“The girl’s life had been squandered in the streets…but there was something of the woman’s original nature left in her still… (Dickens 225, my emphasis).
Dickens, at the opening of Chapter XL, enters into an examination of Nancy as she begins her epiphanic meeting with Rose Maylie. He explains that “the girl’s [Nancy’s] life had been squandered in the streets…but there was something of the woman’s original nature left in her still…” (225, my emphasis). Dickens’s two major and contrasting portraits of womanhood are in Rose Maylie and Nancy, and here they collide–understanding the significance of having his Eve and Mary in the same room with one another, he opens the chapter immediately onto the heavy implications of “woman’s original nature” (225). His suggestion, in this sentence, is that “the streets” (more specifically “the stews and dens of London”) have worn Nancy’s innate womanly nature down to almost nothing. This “woman’s original nature” is distinct from femininity or sex appeal, from dress or general comportment; rather, “woman’s original nature” must be an impulse towards Dickens’s own ideas of morals, goodness, and doing-good.
He suggests that Nancy is a “girl” but that she retains some degree of “the woman” within her. This is the reverse of the general transition between girlhood and womanhood which comes with age, experience, and identity. To find “the woman’s original nature” in “the girl”, then, is to suggest a fundamental and indelible mark upon the soul and “nature” of women which makes them distinct from men and from their own earthly experience (all of the complex gender and sex implications of that suggestion are beyond the scope of my post). It is something that women are born with and which they carry as far as they can into the world, something that can be “squandered in the streets” via prostitution and coarse manners, male society and crime.
Notably, Christianity teaches that all human beings are born with Original Sin—the sin of Eve, the first woman, in trusting the snake in the garden of Eden and leading humanity (and, perhaps more importantly to the Church, mankind) to Fall and lose the paradise and everlasting life which they originally possessed. As a result all children are born sinners, and women are additionally punished for this with the pain of childbirth. Dickens would have been intimately familiar with this mythology, yet he suggests that the innate impulse of women is not towards sin and the fall, but towards good-doing and morality. We see this when he suggests that, in giving in to her own ethical imperative of informing Rose Maylie about Oliver’s past and potential future, Nancy is giving into what is “left” of “woman’s original nature” within her. Though she is a “girl” rather than a “woman,” she has the germ of womanhood within her, and it is this womanhood which inspires the good deed which effectively kills her (the implications of the fact that Rose Maylie, unquestionably the pinnacle of the novel’s innate womanly goodness, is the person Nancy reveals her knowledge to, and that she dies after revealing it, is again beyond the scope of my post). Dickens is making a profound argument about gender, about women, and about the potential for redemption in this fragment of a sentence, which informs not only how we should read the femininity (and masculinity!) of this book, but how he intends to influence the moral makeup and religious influence of and over his readers.