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The Empress III Elizabeth Dickens

Roman à Clef:

Elizabeth Dickens


Mrs. Catherine Nickleby

Nicholas Nickleby

         The Empress symbolizes new life, material productivity, and the super-abundant creative forces of nature. She represents the faith which springs from the comfort of material things. She leads to deeper awareness through devotion to physical work. Her power is passive, maternal, encouraging. Her realm feeling, not thought.


 Elizabeth Dickens, née Barrow, was one of 8 children. She, in turn, was mother to 8 children, one of whom was Charles Dickens. The young Charles was taught to read by his mother, awaking as the future author wrote "his first desire for knowledge and his earliest passion for reading." In the year of Charles' birth, 1812, with Elizabeth's husband John in serious debt, Mrs. Dickens attempted to aid the couple's material straights by establishing a school. She called it Mrs. Dickens's Establishment and – perhaps not surprisingly, as she had no experience or credentials – not a single pupil materialized.


 Twelve years later, with his debts overwhelming him, John Dickens was sent to Marshalsea Prison, the debtor's jail. Elizabeth and their four youngest children joined him there. Charles, meantime, was removed from school and sent to work at Warren's Blacking Factory to help support the family financially. This was a source of deep humiliation for the young boy, and to his dismay, when three months later his father received a small inheritance from his mother and was able to leave the Marshalsea, Charles was kept working at the boot-blacking factory. This was mostly at the behest of Elizabeth, whose relations owned Warren's and who now relied on the small income young Charles earned. While he remained at Warren's for only a few months, this would remain a source of resentment in Charles toward his mother for the rest of his life.


 Later, while Charles was attending Wellington Academy, Elizabeth met a young solicitor named Edward Blackmore whom she persuaded to take the vibrant 15-year-old Charles on as a law clerk. This became the first stepping-stone on the road to the author's illustrious career.


 Like Mrs. Micawber, Elizabeth Dickens remained devoted to her feckless husband. By placing the best interests of her family over the personal plight of her son, Charles was beset with mixed feelings for his mother. This conflict is made manifest in David Copperfield's divided love for his mother – especially after her marriage to Murdstone - and David's paradigm of maternal love, Peggotty.


 Even before John died, Elizabeth was showing signs of senility. Her irrelevant digressions and infirm grasp of reality Dickens tenderly and humorously caricatured in Mrs. Catherine Nickleby. Although muddled, Mrs. Nickleby is over-flowing with energy, akin to her son and Nicholas Nickleby itself, a novel at core about a family trying to find its place in the world after its patriarch's death. Dickens began Nickleby, his third novel, while he was still writing Oliver Twist, and - like its author - its energy is ebullient and its narrative manner free-wheeling.


 No less vigorous is the ardor directed at Mrs. Nickleby by her neighbour – a mad gentleman in short clothes as Nicholas deems him – who woos the widow over their common garden wall. His disembodied voice entices her: “I have estates ma'am... jewels, lighthouses, fish ponds, a whalery of my own in the North Sea, and several oyster beds of great profit in the Pacific Ocean... Be mine! Be mine!” As a token of his amour fou, the man in short clothes repeatedly throws vegetables over the wall for Mrs. Nickleby. To Kate Nickleby's horror, her mother refuses to see these solicitations or the man in short clothes himself as mad. This has been seen as corroboration of the view that Mrs. Nickleby, if perhaps not mad herself, is nonetheless little more than silly and fantastic. And while she seems to live only on the surface of life, with sentimental notions of love which border on the foolish, Dickens in fact draws in Catherine Nickleby a much more nuanced characterization of his mother.


 Late in the novel, when Mrs. Nickleby is out in her garden, she finds herself barraged with phallic-shaped vegetables from over the garden wall. The gentleman in short clothes shows himself and proposes love. Unlike her daughter and namesake, the matriarch of the Nickleby family does not shrink in embarrassment from her suitor's erotic suggestions. Indeed, the mincing which goes on toward the sexual aspects of love by the younger people in the novel - and by Victorian society in general - suggests fantasy and madness to a far greater extent than does Mrs. Nickleby's unruffled acceptance. In clear and comical innuendo, Mrs. Nickleby's suitor attempts one final assail on her erotic defences by descending her cottage's chimney. With the man's legs dangling in the fireplace, Mrs. Nickleby – hopeless romancer and impossible dreamer of happy endings - resolutely makes her decision: she refuses her suitor. In an rhapsodic and somewhat cocksure novel - the over-arching theme of which is where to find and how to maintain the union of true love and marriage in a society owned and operated by material interest – the novel's so-called “silliest” character stops daydreaming, rejects wish-fulfillment, and makes what turns out to be perfect sense. Her actions in the end exactly emulate her inner concerns – naturalism, emotional wisdom, and material reality.


 In some ways, the matronly Elizabeth Dickens as she aged grew more and more into a child. Charles once acerbically likened her to a middle-aged mutton dressed up as a lamb. To his amusement and chagrin, she began dressing in sable, “like a female Hamlet.” When her son Alfred died, she was unable to fully comprehend the loss. Charles set up Alfred's widow and children in Grafton Terrace along with his mother. At this time, circa. 1860, he also maintained living quarters for a number of other females in his life: his wife Kate in Gloucester Crescent, the Ternan women a few streets down, and a house in London a getaway for Georgina and Mamie, otherwise living with him at Gad's Hill.


 The portrait Elizabeth Dickens as Catherine Nickleby holds here on The Empress card is of the queen and future empress, Victoria. When her marriage to her cousin Alfred was announced in 1840, Dickens was overcome with histrionic displays of love-sickness for the bride-to-be. He swooned, affected pining, and feigned fantastic declarations of unrequited love. Victoria, for her part, adored Dickens' novels – especially the early, funny ones. Twice she requested they meet, and twice Dickens rebuffed her. When they did finally meet, 3 months before his death, neither was terribly amused. In the end, both would lend their names to their time on this earth – a time of increasing liberalism, political reform, unprecedented population growth, material affluence, industrial expansion, and relative peace: the Victorian and Dickensian era.


Notes for General Circulation


  • The Empress holds a picture of Queen Victoria, representing dominion over the earth and her age. The queen is young, representing fertility and beauty, while the Empress is matronly, representing authority and experience.

  • The fruits and vegetables signify the fecundity of nature. That they hang from the air suggests manna from heaven, bounty and benevolence generally, and perhaps humanity's unwise exaltation of earthly pleasures above those of the higher spiritual plain. 

  • The prelapsarian Eden is strongly suggested. A kind of bliss is denoted, as is an ambivalence between innocence and ignorance.

  • The washing hung to dry suggests domesticity and the mundane realities of life. As The Empress looks away from The High Priestess, the sheets may be those seen loose and sprawling there, cut, dried, and sanitized here. The Empress looks blithely toward The Emperor, whom she adores and defers to.

  • The Empress card suggests and ease and feeling of being at home in the natural world - a natural world cultivated, tamed, and housebroken. The appears to be a dignified balance of humility and self-respect.

  • The produce on display may allude to a trade-off, or commerce. In this way it forms a bond with The Magician and The Emperor, underscored by the real-life child and parent dynamic these three cards denote.

  • In a formal pattern, The Empress alludes to comprehension, familial ties, a lack of practicality, the distaff, coquettish vanity, felicity, frivolity, kindness, manners, and the various levels of comprehension.

  • Associated with the Hebrew letter Gimel, The Empress is linked with the idea of enclosure - both as security and constraint. The letter is also associated with the throat, indicating language and speech. 

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