Look at this group at a street corner by Edward G. Dalziel. Wood engraving. From Dickens's "The Ruffian," chapter 36 in The Uncommercial Traveller. [Click on image to enlarge it.]

Passage Realised

Look at this group at a street corner. Number one is a shirking fellow of five-and-twenty, in an ill-favoured and ill-savoured suit, his trousers of corduroy, his coat of some indiscernible groundwork for the deposition of grease, his neckerchief like an eel, his complexion like dirty dough, his mangy fur cap pulled low upon his beetle brows to hide the prison cut of his hair. His hands are in his pockets. He puts them there when they are idle, as naturally as in other people's pockets when they are busy, for he knows that they are not roughened by work, and that they tell a tale. Hence, whenever he takes one out to draw a sleeve across his nose — which is often, for he has weak eyes and a constitutional cold in his head — he restores it to its pocket immediately afterwards. Number two is a burly brute of five-and-thirty, in a tall stiff hat; is a composite as to his clothes of betting-man and fighting-man; is whiskered; has a staring pin in his breast, along with his right hand; has insolent and cruel eyes: large shoulders; strong legs booted and tipped for kicking. Number three is forty years of age; is short, thick-set, strong, and bow-legged; wears knee cords and white stockings, a very long-sleeved waistcoat, a very large neckerchief doubled or trebled round his throat, and a crumpled white hat crowns his ghastly parchment face. This fellow looks like an executed postboy of other days, cut down from the gallows too soon, and restored and preserved by express diabolical agency. Numbers five, six, and seven, are hulking, idle, slouching young men, patched and shabby, too short in the sleeves and too tight in the legs, slimily clothed, foul-spoken, repulsive wretches inside and out. In all the party there obtains a certain twitching character of mouth and furtiveness of eye, that hint how the coward is lurking under the bully. The hint is quite correct, for they are a slinking sneaking set, far more prone to lie down on their backs and kick out, when in difficulty, than to make a stand for it. (This may account for the street mud on the backs of Numbers five, six, and seven, being much fresher than the stale splashes on their legs.) [171]

Commentary

As he grew older, Charles Dickens seems to have become more conservative in his social views, as his judgmental attitudes towards what we would call "career criminals" in this article would suggest. Indeed, after the Staplehurst Railway Accident of 9 June 1865, he seems to have exhibited extreme anxiety about "tramps" invading his property at Gad's Hill, Kent, and in consequence acquired a number of dogs to accompany his gardeners as they patrolled the grounds of the estate. He may have sympathized with Abel Magwitch as a victim of society seven years earlier when writing Great Expectations, but his editorial entitled "The Ruffian," published on 18 October 1868 in All the Year Round is anything but sympathetic to the criminal underclass. That autumn, Dickens revisited habitual criminal Bill Sykes's brutal murder of his common-law wife, Nancy, in Oliver Twist with a view to producing an electrifyingly dramatic reading as a farewell performance. As Slater and Drew note, the immediate catalyst for Dickens's publishing his "anti-crime" agenda so vociferously seems to have been the 3 September 1868 "Police Report" in The Times, since this column indicated that

the cases had been heard at Southwark magistrates' court 'of desperate highway robbery committed within the past few weeks by an organised gang known as the Waterloo highwaymen'; four members of the 'gang' had been captured, though not all were detained [p. 9, col. f, cited in Slater and Drew, 334].

The seven-member "gang" whom Dalziel depicts correspond more or less left-to-right to Dickens's description of them, although Dalziel uses chaiaroscuro to give prominence to Number Two in the tall top-hat (left of centre) and Number Three in knee cords and White stockings (centre). The effect of the group should be menacing as they threaten any respectable pedestrian with violence and robbery, but only the tough in the fur hat (extreme left) seems to be attention to the world outside the frame of the picture. As he appears to be sizing up the reader. As is consistent with Dickens's intention, Dalziel avoids romanticizing the gang of toughs, a mixed group of adult males who are hardly the dashing highwaymen of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera (1726) or the pathetic waifs who do Fagin's bidding in Dickens's Newgate novel. There is no justification for the criminality of these mature, able-bodied men who have neither an occupation nor manifest need, for unlike the Artful Dodger's colleagues they are neither emaciated nor in rags.

Other urban scenes

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

Ackroyd, Peter. Dickens. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1990.

Browning, Logan Delano. "America, United States of." The Oxford Reader's Companion to Dickens, ed. Paul Schlicke. New York and Oxford: Oxford U. P., 1999. Pp. 14-18.

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 31 March 2013