The Break Down
Phiz (Hablot K. Browne)
Dickens's Pickwick Papers
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When Wardle and Pickwick miss Rachael Wardle and Jingle at dinner they think little of it — until one of the servants announces that Jingle has hired a chaise from the Blue Boor and run off with the spinster aunt. All through the long night, despite various setbacks, Wardle and Pickwick gain on Jingle's carriage as they endeavour to prevent the elopement, both suspecting his motives are strictly pecuniary. Phiz, who had proved himself a good hand at a horse ever since he executed the prize-winning "John Gilpin's Ride," has realised the scene most effectively, foregrounding the temporarily confounded pursuers, the post-boys, and their overturned chaise while framing Jingle's equipage on the horizon with the gnarled tree's branches, which reach out ineffectually towards the malefactor in emulation of Pickwick and Wardle. The latter is, in fact, not by Pickwick's side at all in Phiz's illustration, but shakes his fist at the departing Jingle while Pickwick extricates himself from the wreckage of the hired carriage. After the break-neck ride that has lasted all night, it seems as if Pickwick and Wardle will not be able to catch up with the runaway couple, and that Jingle will succeed in his plan of obtaining a marriage license in London. Thus, the picture of the floundering Pickwick and impotent Wardle in the foreground, and of Jingle fluttering his white handkerchief at then as he bids them give his "love to Tuppy," is not just of the breakdown of a coach, but of poetic justice, too, for villainy has apparently triumphed over virtue.
The horses in the first chaise started on at their utmost speed; and those in Mr. Wardle's galloped furiously behind them.
"I see his head," exclaimed the choleric old man; "damme, I see his head."
"So do I," said Mr. Pickwick; "that's he.' Mr. Pickwick was not mistaken. The countenance of Mr. Jingle, completely coated with mud thrown up by the wheels, was plainly discernible at the window of his chaise; and the motion of his arm, which was waving violently towards the postillions, denoted that he was encouraging them to increased exertion.
The interest was intense. Fields, trees, and hedges, seemed to rush past them with the velocity of a whirlwind, so rapid was the pace at which they tore along. They were close by the side of the first chaise. Jingle's voice could be plainly heard, even above the din of the wheels, urging on the boys. Old Mr. Wardle foamed with rage and excitement. He roared out scoundrels and villains by the dozen, clenched his fist and shook it expressively at the object of his indignation; but Mr. Jingle only answered with a contemptuous smile, and replied to his menaces by a shout of triumph, as his horses, answering the increased application of whip and spur, broke into a faster gallop, and left the pursuers behind.
Mr. Pickwick had just drawn in his head, and Mr. Wardle, exhausted with shouting, had done the same, when a tremendous jolt threw them forward against the front of the vehicle. There was a sudden bump — a loud crash — away rolled a wheel, and over went the chaise.
After a very few seconds of bewilderment and confusion, in which nothing but the plunging of horses, and breaking of glass could be made out, Mr. Pickwick felt himself violently pulled out from among the ruins of the chaise; and as soon as he had gained his feet, extricated his head from the skirts of his greatcoat, which materially impeded the usefulness of his spectacles, the full disaster of the case met his view.
Old Mr. Wardle without a hat, and his clothes torn in several places, stood by his side, and the fragments of the chaise lay scattered at their feet. The post-boys, who had succeeded in cutting the traces, were standing, disfigured with mud and disordered by hard riding, by the horses' heads. About a hundred yards in advance was the other chaise, which had pulled up on hearing the crash. The postillions, each with a broad grin convulsing his countenance, were viewing the adverse party from their saddles, and Mr. Jingle was contemplating the wreck from the coach window, with evident satisfaction. The day was just breaking, and the whole scene was rendered perfectly visible by the grey light of the morning. [chapter 9]
Michael Steig, the most appreciative critic of Phiz's early work, notes that the twenty-year-old graphic artist quickly departed from the strictly comic and rather awkward figure that veteran illustrator Robert Seymour bequeathed him and began to develop Pickwick as a protagonist, plucky and resilient in the face of adversity:
Pickwick was portrayed, both in text and etchings, as essentially a lovable fool, but Phiz's first commission was for two designs depicting events that for the first time involve Pickwick in incidents that require him to take morally responsible actions: Jingle's elopement with Rachael, in "The Breakdown" (ch. 9), and Jingle's encounter with the force of morality (as embodied in Mr. Wardle and Pickwick) and of the law (in Perker) in "First appearance of Mr. Samuel Weller" (ch. 10; captions given here for the Pickwick illustrations are those added in the 1838 edition, for which these two etchings plus ten others were etched anew with fundamental changes.). The first of this pair of etchings depicts the failure of passionate, resentful action, as it shows Pickwick temporarily fallen by the way (quite literally) and taunted by the triumphant rogue Jingle, while the second depicts the impending victory of rational action, as the pursuers, now strengthened by the assistance of Perker the solicitor, are on the point of discovering the designs of their adversary. [Chapter Two, "The Beginnings of " Phiz": Pickwick, Nickleby, and the Emergence from Caricature," 25; complete text of Steig]
Compare Phiz's use of the gnarled tree here as an extension of the pursuers to his use of a very similar tree in "The Goblin and the Sexton" (plate), where the tree (right) seems to menace the hapless grave-digger, its writhing branches repeating the muscular arms and pointed toes of the Goblin.
Cohen, Jane Rabb. Charles Dickens and His Original Illustrators. Columbus: Ohio State U. P., 1980.
Hammerton, J. A. The Dickens Picture-Book. London: Educational Book Co., 1910.
Steig, Michael. Dickens and Phiz. Bloomington & London: Indiana U.P., 1978. Pp. 51-85.
Dickens, Charles. "Pickwick Papers (1836-37). London: Chapman & Hall.
Last modified 22 January 2012