The Uncommercial Traveller. [Click on image to enlarge it.](p. 36) by Edward G. Dalziel. Wood engraving. From Dickens's "Travelling Abroad," chapter 7 in
The dim appearance of a man at Straudenheim's shoulder, inspired me with a misgiving that somebody had come to murder that flourishing merchant for the wealth with which I had handsomely endowed him: the rather, as it was an excited man, lean and long of figure, and evidently stealthy of foot. But, he conferred with Straudenheim instead of doing him a mortal injury, and then they both softly opened the other window of that room — which was immediately over the housekeeper's — and tried to see her by looking down. And my opinion of Straudenheim was much lowered when I saw that eminent citizen spit out of window, clearly with the hope of spitting on the housekeeper.
The unconscious housekeeper fanned herself, tossed her head, and laughed. Though unconscious of Straudenheim, she was conscious of somebody else — of me? — there was nobody else.
After leaning so far out of the window, that I confidently expected to see their heels tilt up, Straudenheim and the lean man drew their heads in and shut the window. Presently, the house door secretly opened, and they slowly and spitefully crept forth into the pouring rain. They were coming over to me (I thought) to demand satisfaction for my looking at the housekeeper, when they plunged into a recess in the architecture under my window and dragged out the puniest of little soldiers, begirt with the most innocent of little swords. The tall glazed head-dress of this warrior, Straudenheim instantly knocked off, and out of it fell two sugar-sticks, and three or four large lumps of sugar.
The warrior made no effort to recover his property or to pick up his shako, but looked with an expression of attention at Straudenheim when he kicked him five times, and also at the lean man when he kicked him five times, and again at Straudenheim when he tore the breast of his (the warrior's) little coat open, and shook all his ten fingers in his face, as if they were ten thousand. When these outrages had been committed, Straudenheim and his man went into the house again and barred the door. A wonderful circumstance was, that the housekeeper who saw it all (and who could have taken six such warriors to her buxom bosom at once), only fanned herself and laughed as she had laughed before, and seemed to have no opinion about it, one way or other. [33-34]
Dickens's observant and detached persona, the Uncommercial Traveller, takes a ponderous German coach to the Continent, just as Dickens and his burgeoning family did to Genoa in 1844, in an article published in All the Year Round on 7 April 1860, and subsequently entitled "Travelling Abroad" when published in volume form. However, this traveller is accompanied neither by wife nor by children when he visits Paris and then proceeds to Strasbourg. Here on a wet Sunday evening he attentively watches a real-life "vaudeville" farce unfold in a house opposite his hotel, a house which he takes to be the shop of a jeweller or goldsmith named Straudenheim. To represent this particular essay, Dalziel has chosen the farcical moment at which Straudenheim (left, wearing a skullcap) and his thin companion knock the small soldier's helmet off his head, perhaps for the entertainment of the house-keeper watching from above. Dalziel's backdrop seems merely two-dimensional, as if it is a mere theatrical set.
By 1877, when Dalziel was composing his program of illustration for the Household Edition volume of The Uncommercial Traveller, the meaning "vaudeville" would not have been entirely lost on a London readership, for the American expression and the mixed musical and comic form itself had crossed the Atlantic; indeed, the Vaudeville Theatre had opened in the heart of London's new theatrical district, the Strand, on 16 April 1870. However, when the essay first appeared in print, in 1860, the term "vaudeville" as denoting a farcical review was only just establishing itself in British English; indeed, Dickens's use of the term may well stem from his first American reading tour of 1842. The bizarre scenes that Dickens's narrator observes transpiring across the street do indeed appear to be unrelated and somewhat like the character interactions of the English pantomime; this "vaudeville" contains grotesque and inexplicable physical humour, and even a dwarf in military uniform, but lacks both musical accompaniment and burlesque, other features of the American form.
Dalziel renders the behaviour of the wealthy Strasbourg merchant and his companion even more enigmatic by the composition of his somewhat theatrical backdrop, which, obscured by rain and darkness, suggests the monuments and mausoleums of a cemetary rather than a European street. In Dalziel's visual complement to the travel essay (positioned some two pages than the moment in the letterpress), the oxymoronic "little warrior" is surprised rather than hurt or angry, while the faces of the other men reveal no emotion as the illustrator captures the "shako" in mid-air to maximize the comic effect. Dickens's flaneur can make nothing coherent of this peculiar sequence of events — nor can the reader, who is left admiring Dalziel's technical execution of the scene, particularly the intense rain and the commanding figure of Straudenheim, and wondering why the illustrator has omitted the other comic figure, the capacious house-keeper. For both Dickens and his illustrator Europe upon occasion seems to be a place of the surreal, the coincidental, and illogical — a world of dream and illusion that blurs the distinction between theatre and reality.
Scanned image 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.]
Dickens, Charles. The Uncommercial Traveller. Il. Edward Dalziel. The Household Edition. London: Chapman and Hall, 1877.
Leech, Clifford, and T. W. Craik, eds. The Revels History of Drama in English: Volume VI, 1750-1880. London: Methuen, 1975.
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.
Last modified 19 February 2013