Mr. Bumble’s Criticism of Husband Responsibility Under Law

face of a prisoner

English common law shifted responsibility for criminal acts from wife to husband. Across nearly two centuries of legal scholarship, the most impressive and forceful legal critique of this husband-responsibility doctrine comes from Mr. Bumble in Charles Dickens’ 1837 novel, Oliver Twist:

‘No,’ replied {Mrs. Bumble}; ‘if he—she pointed to Monks—’has been coward enough to confess, as I see he has, and you have sounded all these hags till you have found the right ones, I have nothing more to say. I did sell them, and they’re where you’ll never get them. What then?’

‘Nothing,’ replied Mr. Brownlow, ‘except that it remains for us to take care that neither of you is employed in a situation of trust again. You may leave the room.’

‘I hope,’ said Mr. Bumble, looking about him with great ruefulness, as Mr. Grimwig disappeared with the two old women: ‘I hope that this unfortunate little circumstance will not deprive me of my parochial office?’

‘Indeed it will,’ replied Mr. Brownlow. ‘You may make up your mind to that, and think yourself well off besides.’

‘It was all Mrs. Bumble. She would do it,’ urged Mr. Bumble; first looking round to ascertain that his partner had left the room.

‘That is no excuse,’ replied Mr. Brownlow. ‘You were present on the occasion of the destruction of these trinkets, and indeed are the more guilty of the two, in the eye of the law; for the law supposes that your wife acts under your direction.’

‘If the law supposes that,’ said Mr. Bumble, squeezing his hat emphatically in both hands, ‘the law is a ass—a idiot. If that’s the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is, that his eye may be opened by experience—by experience.’

Laying great stress on the repetition of these two words, Mr. Bumble fixed his hat on very tight, and putting his hands in his pockets, followed his helpmate downstairs.

Developing via the King James (“help meet”, 1611) and Darby (“helpmate”, 1867) bible translations, the word “helpmate” evokes the Genesis account of the creation of Adam and Eve and its statement of their unity of person. That unity of person directly refers to one-flesh unity, meaning the heterosexual act of reproductive type. This unity of person has been widely misinterpreted in William Blackstone’s description of coverture in his Commentaries on the Laws of England. Despite Mr. Bumble’s insightful argument, the subsequent life of family law has had little relation to experience.

Leave a comment (will be included in public domain license)

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *