The Uncommercial Traveller. [Click on image to enlarge it.]by Edward G. Dalziel. Wood engraving. rom Dickens's "Poor Mercantile Jack," chapter 5 in
Later still in the night, we came to a nauseous room with an earth floor, into which the refuse scum of an alley trickled. The stench of this habitation was abominable; the seeming poverty of it, diseased and dire. Yet, here again, was visitor or lodger — a man sitting before the fire, like the rest of them elsewhere, and apparently not distasteful to the mistress's niece, who was also before the fire. The mistress herself had the misfortune of being in gaol.
Three weird old women of transcendent ghastliness, were at needlework at a table in this room. Says Trampfoot to First Witch, "What are you making?" Says she, "Money-bags."
"What are you making?" retorts Trampfoot, a little off his balance.
"Bags to hold your money," says the witch, shaking her head, and setting her teeth; "you as has got it."
She holds up a common cash-bag, and on the table is a heap of such bags. Witch Two laughs at us. Witch Three scowls at us. Witch sisterhood all, stitch, stitch. First Witch has a circle round each eye. I fancy it like the beginning of the development of a perverted diabolical halo, and that when it spreads all round her head, she will die in the odour of devilry.
Trampfoot wishes to be informed what First Witch has got behind the table, down by the side of her, there? Witches Two and Three croak angrily, "Show him the child!"
She drags out a skinny little arm from a brown dustheap on the ground. Adjured not to disturb the child, she lets it drop again. Thus we find at last that there is one child in the world of Entries who goes to bed — if this be bed.
Mr. Superintendent asks how long are they going to work at those bags?
How long? First Witch repeats. Going to have supper presently. See the cups and saucers, and the plates.
"Late? Ay! But we has to 'arn our supper afore we eats it!" Both the other witches repeat this after First Witch, and take the Uncommercial measurement with their eyes, as for a charmed winding-sheet. Some grim discourse ensues, referring to the mistress of the cave, who will be released from jail to-morrow. Witches pronounce Trampfoot "right there," when he deems it a trying distance for the old lady to walk; she shall be fetched by niece in a spring-cart.
As I took a parting look at First Witch in turning away, the red marks round her eyes seemed to have already grown larger, and she hungrily and thirstily looked out beyond me into the dark doorway, to see if Jack was there. For, Jack came even here, and the mistress had got into jail through deluding Jack. [24-25]
Although the Superintendent (based on Dickens's acquaintance Inspector Charles Frederick Fields [1805-74] of the Metropolitan Police and later a private detective), Dickens's knowledgeable conductor and fearless guide through the murky and dangerous underworld of the Merseyside's docklands, is one of the nocturnal party, Edward Dalziel depicts only two regular constables, whom Dickens has nicknamed "Trampfoot" and "Sharpeye." The third constable, "Quickear," is presumably standing guard outside. In the background, left, is the young "lodger or visitor," a client of the brothel, and the madame's "niece." But it is the three hags in the foreground, sitting around a narrow table which looks more like a desk (shrunk by the illustrator so that the plate can accommodate it), that arrest the viewer's attention. Dalziel places the viewer outside the fourth wall, as if this is a drama unfolding on stage, rather than beside the constables, as in the text.
With satiric effect, Dickens uses the three hags dressed as Victorian matrons to replay Macbeth and Banquo's encounter with the Weird Sisters in Shakespeare's tragedy. However, these three "witches," owners and managers of the brothel, are not at all interested in either the policemen or the inquisitive Uncommercial Traveller; rather, they are preparing moneybags for the reception of the recently disembarked Poor Mercantile Jack, the typical merchant sailor whom Dickens has described earlier in the sketch. Although Dalziel uses the off-centre lantern to cast a weird chiaroscuro over the scene, highlighting the women's heads and the faces of the enigmatic constables, he leaves much in darkness, leaving to the viewer's imagination the background details which the writer has encompassed in the words "stench," "abominable," "poverty," "diseased and dire." If anything, Dalziel has not made the scene nearly vile enough — and we receive little sense of the surly, sarcastic Sharpeye and Trampfoot, expert observers of working-class Liverpudlian depravity in all its forms on a Friday night.
Other urban scenes
- Poor Mercantile Jack
- Mr. Grazinglands looked in at a pastry cook's window
- Blinking old men . . . let out of workhouses
- He was taken into custody by the police
- Mr. J. Mellows
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.
Scanned image by Philip V. Allingham. Image correction, formatting, and caption by George P. Landow. [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.]
Dickens, Charles. The Uncommercial Traveller. London: Chapman and Hall, n.d.
Last modified 13 August 2012