This engaging figure approached the fatal lamps. by Edward G. Dalziel. Wood engraving. From Dickens's "Mr. Barlow," chapter 33 in The Uncommercial Traveller. [Click on image to enlarge it.]

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Passage Realised

Another night — and this was in London — I attended the representation of a little comedy. As the characters were lifelike (and consequently not improving), and as they went upon their several ways and designs without personally addressing themselves to me, I felt rather confident of coming through it without being regarded as Tommy, the more so, as we were clearly getting close to the end. But I deceived myself. All of a sudden, Apropos of nothing, everybody concerned came to a check and halt, advanced to the foot-lights in a general rally to take dead aim at me, and brought me down with a moral homily, in which I detected the dread hand of Barlow.

Nay, so intricate and subtle are the toils of this hunter, that on the very next night after that, I was again entrapped, where no vestige of a spring could have been apprehended by the timidest. It was a burlesque that I saw performed; an uncompromising burlesque, where everybody concerned, but especially the ladies, carried on at a very considerable rate indeed. Most prominent and active among the corps of performers was what I took to be (and she really gave me very fair opportunities of coming to a right conclusion) a young lady of a pretty figure. She was dressed as a picturesque young gentleman, whose pantaloons had been cut off in their infancy; and she had very neat knees and very neat satin boots. Immediately after singing a slang song and dancing a slang dance, this engaging figure approached the fatal lamps, and, bending over them, delivered in a thrilling voice a random eulogium on, and exhortation to pursue, the virtues. 'Great Heaven!' was my exclamation; "Barlow!" [163]

Commentary

One of Dickens's last Uncommercial Traveller essays, "Mr. Barlow" first appeared in All the Year Round on 16 January 1869, as a reminiscence concerning his childhood reading, ranging from the exotic Arabian Nights to the morally improving History of Sandford and Merton. In "A Christmas Tree" in the extra-Christmas Number of Household Words for 1850, Dickens had recalled the principal figures from the book, the two boys and their story-telling tutor.

Sometimes one's childhood reading has a lasting effect — take, for example, the impression made on young Charles Dickens by the pontificating pedagogue Mr. Barlow, the tutor of two boys of very different abilities and social backgrounds, the aristocratic and spoiled Tommy and the plodding, hardworking yeoman's son, Harry, in Thomas Day's best-selling children's book The History of Sanford and Merton (1783-89). As the above excerpt from "Mr. Barlow" suggests, as an adult some fifty years removed from that initial childhood reading Dickens in his persona of the Uncommercial Traveller finds Barlow (or his sentiments) in the most unlikely of places, including the pantomime, which ought to be a joyous release from pedantry and a sheer flight of exuberant childhood fancy. But not so: the attractive young actress in the "breeches part" (i. e., a young woman enacting the part of a young man), approaching the footlights with her fellow fantasticos at the conclusion of the seasonal entertainment surprisingly delivers a curtain speech full of Barlowesque platitudes and observations on human nature, much to the auditor's chagrin. Since Day's book is not a novel but a series of "corrective" and educational tales for children that were originally Day's contribution to Honora Edgeworth's moral companion Harry and Lucy, it has no central plot, but only the continuing thread as it follows tutor Barlow's transformation of Tommy Merton from a spoiled six-year-old aristocrat into a noble-minded gentleman, who comes to appreciate the sterling character of his companion, Harry Sandford, the farmer's son. However, Dickens's focus in "Mr. Barlow" is not the boys who follow Jean Jacques Rousseau's principles of learning readiness and experiential education, but their overbearingly intellectual teacher, Barlow, who never misses an opportunity to display his technical and scientific knowledge. In fact, the abridged version that Dickens read as a child may well not have contained any of the moral fables and scientific lessons of the original, but rather focused on the relationship between the two boys and their tutor. The passage reveals that young Dickens tended to identify with the scapegrace, Tommy, rather than the virtuous Harry.

Disregarding Dickens's deriding Barlow as a complete and utter bore, Dalziel's illustration only obliquely illustrates Dickens's essay in that it realises the ultimate moment in the pantomime, when the Principal Boy (a young actress, in fact), bathed in the spotlight, approaches the audience to deliver a parting speech, much in the manner of Rosalind in Shakespeare's As You Like It. The heraldic device on the shield to the right suggests that this particular pantomime is blending one of Shakespeare's History Plays with the figures of the English pantomime, the King in the background contrasting the Dame (a low comedian dressed unconvincingly as a middle-aged woman) in the foreground (right). The actress wears a coronet, but is otherwise in the garb of the music hall; consequently, her showgirl costume does not correspond to the abbreviated pantaloons of Dickens's text, even thought it admirably serves to display her shapely legs. Nevertheless, Dalziel's pretty heroine is wearing satin boots — complemented by long satin gloves. She raises her gloved hands to get the attention of the audience, and is about to deliver her homily, as in Dickens's text. Accordingly, Dalziel's interpretation seems somewhat far-fetched, since nineteenth-century pantomimes were customarily based on popular fairy tales and such childhood reading as adapted texts of Gulliver's Travels and Robinson Crusoe; however, Dalziel has more than adequately captured the qualities of a Victorian stage production, with the boards of the stage and footlights clearly evident, and the historical costumes giving a sense of the pageantry of historical drama after William Macready. A less staid image of the Victorian theatre, much earlier in the century, is George Cattermole's "The Balcony Audience at Astley's Ampitheatre", complementing Chapter 38, in The Old Curiosity Shop, 25 April 1840.

Related Material

References

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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