10.5 x 7.5 cm vignetted
Initial illustration for The Cricket on the Hearth in Christmas Books, Charles Dickens Library Edition (1910), vol. 8, facing page 161.
In Dickens's third seasonal offering for the gift-book trade, Tilly Slowboy is a good-natured natural intended to supply what A Christmas Carol and The Chimes had lacked: character comedy. [Commentary continued below.]
[Click on image to enlarge it.]
Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham.
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It may be noted of Miss Slowboy, in spite of her rejecting the caution with some vivacity, that she had a rare and surprising talent for getting this baby into difficulties: and had several times imperilled its short life, in a quiet way peculiarly her own. She was of a spare and straight shape, this young lady, insomuch that her garments appeared to be in constant danger of sliding off those sharp pegs, her shoulders, on which they were loosely hung. Her costume was remarkable for the partial development, on all possible occasions, of some flannel vestment of a singular structure; also for affording glimpses, in the region of the back, of a corset, or pair of stays, in colour a dead-green. Being always in a state of gaping admiration at everything, and absorbed, besides, in the perpetual contemplation of her mistress's perfections and the baby's, Miss Slowboy, in her little errors of judgment, may be said to have done equal honour to her head and to her heart; and though these did less honour to the baby's head, which they were the occasional means of bringing into contact with deal doors, dressers, stair-rails, bedposts, and other foreign substances, still they were the honest results of Tilly Slowboy's constant astonishment at finding herself so kindly treated, and installed in such a comfortable home. For, the maternal and paternal Slowboy were alike unknown to Fame, and Tilly had been bred by public charity, a foundling; which word, though only differing from fondling by one vowel's length, is very different in meaning, and expresses quite another thing. ["Chirp the First," p. 168-169]
After writing the second Christmas Book, The Chimes in the autumn of 1844 in Genoa, Dickens seems to have become less apprehensive about Thomas Carlyle's prediction of an imminent social cataclysm or a Chartist revolution coming to pass. Certainly, in The Cricket there is no pervasive class exploitation and persecution of the working classes in the "adult fairy tale" of The Cricket on the Hearth, whose subtitle, A Fairy Tale of Home reveals that Dickens has reconceived the Christmas Books. Tackleton, the employer of Caleb and Bertha Plummer, may not conceal Scrooge's heart of gold beneath his frosty exterior, but he is singular, not part of a vicious conspiracy such as that by the cohort led by Alderman Cute and Sir Joseph Bowley in The Chimes. Melodrama of a domestic nature and character comedy (staples of the Victorian theatre during the 1840s) now replace social commentary in the text, and in the illustrations.
The foremost comic figure is the androgynous, whimsical nurse Tilly Slowboy, the awkward adolescent whom the Peerybingles have incorporated into their family. Neither of the previous Christmas Books has a comparable figure. The original illustrators, recognizing the comic potential of the gangly foundling, described her in a number of the wood-engravings dropped into the letterpress, and both of the Household Edition illustrators seem to have enjoyed depicting a clown of the type seen frequently in the domestic melodrama. As both E. A. Abbey and Fred Barnard realised, the comic foil is indispensable to the melodramatic "supposed adultery" plot embodied in the old stranger (Philip Plummer in disguise), the young wife, Dot, and the wronged husband, since the element of fantasy, so potent in the previous seasonal offerings, is almost an afterthought in the plot of The Cricket on the Hearth. Unlike the sufferings of the poor in the Carol and The Chimes, the putative adultery comes to nothing, and what the reader is left to contemplate is the dignity of the common man, John Perrybingle, and the value of having an emotionally supportive community. The supernatural agents, so instrumental in effecting the change of heart and change in perception of Scrooge and Trotty, have nothing to do with the conversion of the misanthrope in this text.
In the fourteen illustrations of the 1845 novella, Tilly Slowboy appears some four times, including by herself in "Tilly Slowboy" by John Leech in the middle of "Chirp the Second" and "The Dance", again by Leech, in which she is depicted prominently, dancing with Caleb Plummer. Leech had established her peculiar face and form, so that Abbey in "Tilly Slowboy and the 'Precious Darling'", frontispiece for The Cricket on the Hearth (1876) and Barnard in "Did its mothers make up its beds, then!" merely had to render her less cartoon-like and more realistic. By virtue of her prominence in both Household Edition volumes, Tilly is clearly an important character, despite the fact that she barely contributes anything to the main or the subplot, because she is a Dickensian "original."
Indeed, the comedy which Tilly and Caleb Plummer afford contributed mightily to The popularity of the stage adaptations, the most notable of which was Dion Boucicault's Dot, which premiered at New York City's Wintergarden Theatre on 14 September 1859, with comedian Mrs. John Wood as Tilly. The spectacular piece, with a large cast of fairies for the disclosure scene, crossed the Atlantic two years later to open at the Adelphi, London, debuting on 14 April 1862, with celebrated comic J. L. Toole as Caleb and Sarah Woolgar as Tilly. In the Dickens-sanctioned adaptation by Albert Smith at the Lyceum on 20 December 1845, Miss Turner played Tilly; however, in the rival production at the Adelphi, staged in a bill that featured a pantomime, the part was taken by funnyman Edward Wright, "whose features were lined with humour and whom [noted actor-manager William] Macready described as the best comedian he had ever seen" (Morley 19). The cross-dressing Wright subsequently took the famous "Dame" part of boozy nurse Sarah Gamp from Ben Webster's adaptation of Martin Chuzzewit entitled Mrs. Sarah Gamp's Tea and Turn Out at the Adelphi in October 1846. However, in the hundred and twenty-six stage adaptations listed by Bolton as preceding Furniss's depiction of Tilly, the character was usually enacted by a young woman. Certainly by the time of the Household Edition volumes in England and America, the eccentric, laughable Tilly had become a fast favourite with audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, and a centrepiece of subsequent illustrated versions of the novella.
Compared to these other Tillys, Furniss's is less unkempt and gangly, and her hair and dress are decidedly more disciplined. But, like the other illustrators, Furniss associates her with the rocking chair and the Peerybingle infant; indeed, these appurtenances define her role in the family and her identity. Whereas previous Tillys have been fixated on the Peerybingle infant, Furniss's looks apprehensively to the left, the entrance of an authority figure such as John or Dot. Unfortunately, in making her more plausible and less a "natural," Furniss has diminished her comic value considerably, leaving the creation of verbal and physical comedy entirely up to Dickens.
Images of Tilly in the Original and Household Editions
Left: John Leech's "John's Arrival" (1845); left of centre: Leech's "Tilly Slowboy"; right of centre: E. A. Abbey's "Trotty Slowboy and the 'Precious Darling'" (1876); right: Fred Barnard's "Did its mothers make up its beds, then? etc." (1878). [Click on images to enlarge them.]
Bolton, H. Philip. "The Cricket on the Hearth." Dickens Dramatized. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987. Pp. 273-295.
Cohen, Jane Rabb. Charles Dickens and His Original Illustrators. Columbus, Ohio: Ohio U. P., 1980.
Dickens, Charles. The Cricket on the Hearth. A Fairy Tale of Home. Il. John Leech, Richard Doyle, Daniel Maclise, Edwin Landseer, and Clarkson Stanfield. London: Bradbury and Evans, 1845 [dated 1846].
Dickens, Charles. The Christmas Books. Il. Harry Furniss. Charles Dickens Library Edition. 18 vols. London: Educational Book Co., 1910. Vol. 8.
Dickens, Charles. The Christmas Books. Il. Sol Eytinge, Jr. The Diamond Edition. 16 vols. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1867.
Dickens, Charles. Christmas Books. Il. Fred Barnard. The Household Edition. London: Chapman and Hall, 1878.
Dickens, Charles. Christmas Stories. Il. E. A. Abbey. The Household Edition. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1876.
Kurata, Marilyn J. "Fantasy and Realism: A Defense of The Chimes."Dickens Studies Annual 13 (1984): 19-34.
Morley, Malcolm. "'The Cricket' on the Stage."Dickensian 48 (1952): 17-24.
Solberg, Sarah A. "'Text Dropped into the Woodcuts': Dickens' Christmas Books." Dickens Studies Annual 8 (1980): 103-118.
Thomas, Deborah A. Dickens and The Short Story. Philadelphia: U. Pennsylvania Press, 1987.
Last modified 26 June 2013