Thy poor friend


“He Went Down Upon His Knee Before Her On The Poor Mean Stairs, And Put An End Of Her Shawl To His Lips” (1870s) by Harry French

In Charles Dickens’ novel Hard Times (1854), Stephen Blackpool works as a Hand in Mr. Bounderby’s factory of Coketown, England.

Stephen looked older, but he had a hard life. It is said that every life has its roses and thorns; there seemed, however, to have been a misadventure or mistake in Stephen’s case, whereby somebody else had become possessed of his roses, and he had become possessed of the same somebody else’s thorns in addition to his own. He had known, to use his words, a peck of trouble. He was usually called Old Stephen, in a kind of rough homage to the fact.

Although married to “a disabled, drunken creature,” Stephen’s spiritual intimacy lies with Rachael, another Hand in Coketown, who “had taken great pity on him years ago, and to her alone had opened his closed heart all this time, on the subject of his miseries; and he knew very well that if he were free to ask her, she would take him.”

On an evening when Rachael tends to Stephen’s sick wife with remarkable self-generosity, the narrator describes a gesture that carries biblical resonance for this reader. As Rachael prepares to depart Stephen’s lodging, “he went down on his knee before her, on the poor mean stairs, and put an end of her shawl to his lips.”

‘Thou art an Angel. Bless thee, bless thee!’

‘I am, as I have told thee, Stephen, thy poor friend. Angels are not like me. Between them and a working woman fu’ of faults, there is a deep gulf set. My little sister is among them, but she is changed.’

She raised her eyes for a moment as she said the words; and then they fell again, in all their gentleness and mildness, on his face.

‘Thou changest me from bad to good. Thou make’s me humbly wishfo’ to be more like thee, and fearfo’ to lose thee when this life is ower, an a’ the muddle cleared awa’. Thou’rt an Angel; it may be, thou hast saved my soul alive!’

She looked at him, on his knee at her feet, with her shawl still in his hand, and the reproof on her lips died away when she saw the working on his face.

‘I coom home desp’rate. I coom home wi’out a hope, and mad wi’ thinking that when I said a word o’ complaint I was reckoned a unreasonable Hand. I told thee I had had a fright. It were the Poison-bottle on table. I never hurt a livin’ creetur; but happenin’ so suddenly upon ’t, I thowt, “How can I say what I might ha’ done to myseln, or her, or both!”’

She put her two hands on his mouth, with a face of terror, to stop him from saying more.  He caught them in his unoccupied hand, and holding them, and still clasping the border of her shawl, said hurriedly:

‘But I see thee, Rachael, setten by the bed.  I ha’ seen thee, aw this night.  In my troublous sleep I ha’ known thee still to be there.  Evermore I will see thee there.  I nevermore will see her or think o’ her, but thou shalt be beside her.  I nevermore will see or think o’ anything that angers me, but thou, so much better than me, shalt be by th’ side on’t.  And so I will try t’ look t’ th’ time, and so I will try t’ trust t’ th’ time, when thou and me at last shall walk together far awa’, beyond the deep gulf, in th’ country where thy little sister is.’

He kissed the border of her shawl again, and let her go.  She bade him good night in a broken voice, and went out into the street.

This poignant scene between Stephen and Rachael evokes the broken-hearted and broken-bodied sinners who desperately and faithfully reached out to touch the hem of an itinerant rabbi’s cloak in first-century Palestine (Mark 6:53-56). Consider this memorable account in the Gospel of Matthew:

While he was saying these things to them, behold, a ruler came in and knelt before him, saying, “My daughter has just died, but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.” And Jesus rose and followed him, with his disciples. And behold, a woman who had suffered from a discharge of blood for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his garment, for she said to herself, “If I only touch his garment, I will be made well.” Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” And instantly the woman was made well. (Matthew 9:18-22)

If Dickens intended this biblical allusion, then Rachael serves as a Christ-figure to Stephen. He trusts in her healing presence, whether she is seen or unseen, whether he is awake or asleep. His faith in Rachael has existential and eschatological dimensions: existential because his present life is undergoing sanctification (“Thou changest me from bad to good”) and eschatological because his future life will deliver what this one denies (“And so I will try t’ look t’ th’ time, and so I will try t’ trust t’ th’ time, when thou and me at last shall walk together far awa’, beyond the deep gulf, in th’ country where thy little sister is”).

A vision of spiritual friendship can be glimpsed from this scene in Hard Times. A “poor friend,” as Rachael describes herself, is the best kind of friend. What else is spiritual poverty other than Rachael’s awareness of the “deep gulf” between angels and mortals? When a friend knows she is “fu’ of faults,” she will be humble, giving from below. If that self-knowledge is absent or limited, she will be proud, taking from above. Spiritual friendship is marked by a disposition of “gentleness and mildness” toward the one who confides, “I coom home desperate.” Most of all, spiritual friendship reveals itself through an abiding presence of love, which is to say, a presence that abides as long as it takes for “a’ the muddle cleared awa’.”

One thought on “Thy poor friend

  1. I’ve never read the book, but from your excerpts here I would guess you’re probably right about a Christ figure. But I also wonder if there is something unchaste in the relationship. A married man shouldn’t be in love with another woman, even in an otherwise pure way. “I will never see my wife without thinking of you.” I don’t think any wife would be pleased to hear that from her husband about another woman, however kind and even holy.

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