"Then dropped upon her knees before us, with prostestations that we were right." by Edward G. Dalziel. Wood engraving. From Dickens's "Some Recollections of Mortality," chapter 18 in The Uncommercial Traveller. [Click on image to enlarge it.]

Passage Realised

The Inquest came off in the parish workhouse, and I have yet a lively impression that I was unanimously received by my brother Jurymen as a brother of the utmost conceivable insignificance. Also, that before we began, a broker who had lately cheated me fearfully in the matter of a pair of card-tables, was for the utmost rigour of the law. I remember that we sat in a sort of board-room, on such very large square horse-hair chairs that I wondered what race of Patagonians they were made for; and further, that an undertaker gave me his card when we were in the full moral freshness of having just been sworn, as 'an inhabitant that was newly come into the parish, and was likely to have a young family.' The case was then stated to us by the Coroner, and then we went down-stairs — led by the plotting Beadle — to view the body. From that day to this, the poor little figure, on which that sounding legal appellation was bestowed, has lain in the same place and with the same surroundings, to my thinking. In a kind of crypt devoted to the warehousing of the parochial coffins, and in the midst of a perfect Panorama of coffins of all sizes, it was stretched on a box; the mother had put it in her box — this box — almost as soon as it was born, and it had been presently found there. It had been opened, and neatly sewn up, and regarded from that point of view, it looked like a stuffed creature. It rested on a clean white cloth, with a surgical instrument or so at hand, and regarded from that point of view, it looked as if the cloth were "laid," and the Giant were coming to dinner. There was nothing repellent about the poor piece of innocence, and it demanded a mere form of looking at. So, we looked at an old pauper who was going about among the coffins with a foot rule, as if he were a case of Self-Measurement; and we looked at one another; and we said the place was well whitewashed anyhow; and then our conversational powers as a British Jury flagged, and the foreman said, "All right, gentlemen? Back again, Mr. Beadle!"

The miserable young creature who had given birth to this child within a very few days, and who had cleaned the cold wet door-steps immediately afterwards, was brought before us when we resumed our horse-hair chairs, and was present during the proceedings. She had a horse-hair chair herself, being very weak and ill; and I remember how she turned to the unsympathetic nurse who attended her, and who might have been the figure-head of a pauper-ship, and how she hid her face and sobs and tears upon that wooden shoulder. I remember, too, how hard her mistress was upon her (she was a servant-of-all-work), and with what a cruel pertinacity that piece of Virtue spun her thread of evidence double, by intertwisting it with the sternest thread of construction. Smitten hard by the terrible low wail from the utterly friendless orphan girl, which never ceased during the whole inquiry, I took heart to ask this witness a question or two, which hopefully admitted of an answer that might give a favourable turn to the case. She made the turn as little favourable as it could be, but it did some good, and the Coroner, who was nobly patient and humane (he was the late Mr. Wakley), cast a look of strong encouragement in my direction. Then, we had the doctor who had made the examination, and the usual tests as to whether the child was born alive; but he was a timid, muddle-headed doctor, and got confused and contradictory, and wouldn't say this, and couldn't answer for that, and the immaculate broker was too much for him, and our side slid back again. However, I tried again, and the Coroner backed me again, for which I ever afterwards felt grateful to him as I do now to his memory; and we got another favourable turn, out of some other witness, some member of the family with a strong prepossession against the sinner; and I think we had the doctor back again; and I know that the Coroner summed up for our side, and that I and my British brothers turned round to discuss our verdict, and get ourselves into great difficulties with our large chairs and the broker. At that stage of the case I tried hard again, being convinced that I had cause for it; and at last we found for the minor offence of only concealing the birth; and the poor desolate creature, who had been taken out during our deliberation, being brought in again to be told of the verdict, then dropped upon her knees before us, with protestations that we were right — protestations among the most affecting that I have ever heard in my life — and was carried away insensible. [91]

Commentary

Suicide, and particularly death by jumping off a bridge in either London or Paris, was commonly associated in the middle-class consciousness with prostitutes. Certainly Reinhart's illustration from Dickens's 16 May 1863 All the Year Round essay of the subject of morgues and inquests only touches upon the subject of female suicide, so that one must accept the American Household Edition illustrator's image as sensationalising the chapter. in contrast, Edward Dalziel in the British Household Edition chooses a more conventional and pious subject, the confession of a young female servant before a coroner's inquest. The question of a woman throwing herself into the river out of sheer desperation comes up several times in Dickens's fiction, notably with Meggy Veck in The Chimes (1844) — realised at the very beginning of the Fourth Quarter by Richard Doyle's "Margaret and Her Child" — and with Martha Endell's contemplating precisely just such a means of self destruction in Chapter 47 of David Copperfield (August 1850). In "The River" Phiz provides a powerful image of a young woman's standing on the brink of self-destruction, while the respectable, male recorders of the scene, Mr. Peggotty and David, look on, horrified and transfixed, but immobilised. Fred Barnard transforms this scene into a contrite plea for forgiveness in "Oh, the river!" she cried passionately. "Oh, the river!" for the Household Edition of the novel. Clearly the subject of female suicide by drowning was a subject of considerable interest to Victorian readers over three decades, as reflected the voyeuristic appeal of the Paris Morgue for Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens.

The destruction of a child (the subject of the Coroner's inquest here) is a significant part of the plot of Great Expectations (1861), in that Jaggers has let it be supposed in his defense of Molly that the child perished at her mother's hand. The plot gambit of the Fallen Woman's drowning herself lies behind the scene which the Uncommercial Traveller comes upon at Gloucester-Gate, London, beside the canal, as realized by C. S. Reinhart in "Looking over too, I saw, lying on the towing-path, with her face turned up toward us, a woman". Dalziel, on the other hand, has chosen a safer and more conventional subject, a servant-girl's confession of concealing a birth, rather than the original charge of infanticide. Whereas Dickens's persona does rush to judgment about the desperate circumstances that have culminated in the young woman's watery death, he exudes sympathy for the servant-girl, whom he persuades his fellow jurors to exonerate with respect to the greater charge.

The composition may owe something to the group portraits of various public boards associated with civic duty, as executed by the Dutch masters of the seventeenth century. Here a panel of some eight middle-aged bourgeoisie constitute a Coroner's jury and hear the confession of the "agonised girl" (91) who has just lost her child, and must now undergo an emotionally trying public inquest into the infant's death. Dickens's hero, probably the man of late middle ahe at the head of the table is "the late Mr. Wakley" (91), the presiding Coroner; his presence and the circumstances of the inquest suggest that the incident involves "the death of the infant child of a young housemaid, Eliza Burgess, employed by Mrs, Mary Symmons of 65 Edgware Road" (Slater and Drew, 219). Dickens, then aged twenty-seven, had just moved with his family into No. 1 Devonshire Terrace in the parish of Marleybone, near Regent's Park (the scene of the "found drowned" illustration by Reinhart in the American Household Edition). The inquest of January 14 did, in fact, lead to an Old Bailey trial as reported in The Times on 15 January and 10 March 1840.

The setting, as in the text, is the boardroom in the parish workhouse; curiously, Dalziel has included three uniformed functionaries (not specifically mentioned in the text), but omitted the heavily padded, extensive chairs that Dickens emphasizes. Whereas the young woman in the text is wailing uncontrollably, Dalziel has invested the figure with a measure of dignity and self-control. Having sketched her so that her face is turned away from the reader and towards her auditors, the reader must construct the expression on her face and her defense from clues in the accompanying text. Dalziel, however, has subtracted the drama from the moment, so that even the unsympathetic nurse does not seem particularly cruel or callous.

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.]

References

Dickens, Charles. The Uncommercial Traveller, Hard Times, and The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Il. Charles Stanley Reinhart and Luke Fildes. The Household Edition. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1876.

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

Hartnoll, Phyllis, ed. The Concise Oxford Companion to the Theatre. Oxford and New York: Oxford U. P., 1972.

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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