Old Cheeseman's only Friend
13.5 x 9 cm vignetted
Dickens's Christmas Stories, Vol. 16 of the Charles Dickens Library Edition, facing page 20.
In Another Round of Stories by the Christmas Fire, Dickens repeated his seasonal strategy from the previous year in his weekly journal Household Words by establishing the familial framed tales with the first and last of nine separate tales, "The Schoolboy's Story" and "Nobody's Story." His co-authors were Eliza Lynn ("The Old Lady's Story"), George Augustus Sala [Commentary continued below.]
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He had only one friend in the world, and that one was almost as powerless as he was, for it was only Jane. Jane was a sort of wardrobe woman to our fellows, and took care of the boxes. She had come at first, I believe, as a kind of apprentice — some of our fellows say from a Charity, but I don't know — and after her time was out, had stopped at so much a year. So little a year, perhaps I ought to say, for it is far more likely. However, she had put some pounds in the Savings' Bank, and she was a very nice young woman. She was not quite pretty; but she had a very frank, honest, bright face, and all our fellows were fond of her. She was uncommonly neat and cheerful, and uncommonly comfortable and kind. And if anything was the matter with a fellow's mother, he always went and showed the letter to Jane.
Jane was Old Cheeseman's friend. The more the Society went against him, the more Jane stood by him. She used to give him a good- humoured look out of her still-room window, sometimes, that seemed to set him up for the day. She used to pass out of the orchard and the kitchen garden (always kept locked, I believe you!) through the playground, when she might have gone the other way, only to give a turn of her head, as much as to say "Keep up your spirits!" to Old Cheeseman. ["The Schoolboy's Story," p. 18-19]
("Over the way's Story"), Mary Berwick (the pseudonym for Adelaide Anne Procter, who contributed "The Angel's Story"), Elizabeth Gaskell ("The Squire's Story" and "The Scholar's Story"), E. S. Dixon and W. H. Wills ("Uncle George's Story"), and Samuel Sidney ("The Colonel's Story"). Admittedly, the term "familial" does not entirely cover the relationships between the tale-tellers, but in most modern reprintings only the Dickens contributions appear, so that today's reader has little sense of the original rhetorical context anyway.
In the autumn of 1850, the enormously popular writer of fiction and successful journalist Charles Dickens, the "Conductor" of Household Words, had hit upon the labour-saving stratagem of creating a frame for his seasonal offering which other staff writers such as novelist Elizabeth Gaskell would help him fill. Such was the case with the second iteration of A Round of Stories by the Christmas Fire (1852). The strategy was beginning to wear a bit thin, however, and in the 1854 extra-Christmas Number Dickens provided clearer identities and a sharper rhetorical context for his tale-tellers in The Seven Poor Travellers, to which Dickens again contributed the opening and closing pieces.
Significantly, those social realists E. A. Abbey and E. G. Dalziel, illustrators of the Household Edition in America and England,did not elect to include a scene from this sentimental "schoolboy reminiscence" piece in their limited number of illustrations for Christmas Stories, so that Furniss had little in the way of models to consider, other than Fred Walker's thoughtful study of the solitary, bookish Cheesman, reading in the playground when the rest of the boys have gone home for the holidays, The Schoolboy's Story, from the 1868 Library Edition. As a sign of his difference, Walker has given Old Cheeseman a cap, but he is in other respects no different from the healthier specimens of English schoolboy standing on the wall. Whereas in Walker's study Cheeseman is still a boy at school, in Furniss's interpretation he is now a poorly paid Latin master — but still very much a social isolate.
Whereas the story by a schoolboy much Old Cheeseman's junior is primarily about the "peer relationships" between the former student, "Old Cheeseman," and the boys in the senior class who grossly and unfairly misjudge him, and even send his only friend, the seamstress Jane, to "Coventry," Furniss's illustration implies that the focus of the boy-narrated tale is the romance between Cheeseman and Jane, a relationship which in fact develops, as it were, "offstage." The illustration is constructed around three zones: the gate in the wall (left), the large tree (centre, suggestive of the orchard mentioned by the narrator), and the playground, right, in which Cheeseman, the Latin scholar, leans against the wall, in the shade, reading, oblivious to the taunts and jibes of the boys behind him. As is consistent with the text, Jane is a plain but observant young woman — however, Furniss, unlike Dickens, makes her the largest single figure and therefore the focus of the scene, and does not indicate the kitchen garden. Although he does not show the couple exchanging meaningful glances, Furniss extends the text in that his Jane ("not quite pretty; but she had a very frank, honest, bright face") clearly comprehends Cheeseman's social isolation. Her unadorned mode of dress in the engraving suggests her relative poverty and neatness, but neither her unflagging good humour nor the other sterling qualities which would make the boys love her. Curiously, Furniss adopts the perspective of an observer who is not one of the boys on the playground, thereby shifting the point of view from first person, minor character, to dramatic or objective.
Davis, Paul. Charles Dickens, A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Work. New York: Facts On File, 1998.
Dickens, Charles. Christmas Stories. Il. Harry Furniss. Charles Dickens Library Edition. 18 vols. London: Educational Book Company, 1910. Vol. 16.
Dickens, Charles. Christmas Stories from "Household Words" and "All The Year Round". Centenary Edition. 36 vols. London: Chapman and Hall; New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1911.
Dickens, Charles. Christmas Stories. Il. Edward Dalziel, Harry French, F. A. Fraser, James Mahoney, Townley Green, and Charles Green. The Oxford Illustrated Dickens. Oxford, New York, and Toronto: Oxford U.P., 1956, rpt. 1989.
Dickens, Charles. Christmas Stories. Il. E. A. Abbey. The Household Edition. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1876.
Dickens, Charles. Christmas Stories from "Household Words" and "All the Year Round". Il. E. G. Dalziel. The Household Edition. London: Chapman and Hall, 1877. Rpt., 1892.
Schlicke, Paul, ed. "Christmas Stories." The Oxford Companion to Dickens. Oxford and New York: Oxford U. P., 1999. Pp. 100-101.
Thomas, Deborah A. Dickens and The Short Story. Philadelphia: U. Pennsylvania Press, 1982.
Last modified 24 August 2013