Pumblechook and Wopsle
Wood engraving, approximately 10 cm high by 7.5 cm wide (framed)
Third illustration for Dickens's Great Expectations in A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations in the Ticknor & Fields (Boston, 1867) Diamond Edition.
Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham.
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In this third full-page dual character study for the second novel in the compact American publication, the parish clerk, Mr. Wopsle, yearns to be an actor (parallelling Pip's later desire to become a gentleman), while "Uncle" Pumblechook —not, in fact, Mrs. Joe's uncle, but Joe's — is perfectly content with being a village seed merchant and the family's most successful connection, "a well-to-do corn-chandler" with his own "chaise-cart." According to Pip's descriptions of the pair in chapter 4, Pumblechook is a large-eyed, slow-moving, somewhat out-of-breath, fish-mouthed, sandy-haired, self-important humbug, while Mr. Wopsle has a theatrical air, a bald pate, and a Roman nose. Eytinge depicts them as the serious, balding, thin man, reading a book, and a contrasting fat man, both middle-aged.
The Harper's illustrator John McLenan provided Eytinge with a cartoon-like model of the corn merchant in "Oh, Un-cle Pum-ble-chook! This is kind!". However, McLenan does not bother to depict Wopsle at all in his forty woodcut illustrations. Given their relative positions at the table in Eytinge's illustration, the precise passage illustrated would seem to be this:
A little later on in the dinner, Mr. Wopsle reviewed the sermon with some severity, and intimated — in the usual hypothetical case of the Church being "thrown open" — what kind of sermon he would have given them. After favouring them with some heads of that discourse, he remarked that he considered the subject of the day's homily, ill-chosen; which was the less excusable, he added, when there were so many subjects 'going about.'
'True again,' said Uncle Pumblechook. 'You've hit it, sir! Plenty of subjects going about, for them that know how to put salt upon their tails. That's what's wanted. A man needn't go far to find a subject, if he's ready with his salt-box.' Mr. Pumblechook added, after a short interval of reflection, "Look at Pork alone. There's a subject! If you want a subject, look at Pork!'
'True, sir. Many a moral for the young,' returned Mr. Wopsle; and I knew he was going to lug me in, before he said it; 'might be deduced from that text.' [Chapter Four]
When authors are taught by circumstances that it is wiser for them to write serially, readers may be very sure that it is wiser for them to read serially. [Harper's Weekly, Nov., 1860]
But, then, of course the editors of the "American Journal of Civilization" would extol the virtues of serial reading since they were about to offer in spoonfuls to the readers of Harper's Weekly a "New Story" from the hand of Britain's greatest living author. The illustrations created by the journal's house-artist, John McLenan, reveal his enthusiasm for the new story and his delight in Dickens's comic characters, such a welcome departure from the general seriousness of Little Dorrit and so much in the vein of the earlier works of the "Fielding of the Nineteenth Century," notably Pickwick. However, illustrating serially necessarily means creating in ignorance, for the illustrator if not in the confidence of the author (Phiz had such advance information, McLenan did not) cannot know whether a minor character such as Wopsle will occur again, acquiring a new significance, if not developing wholly. Such is the case with Wopsle in Great Expectations, for McLenan must have assumed that, like the Hubbles, fellow guests at the Gargerys' Christmas dinner, Wopsle was not worthy of visual realisation — that he was simply stuffing for the moment when the tableful of guests assembled are shocked by Pip's substituting tar-water for brandy in the bottle from which Pumblechook has just taken a glass. Sol Eytinge, Jr., however, illustrating the novel some six years later for the Ticknor and Fields Diamond Edition had the advantage of knowing precisely how Wopsle would change, from aspirant to the pulpit to a ham-acting Hamlet and determined leader of the Shakespeare Revival.
McLenan understandably regarded Pumblechook as a comic figure, depicting him as an obese bourgeois on spindly legs and carrying the signs of his economic superiority over the Gargerys, his annual offering of port and sherry. Like many of Dickens's lesser comic figures, Pumblechook behave so predictably as to be a human machine, and thereby becomes less than human, a mere platitude-making mechanism:
"I have brought you as the compliments of the season — I have brought you, Mum, a bottle of sherry wine — and I have brought you, Mum, a bottle of port wine."
Every Christmas Day he presented himself, as a profound novelty, with exactly the same words, and carrying the two bottles like dumb-bells. Every Christmas Day, Mrs. Joe replied, as she now replied, "Oh, Un-cle Pum-ble-chook! This is kind!" [Chapter 4]
This was, in fact, the very moment which McLenan chose for realisation at the head of the novel's second instalment: a thin, almost skeletal Mrs. Joe greeting the Humpty-Dumpty figure of the corn merchant at the door. McLenan undoubtedly realised Pumblechook's comic potential, and drew him accordingly — as a cartoon. Eytinge, on the other hand, would have known to what ends both Pumblechook and Wopsle come later in the novel, probably having read and re-read the 1861 novel before completing his 1867 Diamond Edition commission to illustrate it in the new, "Sixties" manner, with modelled, three-dimensional figures and a more realistic handling. He would have realised that, although Wopsle is a comic figure, too, the village clerk turned Thespian lends himself to a higher form of comedy than caricature, for through Wopsle Dickens satirises the deplorable state of the contemporary theatre later in the story. Eytinge in this drawing knows what Wopsle is and what he will become: an actor always playing to an audience, proud of his deep, sonorous voice and majestic delivery, who mistakenly believes that he can single-handedly revive a moribund stage. In taking the supreme role created by the national bard ("in his highest walk"), Wopsle of full of high purpose — but his less than naturalistic style — his bombast — is ill-suited to the role of Hamlet. Thus, the Wopsle that Eytinge gives us here is not only a parish clerk with the ambition to enter the ministry, but a would-be Burbage (or, perhaps, William McCready) who never apprehends his own limitations. Eytinge cannot render Wopsle as a mere caricature (as he has rendered the complacent and none-too-bright Pumblechook); the picture must represent Wopsle as he is at the beginning of the book, but suggest what he will later become. Consequently, Eytinge shows him studying a script-size book which is not likely the Anglican Book of Common Prayer but The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark which he ineptly brings to the London boards in chapter 31 under the unlikely stage-name "Waldengarver."
Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. Harper's Weekly: A Journal of Civilization. Il. John McLenan. Vol. IV. 1 December 1860: 765.
Dickens, Charles. ("Boz."). Great Expectations. With thirty-four illustrations from original designs by John McLenan. Philadelphia: T. B. Peterson (by agreement with Harper & Bros., New York), 1861.
Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1867.
Last modified 2 October 2011