Blinking old men who are let out of workhouses by the hour, have a tendency to sit on bits of coping stone in these churchyards. . . . The more depressed class of beggars, too, bring hither broken meats, and munch — "The City of the Absent" (facing p. 105) by Edward G. Dalziel. Wood engraving. From Dickens's The Uncommercial Traveller.

Passage Realised

Blinking old men who are let out of workhouses by the hour, have a tendency to sit on bits of coping stone in these churchyards, leaning with both hands on their sticks and asthmatically gasping. The more depressed class of beggars, too, bring hither broken meats, and munch. I am on nodding terms with a meditative turncock who lingers in one of them, and whom I suspect of a turn for poetry; the rather, as he looks out of temper when he gives the fire-plug a disparaging wrench with that large tuning-fork of his which would wear out the shoulder of his coat, but for a precautionary piece of inlaid leather. Fire-ladders, which I am satisfied nobody knows anything about, and the keys of which were lost in ancient times, moulder away in the larger churchyards, under eaves like wooden eyebrows; and so removed are those corners from the haunts of men and boys, that once on a fifth of November I found a 'Guy' trusted to take care of himself there, while his proprietors had gone to dinner. Of the expression of his face I cannot report, because it was turned to the wall; but his shrugged shoulders and his ten extended fingers, appeared to denote that he had moralised in his little straw chair on the mystery of mortality until he gave it up as a bad job. [105]

Commentary

The setting for this twenty-first essay, "The City of the Absent," first published in All the Year Round on 18 July 1863, is a melancholy churchyard not unlike that of "St. Ghastly Grim . . . at the heart of the City" (104, in fact, St. Olave's on Hart Street, near the Fenchurch Street Railway Station), for which Dickens feels "an attraction of repulsion" (104), a fascination with the moribund. Slater and Drew note that Dickens's interest is partly in recording the consequences of the shrinking of the population of the City from a high of 123,000 in 1848 to a mere 27,000 by 1901, a depopulation resulting in the desertion of numerous City churches. C. S. Reinhart's American Household Edition frontispiece "Time and His Wife" pertains to the same essay, and conveys the same sense of despondency and social decay. G. J. Pinwell executed a similar illustration for the first volume edition of The Uncommercial Traveller in Chapman and Hall's Charles Dickens Edition in 1868 — engraved by the Dalziels.

Executing his own illustration for "The City of the Absent" just a year after Reinhart for the Harper and Brothers volume, Edward Dalziel rejects the earlier conceptions of the churchyard as merely the haunt of an elderly couple, a sparsely covered green space adjacent to pre-nineteenth-century buildings in the heart of the City, and focuses instead upon the despondency of those left behind in the general population's flight to the suburbs. Dalziel's man and boy in the foreground are monumental figures without animation or hope. Dalziel counterpoints the statuesque figures of the beggars with the solid and simple tombstones, the insistently vertical area railings, and the figures of the respectable, middle class observers in the background (centre). With a touch of Baroque humour, Dalziel has placed his own initials on the tombstone to the extreme left.

Other urban scenes

Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham [You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the person who scanned the image and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.]

References

Dickens, Charles. The Uncommercial Traveller. Il. Edward Dalziel. The Household Edition. London: Chapman and Hall, 1877.

Scenes and Characters from the Works of Charles Dickens; being eight hundred and sixty-six drawings, by Fred Barnard, Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz); J. Mahoney; Charles Green; A. B. Frost; Gordon Thomson; J. McL. Ralston; H. French; E. G. Dalziel; F. A. Fraser, and Sir Luke Fildes; printed from the original woodblocks engraved for "The Household Edition." New York: Chapman and Hall, 1908. Copy in the Robarts Library, University of Toronto.

Slater, Michael, and John Drew, eds. Dickens' Journalism: 'The Uncommercial Traveller' and Other Papers 1859-70. The Dent Uniform Edition of Dickens' Journalism, vol. 4. London: J. M. Dent, 2000.


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Last modified 20 February 2013