I noticed that Sniff was agin a-rubbing
his stomach with a soothing hand, and that he had drored up one leg.

"I noticed that Sniff was agin a-rubbing his stomach with a soothing hand, and that he had drored up one leg" by E. A. Abbey. 10.1 x 13.2 cm framed. From the Household Edition (1876) of Dickens's Christmas Stories, p. 256. The satirical sketch on the poor standards of service and cuisine available on English railways originally appeared without illustration in Mugby Junction in the December 1866 "Extra Christmas Number" of All the Year Round. [Click on the image to enlarge it.]

In the American Household Edition, after the deadly serious tale of the haunted railway employee in "No. 1 Branch Line: The Signal-man" come not the first two stories by Dickens, "Barbox Brothers" and "Barbox Brothers and Co.," but Dickens's final contribution to the original series of eight pieces, a satirical sketch narrated by a street-wise Cockney lad who works in the "Refreshmenting Rooms" at Mugby's railway junction. Although the sketch fits neatly into the framed-tale format of Mugby Junction, "Main Line: The Boy at Mugby" is hardly a short story at all — indeed, Deborah Thomas cunningly classifies it as a dramatic monologue, despite the fact that much of it contains the report of a second character (the head caterer of the refreshment rooms); it and the techno-Gothic tale "The Signal-man" are the only two reprinted in the American Household Edition.

In Abbey's illustration, the wise-cracking adolescent narrator (rear) is not so significant a figure as the mistress of the establishment ("The Missis," centre), just returned from a railway trip across France. The butt of her wrath is the hapless Smiff ("Smith"? right), who, as the one who operates the corkscrew to open wine bottles and cuts sandwiches for "The Beast" (the travelling public), seems to approve of the much higher standard of railway comestibles readily and affordably available just across the English Channel.

Passage Illustrated

"On my experience south of Paris," said Our Missis, in a deep tone, "I will not expatiate. Too loathsome were the task! But fancy this. Fancy a guard coming round, with the train at full speed, to inquire how many for dinner. Fancy his telegraphing forward the number of dinners. Fancy every one expected, and the table elegantly laid for the complete party. Fancy a charming dinner, in a charming room, and the head-cook, concerned for the honour of every dish, superintending in his clean white jacket and cap. Fancy the Beast travelling six hundred miles on end, very fast, and with great punctuality, yet being taught to expect all this to be done for it!"

A spirited chorus of "The Beast!"

I noticed that Sniff was agin a-rubbing his stomach with a soothing hand, and that he had drored up one leg. But agin I didn't take particular notice, looking on myself as called upon to stimulate public feeling. It being a lark besides.

"Putting everything together," said Our Missis, "French Refreshmenting comes to this, and oh, it comes to a nice total! First: eatable things to eat, and drinkable things to drink."

A groan from the young ladies, kep' up by me.

"Second: convenience, and even elegance."

Another groan from the young ladies, kep' up by me.

Third: moderate charges."

This time a groan from me, kep' up by the young ladies.

"Fourth — and here," says Our Missis, "I claim your angriest sympathy — attention, common civility, nay, even politeness!" [256]

This diatribe and narratorial commentary appear on the same page as the illustration of the moment realised, so that the reader appraises the picture and the text simultaneously, letting Dickens's verbal humour inform Abbey's characterisations. What appear to be posters behind the lecturing "Missis" as she describes the horrors of good service and eminently eatable food on French railways are in fact slogans or mottos of the English railway food services painted on the wall of the bandolining room: "Keep the Public Down" and "May Albion Never Learn." The slogan on the third wall, not depicted by Abbey, is "Our Refreshmenting Charter" (254). To the left of the picture, holding up their hands in dismay at the recitation of quality French food services are the young ladies of the refreshment room: Miss Whiff, Miss Piff, and Mrs. Sniff. Behind them, to the left of the picture, is the Boy of Mugby himself, restraining a smirk.

Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham. Formatting, color correction, and linking by George P. Landow. [You may use these images without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the photographer and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.]

References

Davis, Paul. Charles Dickens A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Work. New York: Facts On File, 1998.

Dickens, Charles. Christmas Books. Il. Fred Barnard. The Household Edition. London: Chapman and Hall, 1878.

Dickens, Charles. Christmas Stories. Il. E. A. Abbey. The Household Edition. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1876.

Thomas, Deborah A. Dickens and The Short Story. Philadelphia: U. Pennsylvania Press, 1982.


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Last modified 17 December 2012