Of all Dickens's eccentric children – whose numbers include the Artful Dodger, Paul Dombey, Little Nell, and Smike – none, perhaps, is more peculiarly “old-fashioned” than Jenny Wren in Our Mutual Friend (1864-65). From her first appearance, Jenny exhibits a strange indeterminacy:
A parlour door within a small entry stood open, and disclosed a child – a dwarf – a girl – a something – sitting on a little low old-fashioned arm-chair, which had a kind of little working bench before it.
“I can't get up,” said the child, “because my back's bad, and my legs are queer. But I'm the person of the house.” (222; bk. 2, ch.1)
This description of Jenny cannot settle. The initial assumption that she is a child is placed in doubt as she becomes, in quick succession, a “dwarf,” a “girl,” a “something.” It is left to her to define how she should be perceived, but the phrase she chooses – “the person of the house” – only compounds the confusion. Throughout this article I follow the spirit of this passage. Rather than pursuing a “true” description of Jenny Wren, I offer a reading that puts her indeterminacy centre-stage, along with her job as a “dolls’ dressmaker” for wealthy women. In her appearance, her work, and her language, I argue, Jenny calls into question how gender and child/adult identities are constructed in nineteenth-century society, both in her own working-class milieu, where she is taunted by local children (224; bk. 2, ch. 1), and in the fashionable upper- and middle-class world to whose whims she caters. In addition, I draw upon Thomas Carlyle's novel Sartor Resartus
(1833-34) and the work of Walter Benjamin to suggest that Jenny's satirical and playful use of words constitutes a philosophical critique of the mutability of appearance in mid-nineteenth-century modernity.