Mr. Pecksniff on his Mission

Mr. Pecksniff on his Mission

Phiz (Halbot K. Browne)

August 1843

Etching

"." —Chapter 19

Dickens's Martin Chuzzlewit

Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham.

[This image may be used without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose.]

In his initial appearance, the arch hypocrite Seth Pecksniff is the butt of a joke as the wind off the Salisbury Plain makes sport of him, leaving him grovelling in the dark at the foot of his own steps. Here, in Phiz's sixteenth plate, Pecksniff is once again the subject of situation comedy, as the company assembled outside Mrs. Gamp's residence mistakenly believes that the stranger has come by cab to avail himself of her services as a midwife. Like a good comedian, Phiz did not spoil the joke by making the mistake of rendering Pecksniff as a gross caricature for the illustrator realised that Dickens's physical and verbal humour would be much more effective if Pecksniff were rendered "straight." To maximize our enjoyment of Pecksniff's frustration and embarrassment in this scene, Dickens and Phiz require that we see him as a predatory hypocrite and an agent of the greedy Jonas.

As the novel had developed month by month, Browne had become more and more resourceful at bringing out the humour of Dickens's prose, here, for example, setting the respectably clad bourgeois in the midst of a Hogarthian street scene in which a host of working-class women harangue and revile the professional man and street urchins deride him. And with nobody who matters to observe him, Pecksniff lets slip his pious mask to reveal discomfiture at being generally mistaken for an expectant husband.

From the denizens of Holborn Pecksniff receives the verbal equivalent of the close shave advertised in Poll Sweedlepipe's shop window, to which a female hand points as Pecksniff attempts to locate the source of Mrs. Gamp's voice above. Very much the dictatorial patriarch in his own home, Pecksniff looks distinctly uncomfortable as he is surrounded by toddlers, children, and a dozen women in a constricted space, hemmed in like the canary in the cage immediately above the absent bird-fancier's window.

Since the etching so convincingly captures the teeming, female life of the London street, it might be instructive to determine which details provided by Dickens Phiz has elected to omit. The moment illustrated is Pecksniff's applying himself to Sweedlepipe's ineffectual knocker:

At the very first double knock, every window in the street became alive with female heads; and before he could repeat the performance, whole troops of married ladies (some about to trouble Mrs. Gamp themselves, very shortly) came flocking round the steps; all crying out with one accord . . . . [Chapter 19, "The Reader is brought into Communication with some Professional Persons, and sheds a Tear over the Filial Piety of Good Mr. Jonas"]

Already in the illustration Mrs. Gamp (up right) seems to be crying, "I'm coming." However, instead of depicting a number of obviously pregnant women (images of advanced pregnancy then being deemed indecorous), Phiz has chosen merely to suggest the fecundity of the numerous women—four of whom are mere caricatures, but the remainder realistically described working-class women—by focusing in the foreground on a dozen children (rather than Dickens's "scores") who "hooted and defied Mr. Pecksniff quite savagely." Whereas in the letterpress, the children are not yet immediately evident and their mothers are still at their windows up and down the street as Pecksniff initially tries Poll Sweedlepipe's ineffectual knocker, Phiz has conflated several narrative moments into one to heighten the visual comedy. Only Mrs. Gamp is at her window, and Phiz has flooded the street with mothers and children. Nowhere in the scene is there a suggestion of the hackney cabriolet by which Pecksniff has arrived at Kingsgate Street, High Holborn. Also conspicuously missing although specified by Dickens is the cat's meat warehouse, uncomfortably close to the celebrated mutton-pie shop (which Phiz's sign terms a "depot").

Rhoda Flaxman in Victorian Word-Painting and Narrative (1987) explains that, in such instances, Dickens is anticipating a film technique, "for rendering kinetic action through the essentially frozen medium of verbal word-paintings . . . [as he] gradually accumulates increasingly dramatic details into itself in a quickly accelerating rhythm of repeated nouns, verbs, and prepositions" (30). The single-sentence commentary by the three neighbours is exchanged in Phiz's realisation for a single interlocutor leaning out the Dutch door beside the closed barber's door. After a paragraph delineating the mental postures of Pecksniff and Mrs. Gamp, she and he exchange a stichomythia-like series of questions and answers that contribute to the hilarity of the mistaken identity. In the static visual medium of the etching intended to face the printed page, Phiz cannot work in this dramatic (indeed, one might well say "cinematic") fashion. He can, however, conflate a number of moments into one.

Whereas Dickens builds the comedy of mistaken identity and intention layer by layer dynamically over the course of a few minutes as the "professional" Pecksniff is roundly denounced as a ghoul for introducing a corpse into a nursery, Phiz realizes these successive moments as a tableau, with Pecksniff standing forever at the barber's door, disconcerted and surrounded by the teeming life of the London street caught in a snapshot in contrast to his stasis.

Reference

Flaxman, Rhoda L. Victorian Word-Painting and Narrative: Toward the Blending of Genres. Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Research Press, 1987.