Mr. Krook and His Cat
13 x 8.9 cm vignetted
Dickens's Bleak House, Vol. 11 of Charles Dickens Library Edition, for Chapter 5, "A Morning Adventure," facing p. 64.
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Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham.
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"You see, I have so many things here," he resumed, holding up the lantern, "of so many kinds, and all as the neighbours think (but they know nothing), wasting away and going to rack and ruin, that that's why they have given me and my place a christening. And I have so many old parchmentses and papers in my stock. And I have a liking for rust and must and cobwebs. And all's fish that comes to my net. And I can't abear to part with anything I once lay hold of (or so my neighbors think, but what do they know?) or to alter anything, or to have any sweeping, nor scouring, nor cleaning, nor repairing going on about me. That's the way I've got the ill name of Chancery. I don't mind. I go to see my noble and learned brother pretty well every day, when he sits in the Inn. He don't notice me, but I notice him. There's no great odds betwixt us. We both grub on in a muddle. Hi, Lady Jane!"
A large grey cat leaped from some neighboring shelf on his shoulder and startled us all. "Hi! Show 'em how you scratch. Hi! Tear, my lady!" said her master.
The cat leaped down and ripped at a bundle of rags with her tigerish claws, with a sound that it set my teeth on edge to hear. — Chapter 5, "A Morning Adventure," p. 52-53.
Commentary: Krook and his Recycling Establishment, 1856-1910
A number of nineteenth-century illustrators depicted the novel's eccentric rag-and-bone recycler who lets rooms to the demented Miss Flite and the opium addict "Nemo," the legal copyist who is in fact Lady Dedlock's lover and the father of Esther Summerson. The most flattering interpretation of Krook is that by Sir John Gilbert, and the most critical that by Furniss. Generously, Gilbert dramatizes Krook as a Prospero-like guide for the young, middle-class visitors to his cavernous emporium; his odd manner of dress, suggesting eighteenth-century male fashion, contrasts the contemporary, "respectable" upper-middle class fashions of his visitors. Like Hablot Knight Browne and Gilbert, Furniss suggests the chaotic nature of Krook's shop by the books, boots, and portmanteaus in the foreground. Whereas Krook appears just as Dickens describes him, "an old man in spectacles and a hairy cap . . . carrying about" (80) a lantern in the Phiz and Gilbert illustrations, Furniss focusses on his crooked figure without providing much background or any sense of whom Krook is directing as he glances nervously over his shoulder at us. His splayed fingers and angular legs support the interpretation that he is decidedly odd, if not insane, thereby supplementing Dickens's description:
he was short, cadaverous, and withered; with his head sideways between his shoulders, and the breath issuing in visible smoke from his mouth, as if he were on fire within. His throat, chin, and eyebrows were so frosted with white hairs, and so gnarled with veins and puckered skin, that he looked from his breast upward, like some old root in a fall of snow. 
Furniss regards Krook as not merely eccentric, but demented, his goggle eyes implying a manic or disturbed personality. On the other hand, Barnard shows him as a relatively normal person in slightly peculiar clothing as he narrates the story of the Jarndyce Chancery suit. In all of these visual interpretations, Krook is an extension of his shop, but Furniss focusses upon his figure and places the cat in a prominent position, on his shoulder, rather than in a less conspicuous position, as in the Barnard half-page illustration.
The Original Phiz and Other Illustrations of Krook
Left: Hablot Knight Browne's March 1852 engraving of the scene in Krook's depository, The Lord Chancellor Copies from Memory. Centre: Fred Barnard's 1873 wood-engraving of Krook in the doorway of his shop, Title-page Vignette. Right: John Gilbert's 1863 frontispiece of Krook leading his young visitors through his shop, A large grey cat leaped from some neighbouring shelf. [Click on the images to enlarge them.]
Above: Fred Barnard's 1873 composite woodblock engraving of the scene in Krook's shop in the fifth chapter, The Lord Chancellor relates the death of Tom Jarndyce, when Krook conducts Caddy, Esther, Ada, and Richard to the upper storey of his Rag and Bottle Warehouse. [Click on the image to enlarge it.]
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Last modified 17 November 2015