Hearts Through History Romance Writers

Dolly Varden

by | May 14, 2014 | 1 comment

Dolly Varden by Frith

Dolly Varden by Frith

Sometimes the name of a character becomes synonymous with things quite removed from the story in which she sprang.

The Dolly Varden was generally known as a type of polonaise: a “petit casaque: that was really a tunic draped only in the back and tight-fitting. The material itself distinguished this polonaise from all others:

“..of chintz or cretonne over bright silk petticoat, either plain, flounced or quilted. Later, for winter, the Dolly Varden may be of fine flannel or cashmere printed in chintz pattern, with black silk, satin or veleveteen petticoat, often quilted or lined with eiderdown.” —  English Women’s Clothing in the Nineteenth Century, Cunnington (1937)

Chintz or cretonne feature strong prints, generally of flowers or other bold patterns–the kind that could easily fall into the “florid” category.

Have you seen my little girl? She doesn’t wear a bonnet.
She’s got a monstrous flip-flop hat with cherry ribbons on it.
She dresses in bed furniture just like a flower garden
A blowin’ and a growin’ and they call it Dolly Varden

— Dolly Varden songsheet, reprinted from Dickensandshowbiz.com

There’s even a crab and fish named after her.

Originally Dolly Varden was a Dickens character in Barnaby Rudge. She was a coquette, very young, the daughter of a doting papa and alluring to most males, from the apprentice Tappertit to Joe, the strapping son of a landlord. In his masterful way, Dickens introduced this character by such a provocative illustration of her clothing, readers were immediately captivated by her looks before she had anything to say:

“..in a smart little cherry-colored mantle, with a hood of the same drawn over her head, and on the top of that hood a little straw hat trimmed with cherry-colored ribbons, and worn the merest trifle on one side–just enough, in short, to make it the wickedest and most provoking head-dress that ever malicious milliner devised.” — Barnaby Rudge, Dickens

I’ve never though of milliners as being malicious, nor head dresses being wicked.

The Victorians, greatly concerned with character and characters, instantly knew Dolly Varden by her dress. They were “provoked” enough to take her with them in their daily lives, long after her story ended, and found ways to put her name on most anything that reminded them of her colorful nature.

Barnaby Rudge was never considered among Dickens’ best works, but Dolly Varden is one of his finest characters.



1 Comment

  1. Beppie Harrison

    Never heard of her (obviously missed out on Barnaby Rudge), but what fun!



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