"Vision of the Rag Shop: 'What do you call this?' said Joe." by Charles Green (p. 114). 1912. 11.1 x 14.1 cm, framed. Dickens's A Christmas Carol, Pears Centenary Edition, in which the plates often have captions that are different from the titles in the "List of Illustrations" (p. 15-16). Specifically, "Vision of the Rag Shop" has a caption that is quite different from that title, given in the "List of Illustrations"; the abbreviated textual quotation that serves as the caption for this second illustration for "Stave Four" is "'What do you call this?' said Joe" (based on p. 113, at the very top of the page preceding the illustration). Although John Leech has provided no equivalent illustration in "Stave Four, The Last of the Three Spirits" in the 1843 first edition of the novella, in later editions, a few illustrators have included such a scene that contemporary film adaptations have exploited for its ghoulish atmosphere. Notably Sol Eytinge, Junior in the 1868 Ticknor and Fields edition, Old Joe's and Fred Barnard in the 1878 British Household Edition illustration, "What do you call this?" said Joe. "Bed-curtains?", focus on the moment when Scrooge's cleaning lady, laundress, and the undertaker's man enact Scrooge's capitalistic ethos. Visually, these "rag-and-bone shop" scenes are an extension of the poverty and deprivation evident in the well-known Ignorance and Want Leech wood-engraving at the close of the fourth stave.

Passage Illustrated

They left the busy scene, and went into an obscure part of the town, where Scrooge had never penetrated before, although he recognised its situation, and its bad repute. The ways were foul and narrow; the shops and houses wretched; the people half-naked, drunken, slipshod, ugly. Alleys and archways, like so many cesspools, disgorged their offenses of smell, and dirt, and life, upon the straggling streets; and the whole quarter reeked with crime, with filth, and misery.

Far in this den of infamous resort, there was a low-browed, beetling shop, below a pent-house roof, where iron, old rags, bottles, bones, and greasy offal, were bought. Upon the floor within, were piled up heaps of rusty keys, nails, chains, hinges, files, scales, weights, and refuse iron of all kinds. Secrets that few would like to scrutinise were bred and hidden in mountains of unseemly rags, masses of corrupted fat, and sepulchres of bones. Sitting in among the wares he dealt in, by a charcoal stove, made of old bricks, was a grey-haired rascal, nearly seventy years of age; who had screened himself from the cold air without, by a frowsy curtaining of miscellaneous tatters, hung upon a line; and smoked his pipe in all the luxury of calm retirement.

Scrooge and the Phantom came into the presence of this man, just as a woman with a heavy bundle slunk into the shop. But she had scarcely entered, when another woman, similarly laden, came in too; and she was closely followed by a man in faded black, who was no less startled by the sight of them, than they had been upon the recognition of each other. After a short period of blank astonishment, in which the old man with the pipe had joined them, they all three burst into a laugh.

"Let the charwoman alone to be the first!" cried she who had entered first. "Let the laundress alone to be the second; and let the undertaker's man alone to be the third. Look here, old Joe, here's a chance. If we haven't all three met here without meaning it!"

"You couldn't have met in a better place," said old Joe, removing his pipe from his mouth. "Come into the parlour. You were made free of it long ago, you know; and the other two an't strangers. Stop till I shut the door of the shop. Ah! How it skreeks! There an't such a rusty bit of metal in the place as its own hinges, I believe; and I'm sure there's no such old bones here, as mine. Ha, ha! We're all suitable to our calling, we're well matched. Come into the parlour. Come into the parlour."

The parlour was the space behind the screen of rags. The old man raked the fire together with an old stair-rod, and having trimmed his smoky lamp (for it was night), with the stem of his pipe, put it in his mouth again.

While he did this, the woman who had already spoken threw her bundle on the floor, and sat down in a flaunting manner on a stool; crossing her elbows on her knees, and looking with a bold defiance at the other two.

"What odds then. What odds, Mrs. Dilber?" said the woman. "Every person has a right to take care of themselves. He always did."

"That's true, indeed," said the laundress. "No man more so."

"Why then, don't stand staring as if you was afraid, woman; who's the wiser? We're not going to pick holes in each other's coats, I suppose?"

"No, indeed," said Mrs. Dilber and the man together. "We should hope not."

"Very well, then!" cried the woman. "That's enough. Who's the worse for the loss of a few things like these? Not a dead man, I suppose."

"No, indeed," said Mrs. Dilber, laughing.

"If he wanted to keep them after he was dead, a wicked old screw," pursued the woman, "why wasn't he natural in his lifetime? If he had been, he'd have had somebody to look after him when he was struck with Death, instead of lying gasping out his last there, alone by himself."

"It's the truest word that ever was spoke," said Mrs. Dilber. "It's a judgment on him."

"I wish it was a little heavier judgment," replied the woman; "and it should have been, you may depend upon it, if I could have laid my hands on anything else. Open that bundle, old Joe, and let me know the value of it. Speak out plain. I'm not afraid to be the first, nor afraid for them to see it. We know pretty well that we were helping ourselves, before we met here, I believe. It's no sin. Open the bundle, Joe."

But the gallantry of her friends would not allow of this; and the man in faded black, mounting the breach first, produced his plunder. It was not extensive. A seal or two, a pencil-case, a pair of sleeve-buttons, and a brooch of no great value, were all. They were severally examined and appraised by old Joe, who chalked the sums he was disposed to give for each upon the wall, and added them up into a total when he found there was nothing more to come.

"That's your account," said Joe, "and I wouldn't give another sixpence, if I was to be boiled for not doing it. Who's next?"

Mrs. Dilber was next. Sheets and towels, a little wearing apparel, two old-fashioned silver teaspoons, a pair of sugar-tongs, and a few boots. Her account was stated on the wall in the same manner.

"I always give too much to ladies. It's a weakness of mine, and that's the way I ruin myself," said old Joe. "That's your account. If you asked me for another penny, and made it an open question, I'd repent of being so liberal and knock off half-a-crown."

"And now undo my bundle, Joe," said the first woman.

Joe went down on his knees for the greater convenience of opening it, and having unfastened a great many knots, dragged out a large and heavy roll of some dark stuff.

"What do you call this?" said Joe. "Bed-curtains?"

"Ah!" returned the woman, laughing and leaning forward on her crossed arms. "Bed-curtains."

"You don't mean to say you took them down, rings and all, with him lying there?" said Joe.

"Yes I do," replied the woman. "Why not?"

"You were born to make your fortune," said Joe," and you'll certainly do it. ["Stave Four: The Last of the Three Spirits," pages 109-113]

Commentary: "Another Overheard Conversation"

A world away from the London Exchange, the textual backdrop for the previous illustration, but in reality not so many city blocks away in a district such as Limehouse, Shoreditch, or the Seven Dials (the settings for the London underworld in Oliver Twist), another group of capitalists gather for a discussion of Scrooge's death and for another business transaction (converting Scrooge's belongings to ready cash), enacting the ethos of the capitalistic system as a shocked and disgusted Scrooge looks on. Two decades ahead of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species, the quartet exemplify "Survival of the Fittest." In the urban jungle, the jackals gather to despoil the corpse.

Charles Dickens undoubtedly concurred with John Leech that, for the original edition, the image of Scrooge's overhearing the dialogue of his cleaning-lady and laundress at the marine store shop was a less significant scene than that in which Scrooge encounters his own grave, The Last of the Spirits. Again, as at the Exchange, readers strongly suspect that the dead man is Scrooge (after all, how many other single men did the laundress and the char lady work for?), but Scrooge again does not recognise who the dead man thus despoiled must be.

Green's approach is somewhat different from that of the close-up of Sol Eytinge, Junior in the 1868 edition published in Boston and the character studies of Fred Barnard in the British Household Edition of 1878. Rather, Green casts the scene as a dark plate in the manner of Hablot Knight Browne in Dombey and Son and Bleak House. The darkness here is both the intensifying mystery for Scrooge and the bleakness of his fate — the darkness of the grave. The only figure whom Green distinguishes is the proprietor of the shop, Old Joe himself, in cloth cap and second-hand great-coat (right), his face highlighted by the kerosene lamp on the table. The faces of the laundress and char lady stand out in the darkness, but the undertaker's man is barely visible. Thus, Green's approach is far different when one compares his interpretation of the scene to Fred Barnard's, which was surely Green's inspiration and immediate source. There is a general absence of the tendency towards hideous caricatures of Eytinge or the genial camaraderie of Barnard's human vultures. Whereas Barnard shows not only each of the characters clearly but also the scrap metal on the floor of the shop, Green embues the place with a sense of mystery; moreover, the darkness of the lithograph drives the reader back to Dickens's text after attempting to discern objects in the background — a curtain or blanket on a line dividing the front of the shop from the "parlour" and the scrap-metal on the floor (left) as Old Joe, pipe in his mouth, coolly appraises the curtains. In none of these plates does one see Scrooge or his spirit guide, so one naturally assumes that the reader is seeing what they are seeing, and hearing in the text what they are hearing.

Relevant Illustrations from the 1868 Ticknor & Fields and the 1878 British Household Editions

Left: Sol Eytinge, Junior's interpretation of the scene in which Scrooge's service-providers discuss his death — and pawn his belongings, Old Joe's. Right: Sol Eytinge's headpiece for the fourth stave, Death's Dominion. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

Above: Fred Barnard's interpretation of the group who served Scrooge in life now profiting from his death, "What do you call this?" said Joe. "Bed-curtains?" [Click on image to enlarge it.]

Scanned image and text 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.]


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Created 26 August 2015