstone is the “poor sod.”
The class system was strongly supported by organized religion, which claimed that God has designated the class into which a person was born and that it was blasphemous to interfere with God’s design (a very convenient rationalization for the rich). There were many evil consequences of this system (some of which continue to this day in Britain), but one of the worst was the undermining of confidence in the lower classes. They had to struggle for even basic education, and inferiority was pounded into them, no matter their ability or intelligence. A ceiling was placed on their endeavors.
Bradley Headstone is a pauper child, an orphan, raised presumably in the workhouse that Betty Higden dreads and Dickens describes so vividly in “Oliver Twist.” He has had to battle not only with poverty, lack of family and the support that a family gives, lack of an educated background (and he undoubtedly had a lower class accent, that most visible of class distinctions), but the fact of class prejudice itself. He is a man whose shoulders are deep in chips. He has started with the engrained knowledge that he is inferior, solely because of the accident of birth. Everything he achieves must deal with that.
His opponent, Eugene Wrayburn, on the other hand, starts with the huge advantage that however little he makes of his life, he is still a ‘superior’ being, a gentleman.
When we meet Headstone, we are told that although he ‘looked a thoroughly decent young man of six-and-twenty,’ he is awkward in his neat uniform of black coat and checked pantaloons, as if he is not at home in even such ordinary formal wear as this. We have the impression of a man who is not comfortable in his body. His face is troubled, and is the face belonging to ‘a naturally slow or inattentive intellect that had toiled hard to get what it had won.’ His name, Headstone, presumably implies he is a ‘blockhead.’ (I think Dickens made a mistake here; Headstone the intelligent thwarted man is much more interesting and believable than Headstone the dullard, though not necessarily more deserving.) Headstone’s learning has come hard to him, as well it might; it has taken much labor and persistence for him to achieve it. And if he has had to struggle to overcome a ‘low’ accent, it is no wonder he is not glib in his speech.
The education that he has won so hardly is mainly the learning of facts. He is crammed with information. He knows Latin. But he has not been helped to think, nor has he been exposed to the writings of men who are themselves thinkers. It is scarcely what we today think of as a good education at all.
Putting this much effort into the learning process has entailed, we are told, ‘suppression of so much to make room for so much.’ Early victims of such a life and effort must have been his emotions (though whom had he to love?) and certainly his sexual nature. Yet he is not a naturally cold or detached man. Dickens tells us ‘there was enough of what was animal, and of what was fiery (though smouldering)’still visible in him to suggest that ‘if young Bradley Headstone, when a pauper lad, chanced to be told off for the sea, he would not have been the last man in a ship’s crew.’ In other words, given the opportunity, he might have been a man of action, a leader, though probably a good first mate rather than a captain.
It is highly likely that Bradley Headstone has reached the age of twenty-six without sexual experience. The normal outlet for a working-class man would have been to visit a prostitute, if he could not afford to make an early marriage. But Headstone would not dare to risk his hard-won respectability, the labor he has put into achieving his small success, in such a way. If he were seen he would lose his job and all chance of another. (His early questioning of Charlie Hexham about Lizzie betrays his fear of Charlie entangling him with a woman of the wrong sort, perhaps a loose woman, who would drag him down.) And until he climbed to his present job level, it is unlikely he could have afforded to marry, even if he had the time and opportunity to do so. (He is still poorly paid, a point to remember later when we see Eugene Wrayburn forcing him to take a cab (Wrayburn boasts of this to Mortimer), or Rogue Riderhood extorting money from him.) It may even have been that he was actively discouraged, or forbidden, from marrying young. As late as the 1930s, London bank clerks risked losing their jobs if they were discovered to have married before the age of 30, the reasoning being that, since they were so poorly paid, marriage, children and the demands of a family would tempt them to extravagance and perhaps to dishonesty. (It was, of course, more economical, ‘better business,’ to forbid young men to marry rather than to raise their wages.) And of course such a clerk would have been dismissed if he had been seen in questionable company.
It is no wonder that by the time he meets Lizzie Hexham, Bradley Headstone is a latent volcano, emotions suppressed, instincts battened down, ready to erupt. Lizzie’s beauty is the final touch. For the first time he feels overwhelming physical passion. And Lizzie must seem to him available; she is the sister of his pupil, poor, untutored, not someone who could despise him for his faults of origin. He can teach her, raise her to his level. Of course he could not have married her while she was illiterate.
But with his background, it is hardly to be expected that Headstone would be anything but awkward and clumsy in his approach. And it is doubtful whether he could ever have won Lizzie, with her innate intelligence and romantic imagination, even if there had been no rival for her affections. But there is such a rival.
Eugene Wrayburn is a member of the privileged classes. He has had the education of his class, which means attendance at a ‘public’ school, where he would be taught Latin and Greek, but would not necessarily have exposure to literature, philosophy or science, unless his father requested it. His basic education, in fact, is not much better by today’s standards than Headstone’s, but his social experience is far wider. He has no trouble conversing. He is at home in his world. Wrayburn may also have attended a university, but such attendance was often purely a social experience for a member of the upper classes with no particular ambition or talent. He can, of course, take it for granted that his companions are literate. Wrayburn has studied law and is a barrister because his authoritarian father ‘prearranged’ it, not because law interested him. He has no clients. He has little money. Although his father is a member of the landed gentry, the estate is badly encumbered through bad management and profligacy in the past. Even the eldest son, Eugene’s elder brother, the heir, will inherit little; Eugene is expected to make his fortune by marrying money (the fate of the younger son, as told by Colonel Fitzwilliam to Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice). Despite this, he lives as if he has money, and mixes with monied people, and he has the manners and assurance that come from being born to a privileged class and background. There is more to ‘education’ than mere book learning. Eugene has been waited on from childhood, has been addressed as ‘Master Eugene’ by domestics, has been in a position to give orders, and it has been instilled into him that he is a ‘superior’ being.
Eugene seems to have little affection for his family, but that family is there; he knows where he belongs. He does at one time state that he would like to please his father but he resents his father’s wish to marry him to a wealthy wife not of his own choosing. But this is a commonplace. He seems to have few desire of his own. He is doubtless experienced with women. They would be, of course, lower class women, though not necessarily prostitutes. They might have been servants or village girls. Young Master Eugene would have his opportunities. But though his sexual nature has not been repressed, his emotional nature has. He affects an air of disdain, of detachment; in today’s parlance, he would be described as ‘cool.’ He is lazy, selfish, unambitious, careless, arrogant, aimless. And, as we later learn, he has a streak of cruelty.
This is Eugene Wrayburn when he first sees Lizzie Hexham in her bare room, the richness of her hair and complexion glowing in the firelight, her beauty enhanced by the poverty of her surroundings. Perhaps for the first time, Eugene is moved not just by sexual desire, but by emotion. He is touched by Lizzie, by the sadness of her circumstances. When her father is drowned, he makes sure that there is a kindly woman with her when she hears the news. Although his words are careless and he strives to appear indifferent, his actions show that he is affected by her. And he gazes at her with sufficient intensity to make Lizzie aware of him. But he wants her with all the arrogance of his class― he cannot bear to be thwarted. She chooses to disappear from London, hiding from both him and Bradley Headstone, because having glimpsed Headstone in his passion and rage against Wrayburn, she fears Headstone will injure Wrayburn. Thereafter, Wrayburn will do anything, however underhand, to find her. But his intent, however unformulated, is still to make her his mistress. She is a working-class woman; she is not his social equal, Mortimer Lightwood tries to make Eugene admit he can only do her harm. But he continues on his selfish way.
Bradley and Eugene
And so the two men meet. They could never have met on equal terms. Eugene seems hardly to regard Headstone as a fellow human being. He condescends to him, goads him, shows his contempt for him openly before Lizzie and Charlie, her brother, and Mortimer Lightwood. And Headstone, that volcano ready to erupt, is goaded into murderous rage.
Eugene galls Headstone in all his most vulnerable places; as a man of education; as an authority figure; and as a male animal. Eugene makes a fool of him in front of Charlie Hexham whose mentor he is.
Headstone knows that Charlie Hexham looks up to him. To Charlie, he is a model of what Charlie too can become by working and studying. Charlie turns to him for advice. Moreover, Headstone is a young adult male, a suitable consort for Lizzie. Charlie encourages his suit. But Eugene Wrayburn’s casual insolence, his assumption of influence over Lizzie, Lizzie’s obvious preference for him, glamorous figure that he is, downgrade Headstone before his pupil.
When Lizzie, recognizing the emotions she has aroused and the danger Eugene is in, chooses to leave London in secret, she hopes to ameliorate the danger and disarm the two men by removing the cause. But Headstone is no longer reasonable. He persuades himself that Wrayburn must know where Lizzie is and he starts to watch him at night and follow him whenever he leaves his lodgings. Whether Wrayburn admits it or not (he tells Lightwood that he ‘is indifferent as to what they want’), he sees Headstone as a rival for Lizzie’s favors and is as jealous of him as Headstone is of Wrayburn; you do not go out of your way to taunt and provoke someone of total unimportance to you.
There is no indolence about Eugene here. ‘Don’t care’ has been ‘made to care.’ His nature is such that when he discovers that Headstone is watching him, he deliberately chooses to make matters worse. Eugene takes nightly walks through the streets of London in all directions, making poor bedeviled Bradley Headstone tramp for miles before he turns on himself and returns home, delighting in meeting Headstone face to face, only to ignore him contemptuously. In describing these walks to Lightwood, he uses the language of the hunt, treating Headstone as an animal that can be ‘run’ or ‘breathed.’ ‘Come!’ he says to Lightwood. ‘Be a British sportsman, and enjoy the pleasures of the chase . . .’ And, ‘When you are ready, I am ― need I say with a Hey Ho Chivy, and likewise a Hark Forward, Hark Forward, Tantivy!’ And, finally, ‘I am a little excited by the glorious fact that a southerly wind and a cloudy sky proclaim a hunting evening.’
These expressions come from fox hunting. It is the upper classes that hunt in this way; they call what they do ‘sport.’ Wrayburn has deadly sport with Headstone.
After such a night, Wrayburn has plenty of time to catch up with his sleep. But even if Headstone were capable of rest in his inflamed mental state, he is a working man, and must teach school in the daytime. A poor man must also worry about shoe repair, never cheap. It is no wonder he is soon provoked into murderous rage against Wrayburn,, acerbated by lack of sleep and food, but he cannot stop following him.
When reading this book with a group, another member described Headstone as a bad man, ‘the worst in the book,’ but I feel that Wrayburn is far worse. I find nothing bad about Headstone. He is a sick man. He is a man denied manhood; a man goaded beyond his bearing. Wrayburn, the privileged, with his wanton disregard of the rights of other human beings, is much more deserving of the word ‘bad.’ But Dickens makes Wrayburn a much more attractive figure than he does Headstone, along the lines of the careless hero, the ‘rake’ or charming ‘ne’er-do-well’ of Gothic novels. I think it is a pity that Dickens’ own snobbery prevented him from presenting a more balanced pair of rivals.
I speak here of Dickens’ own snobbery, or class prejudice, because that is what I think he displays. I know he is regarded as the spokesman for the poor, a crusader for social justice, etc. But his heroes and heroines are drawn from the middle and upper classes in the best British tradition, while lower class figures are usually comic, eccentric or villainous. This literary tradition, of which Shakespeare is an earlier example, continued in England well into the 20th century. In itself it represents class prejudice (lower class people are naturally coarse or comic; they do not think and feel as upper class people do, who are so much more refined, and therefore do not deserve the same consideration. They are used in many plays or books as comic relief.) And this tradition helps to denigrate the lower classes who may be shown as shrewd, but rarely as intelligent, and therefore helps to preserve class distinctions, and legal discrimination. (‘How could you give the vote to such clowns?’ And, from Punch, ‘What would they do with a bathroom. Keep coal in it?’) This is similar to the way movies used to denigrate African-Americans, by showing fat housemaids and comic railway conductors with rolling eyes.
Interestingly enough, the semi-literate American cowboy, who may have a vocabulary of a hundred words, is perfectly acceptable as a romantic hero.
Dickens does have some exceptions to the rule and Lizzie Hexham is one. However, although she is illiterate, she speaks good basic English with no working class accent, unlikely though this seems under the circumstances. I don’t think Dickens would have had the courage to break with tradition and marry Lizzie off to Eugene Wrayburn if she had dropped her aitches as Pleasant Riderhood does. But a heroine is one thing, a hero is another. Convention allows men to ‘marry down,’ but women are supposed to ‘marry up.’ (Can anyone think of a working-class hero in Dickens? There is Pip, of course, but he is educated (or gentrified) for his change in class. Moreover, the woman he loves is found to have criminal class origins, so cannot be considered ‘above’ him.)
Thomas Hardy and D.H. Lawrence are two British writers who break with the ‘comic’ working-class tradition.
Bradley Headstone is not comic; but Dickens chooses not to show him as Eugene Wrayburn’s equal in intelligence or attractiveness. I see this as an expression of Dickens’ own prejudice.
Final Thoughts: The Position of Women
Neither Headstone nor Wrayburn considers Lizzie an equal. In fact neither of them consider her. She is beautiful and thus is an object of desire. Headstone desires her physically and wants to marry her (his enforced respectability would not allow him to try to seduce her)―but not while she is illiterate. He certainly does not consider that she has a right to choose her own mate. If he had found Wrayburn with her, embracing her, would he have tried to kill them both? And if he had eventually married her, how would he have treated her? Perhaps I am wrong, but think he would have regarded her as a possession, as other authoritarian males do in Dickens’ novels, expecting her obedience, quick to take offence, denying her the rights of an individual, an equal, even while he resents that denial for himself.
This pattern might have been broken if marriage, love, had aroused tenderness in Headstone. He has never been offered any.
Wrayburn also desires Lizzie. He would make her his mistress, a source of pleasure as long as her attraction lasted. Then she would be discarded. He might compensate her as much as his means allowed, but he would not marry her. He does not consider her an equal, but as a source of gratification. It takes his battle with death to change him, to teach him how important she is to him.
While Eugene is still recovering from the injuries Bradley Headstone gave him, he does marry Lizzie. Poor Bradley Headstone gets the satisfaction of beating Wrayburn up, but little more. He is blackmailed by Rogue Riderhood, the lockkeeper, and jumps to his death in the lock pool, taking Riderhood with him.
I am British and working-class by birth. Perhaps that is why I remain on Bradley Headstone’s side. But I am somewhat ashamed of Dickens.