Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 560
Chapter 7: Mrs. Sparsit
Mrs. Sparsit: Bounderby’s housekeeper
Mr. Sparsit: the lady’s late husband
Lady Scadgers: her invalid great aunt
On the morning following Mr. Gradgrind and Mr. Bounderby’s eventful visit with the circus people, Mrs. Sparsit, an elderly widow who acts as Mr. Bounderby’s housekeeper, and who is regarded by him (and by herself) as having once been socially very much his superior, chats with her employer over breakfast. Bounderby tells Mrs. Sparsit about what he calls his friend Gradgrind’s “whim,” his proposal to take care of Sissy Jupe. Bounderby also mentions his own resolution to take “young Tom,” Louisa Gradgrind’s brother, under his wing by employing him in his office.
To give Gradgrind time to reconsider his decision, Bounderby has put Sissy, whom he calls the “tumbling-girl,” up for the night at his house in Coketown. He appears to be concerned that Sissy would not make a suitable companion for Louisa.
When Gradgrind and Louisa arrive at Bounderby’s, Sissy is summoned to meet her benefactor. Not aware of Mrs. Sparsit’s importance, Sissy fails to include her in her curtsies. Bounderby makes a speech about Sissy’s blunder.
Gradgrind explains to Sissy how he means to have her “strictly educated.” As a condition for receiving his care, she must never refer to her past. She must stop reading any of the fairy stories she used to read to her father. After this Gradgrind and Louisa, with Sissy, return to Gradgrind’s Stone Lodge.
Mrs. Sparsit is a minor character, but since her tendency to overreach herself in service to her employer makes her play an important part in the action, she bears thinking about. (Because Dickens lavishes a lot of care on them, even his minor characters not important to the plot bear thinking about.) The elderly, fine-featured Mrs. Sparsit is highly ladylike in manner and appearance; her speech is elaborate and “refined.” Long ago she was what is called “well-connected,” that is, her family background gave her a good position in society, and even now she has a “titled” relative, a Lady Scadgers. But Mrs. Sparsit married badly, to a drunkard, much younger than herself, who ran through his fortune and left her without any money, and so she has entered Mr. Bounderby’s service.
In this chapter and elsewhere, Bounderby is shown making a great fuss over Mrs. Sparsit. He keeps harping on how splendid and fashionable she and her friends once were. Dickens at one point facetiously compares him to her “Conqueror,” and she to his “captive Princess.” In a sense that really is how Bounderby seems to think of her: as a prize possession, one that enhances his own position. As Dickens puts it, “Just as it belonged to his boastfulness to depreciate his own extraction, so it belonged to it to exalt Mrs. Sparsit’s.”
For herself, Mrs. Sparsit is as proud of her family connections and her past as Boundary is of his lack of family. From what Dickens tells us of the Powlers, the name of the ancient family that she likes to let slip into conversations, and of Lady Scadgers, Mrs. Sparsit has little cause to think so much of her connections, past and present. Mrs. Sparsit, in fact, is one of Dickens’ many satirical studies of unreasonable family pride.
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