"Trotting about among the beds, on familiar terms with all the patients, was a comical dog, called Poodles" by Edward G. Dalziel. Wood engraving. From Dickens's "A Small Star in the East," chapter 30 in The Uncommercial Traveller. [Click on image to enlarge it.]

Passage Realised

One baby mite there was as pretty as any of Raphael's angels. The tiny head was bandaged for water on the brain; and it was suffering with acute bronchitis too, and made from time to time a plaintive, though not impatient or complaining, little sound. The smooth curve of the cheeks and of the chin was faultless in its condensation of infantine beauty, and the large bright eyes were most lovely. It happened as I stopped at the foot of the bed, that these eyes rested upon mine with that wistful expression of wondering thoughtfulness which we all know sometimes in very little children. They remained fixed on mine, and never turned from me while I stood there. When the utterance of that plaintive sound shook the little form, the gaze still remained unchanged. I felt as though the child implored me to tell the story of the little hospital in which it was sheltered to any gentle heart I could address. Laying my world-worn hand upon the little unmarked clasped hand at the chin, I gave it a silent promise that I would do so.

A gentleman and lady, a young husband and wife, have bought and fitted up this building for its present noble use, and have quietly settled themselves in it as its medical officers and directors. Both have had considerable practical experience of medicine and surgery; he as house-surgeon of a great London hospital; she as a very earnest student, tested by severe examination, and also as a nurse of the sick poor during the prevalence of cholera.

With every qualification to lure them away, with youth and accomplishments and tastes and habits that can have no response in any breast near them, close begirt by every repulsive circumstance inseparable from such a neighbourhood, there they dwell. They live in the hospital itself, and their rooms are on its first floor. Sitting at their dinner-table, they could hear the cry of one of the children in pain. The lady's piano, drawing-materials, books, and other such evidences of refinement are as much a part of the rough place as the iron bedsteads of the little patients. They are put to shifts for room, like passengers on board ship. The dispenser of medicines (attracted to them not by self-interest, but by their own magnetism and that of their cause) sleeps in a recess in the dining-room, and has his washing apparatus in the sideboard.

Their contented manner of making the best of the things around them, I found so pleasantly inseparable from their usefulness! Their pride in this partition that we put up ourselves, or in that partition that we took down, or in that other partition that we moved, or in the stove that was given us for the waiting-room, or in our nightly conversion of the little consulting-room into a smoking-room! Their admiration of the situation, if we could only get rid of its one objectionable incident, the coal-yard at the back! "Our hospital carriage, presented by a friend, and very useful." That was my presentation to a perambulator, for which a coach-house had been discovered in a corner down-stairs, just large enough to hold it. Coloured prints, in all stages of preparation for being added to those already decorating the wards, were plentiful; a charming wooden phenomenon of a bird, with an impossible top-knot, who ducked his head when you set a counter weight going, had been inaugurated as a public statue that very morning; and trotting about among the beds, on familiar terms with all the patients, was a comical mongrel dog, called Poodles. This comical dog (quite a tonic in himself) was found characteristically starving at the door of the institution, and was taken in and fed, and has lived here ever since. An admirer of his mental endowments has presented him with a collar bearing the legend, "Judge not Poodles by external appearances." He was merrily wagging his tail on a boy's pillow when he made this modest appeal to me. [Chapter 25, "A Small Star in the East," p. 150-151]

Commentary

In this 19 December 1863 article from All the Year Round, which became the thirtieth chapter in both the American and British Household Edition volumes, Dickens appeals to the social conscience of his middle-class readers as he describes in vivid detail the appalling living condition of the working poor in London's East End before visiting the tidy, bright, well-organised children's hospital near the slums from which these children come. Dickens had long been concerned about the poor health services for the children of the working poor, and in Household Words in the 1850s had advocated for the creation of such institutions as the Hospital for Sick Children in London's Great Ormond Street, the first such "purpose-built" institution for children, built five years after Dickens's death. From early in his career as a novelist, when he wrote the pathetic tale of Little Nell for Master Humphrey's Clock Dickens had championed the cause of victimized children, and appealed to Victorian sentimentality in such scenes as George Cattermole's "At Rest" (30 January 1843). Here, however, the pretty children are not dying or abandoned, but are well cared for by a a physician and his wife who have dedicated their lives to looking after such underprivileged, suffering children.

As Slater and Drew remark, the young couple ministering to the sick children of London's East End were Dr. Nathaniel Heckford and his wife, Sarah (nee Goff), who upon heir marriage in January 1867 used her capital to buy a site at Old Ratcliffe Cross. A year and two thousand pounds later, "The East London Hospital for Children and Dispensary for Women" (353) opened under their administration. "When James and Annie Fields [Dickens's Boston publisher and his wife] visited him at Gad's Hill the following year, took them to see it" (353). The opening the essay sharply contrasts the good order and cheerfulness of the hospital as Dickens walks his readers through the sickening privation, hunger, and despair common to the working class hovels he visits in the East End. Men are labourers, sick and out of work; women are shouldering the economic burden of being the family bread-winners, suffering all the while from such workplace related diseases As lead poisoning. The "W. M." illustration "Poodles Going the Round" that accompanied the illustrated Library Edition of this article of 1874 shows a child in bed receiving not merely sustenance (a bowl of soup), but the attention of the hospital mongrel Poodles, whom the illustrator has positioned on a chair at the child's bedside so that the dog is on the child's level. On the window-sill is a broad-leafed houseplant, and cut flowers on a table in the corner. Although iron bedstead is a concession to modern notions of hygiene, the plants and visiting dog point to an earlier era of pediatrics in which ill, malnourished slum children were segregated from ill adults, and were treated in a friendly, welcoming environment, and given adequate nourishment, perhaps for the first time in their lives.

In his Household Edition illustration, Edward G. Dalziel shows a total of four children in the ward, three of whom are in bed, attended by the doctor's wife. All seem lacking in animation, in contrast to the pretty, dark-haired patient, hair arranged in ringlets, whom "W. M." shows joyfully responding to her canine visitor. Although Dalziel has omitted the houseplant and window, he has included a doll (on the floor in the W. M. wood-engraving), prints on the wall above the beds (presumably, since these are tacked up rather than framed, are by the children themselves), and the comical dog, "quite a tonic in himself" (151). The nurse's tranquil expression and downward gaze bespeak genuine concern for the child as he pulls up the covers. Quite characteristic of a children's ward is the fact that one of the children (right) is not asleep, but is studying the nurse. The only discordant note in the whole scene is the barking dog, a white mixed-breed of small proportions in contrast to the less aggressive dark-furred dog in the W. M. plate. The child holding the doll (left)who, perhaps being a bit older than the others for she is certainly bigger, is studying the artist (and, hence, the viewer) extends the range of the illustration outside the frame, engaging the viewer.

No wonder, then, that Dickens's essay attracted the attention of the more benevolent members of the middle class who contributed generously to this children's hospital, a veritable "influx of money and other help" (cited in Slater and Drew, 353) that poured in immediately after publication "and for long after," as Dr. Heckford's widow later recollected in "Story of the East London Hospital for Children" (1887).

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.

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 26 March 2013