Perched on the stool, with his hat cocked on his head, and one of his legs dangling, the youth of Fledgeby hardly contrasted to advantage with the age of the Jewish man as he stood with his bare head bowed (p. 119) — the caption in the Chapman and Hall Household Edition text is the same as that in the New York Harper and Brothers volume, although the American edition does not employ quotation marks. The scene is the main room of Fledgeby's shop, Pubsey & Co., in Saint Mary Axe. Fledgeby, having just been bullied and intimidated by Alfred Lammle into taking a romantic interest in Georgiana Podsnap, Fledgeby, inheritor of a money-lending enterprise, now subjects his employee, the devout Jew, Riah, to antisemitic sarcasm and ridicule. Originally in Part 7 (November 1864), the scene is the basis for James Mahoney's twentieth illustration for Dickens's Our Mutual Friend, Household Edition, 1875. Wood engraving by the Dalziels, 9.1 cm high x 13.3 cm wide.

Passage Realised

Fledgeby knocked and rang, and Fledgeby rang and knocked, but no one came. Fledgeby crossed the narrow street and looked up at the house-windows, but nobody looked down at Fledgeby. He got out of temper, crossed the narrow street again, and pulled the housebell as if it were the house's nose, and he were taking a hint from his late experience. His ear at the keyhole seemed then, at last, to give him assurance that something stirred within. His eye at the keyhole seemed to confirm his ear, for he angrily pulled the house's nose again, and pulled and pulled and continued to pull, until a human nose appeared in the dark doorway.

"Now you sir!" cried Fledgeby. "These are nice games!"

He addressed an old Jewish man in an ancient coat, long of skirt, and wide of pocket. A venerable man, bald and shining at the top of his head, and with long grey hair flowing down at its sides and mingling with his beard. A man who with a graceful Eastern action of homage bent his head, and stretched out his hands with the palms downward, as if to deprecate the wrath of a superior.

"What have you been up to?" said Fledgeby, storming at him.

"Generous Christian master," urged the Jewish man, "it being holiday, I looked for no one."

"Holiday he blowed!" said Fledgeby, entering. "What have you got to do with holidays? Shut the door."

With his former action the old man obeyed. In the entry hung his rusty large-brimmed low-crowned hat, as long out of date as his coat; in the corner near it stood his staff — no walking-stick but a veritable staff. Fledgeby turned into the counting-house, perched himself on a business stool, and cocked his hat. There were light boxes on shelves in the counting-house, and strings of mock beads hanging up. There were samples of cheap clocks, and samples of cheap vases of flowers. Foreign toys, all.

Perched on the stool with his hat cocked on his head and one of his legs dangling, the youth of Fledgeby hardly contrasted to advantage with the age of the Jewish man as he stood with his bare head bowed, and his eyes (which he only raised in speaking) on the ground. His clothing was worn down to the rusty hue of the hat in the entry, but though he looked shabby he did not look mean. Now, Fledgeby, though not shabby, did look mean.

"You have not told me what you were up to, you sir," said Fledgeby, scratching his head with the brim of his hat.

"Sir, I was breathing the air."

"In the cellar, that you didn't hear?"

"On the house-top."

"Upon my soul! That's a way of doing business."

"Sir," the old man represented with a grave and patient air, "there must be two parties to the transaction of business, and the holiday has left me alone."

"Ah! Can't be buyer and seller too. That's what the Jews say; ain't it?"

"At least we say truly, if we say so," answered the old man with a smile.

"Your people need speak the truth sometimes, for they lie enough," remarked Fascination Fledgeby.

"Sir, there is," returned the old man with quiet emphasis, "too much untruth among all denominations of men." — Book Two, "Birds of a Feather," Chapter 5, "Mercury Prompting," p. 118.

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.]


The woodcut for Book Two, "Birds of a Feather," Chapter Five, "Mercury Prompting," introduces Fascination Fledgeby in a very different light, for the callow, beardless junior member of the upper-middle-class social circle ruled by the Veneerings and Podsnaps, leads a double life as the ruthless owner of a money-lending establishment, Pubsey and Co. His associate, the pious Jew Riah, Morse has described as "too gentle to be a believable human being" (1976), and it is now generally acknowledged that Riah is in part Dickens's apology for the perceived antisemitism in the character of the criminal mastermind Fagin in Oliver Twist nearly thirty years earlier. While residing in Italy in 1844, Dickens had made considerable revisions to the early novel, consistently replacing "the Jew" with "Fagin," but the damage had been done, and Dickens realised something more was necessary. However, in "Eastern" garb, Riah strikes us as more of a Jewish fairy-godfather than an authentic, multi-dimensional character. Moreover, as Goldie Morgentaler has pointed out, the name "Riah" is no more Jewish than the name "Fagin," although at least his first name ("Aaron") has Judaic roots. "In part, Riah was Dickens's response to Mrs. Eliza Davis's objection to the anti-Semitic stereotyping in the portrayal of Fagin" (Davis, 338).

The setting of the Mahoney plate, the countinghouse owned in fact by the gambler and wastrel "Fascination" Fledgeby but ostensibly by the "exotic" Jew, Aaron Riah, is as significant as the characters whom Mahoney has positioned in the room, the true director of the firm enthroned, the apparent owner standing, making a gesture of supplication. Although Our Mutual Friend is about commerce, in it Dickens makes very few direct references to companies (as opposed to businesses such as Harmon's or Pottersons), other than Veneering's and Podsnap's. Fledgeby's spuriously named "Pubsey and Co." is not a corporation or limited company at all, although its name implies a founder (Pubsey) and partners; because the owner of this money-lending establishment is apparently a Jew, nobody bothers to interrogate the name or ownership of the firm. Remarks Riah in Book Two, Chapter 5, to his "Christian" employer that nobody believes him a mere poor employee:

Were I to say "This little fancy business is not mine;" with a lithe sweep of his easily-turning hand around him, to comprehend the various objects on the shelves; "it is the little business of a Christian young gentleman who places me, his servant, in trust and charge here, and to whom I am accountable for every single bead," they would laugh. When, in the larger money-business, I tell the borrowers —"

"I say, old chap!' interposed Fledgeby, 'I hope you mind what you do tell 'em?"

"Sir, I tell them no more than I am about to repeat. When I tell them, "I cannot promise this, I cannot answer for the other, I must see my principal, I have not the money, I am a poor man and it does not rest with me," they are so unbelieving and so impatient, that they sometimes curse me in Jehovah's name."

"That's deuced good, that is!" said Fascination Fledgeby. [119]

According to Phoebe Poon, as a mercurial businessman (Mercury being the patron deity of thieves as well as merchants) Fledgeby has put a believable — indeed, a highly likely — face on his company: Riah's. Yet he speaks of the owners of the business as "they," implying a corporate board of shareholders (seven or more were required by the Companies Act of 1862 if the company could be regarded as an "incorporated" entity and its owners privileged to limited liability).

The illustrations involving Riah, Fledgeby, and the shop all show "strings of mock beads hanging up" (left) and "samples of cheap clocks, and samples of cheap vases of flowers" (rear). These wares are spurious, of course, since the real business of Pubsey & Co. is money-lending at extortionate rates of interest to people such as the Lammles. Exactly as Dickens has described him, Fledgeby has cocked his silk-hat to one side, and has mounted an accountant's stool. A supercilious look on his face, the young "Christian" businessman addresses Riah disrespectfully, but Riah, his pose exactly as Dickens describes him, does not respond to his employer's sarcasm. In Mahoney's illustration we do not see Riah's broad-brimmed hat hanging on the wall, but we have many of the elements seen in Sol Eytinge, Jr.'s Fledgeby and Riah, notably the clocks and other properties described in the text; however, Mahoney also includes an accountant's desk, several filing-cabinets (behind Riah, left), and a wastepaper basket (centre rear).

Pertinent Illustrations in the original and Diamond Editions, 1864-1867

Left: Marcus Stone's second November 1864 illustration of Riah and Fledgeby entering the roof-garden of Pubsey and Co., where they find Lizzie Hexam and Jenny Wren, The Garden on the Roof. Right: American Sol Eytinge, Junior's dual character study of the duplicitous Fledgeby and his front man, Riah, Fledgeby and Riah (1867). [Click on ​images to enlarge them.]

Above: Marcus Stone's October 1865 illustration of the appealing child-adult Jenny Wren​,​ the dolls' dressmaker​,​ and Riah, the benevolent Jew, confirming that Riah is a decent person fronting for the owner of Pubsey & Co., Saint Mary Axe, Miss Wren fixes her Idea. [Click on the image to enlarge it.]


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Last modified 9 December 2015