The Warden's Room
Phiz (Hablot K. Browne)
Dickens's Pickwick Papers
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Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham.
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With no room as yet assigned to him in the Fleet Prison and as yet unaware that he is at liberty to rent superior quarters and furniture, Samuel Pickwick spends his first night as a prisoner in the Warden's room. The carousing of three inmates awakens him the next morning. Striking a nautical pose, centre, is the jocular Mivins, whom his fellow-inmates have dubbed "The Zephyr" on account of his ability to dance the hornpipe. His bearded companion, Smangle, is sitting at the foot of Pickwick's bed. In the bed next to Pickwick's a unnamed drunk applauds Mivins's dancing and warbles a comic song as Smangle encourages The Zephyr to execute further Terpsichorean feats. Fortunately for Pickwick, after daring to challenge Smangle in order to secure his nightcap (which lean, be-whiskered man is about to snatch), he escapes this merry company before learning much more about this merry gang of debauchees. The scene illustrated the morning after Pickwick's induction into the Fleet is this, the "voice" being Smangle's:
"Bravo! Heel over toe — cut and shuffle — pay away at it, Zephyr! I'm smothered if the opera house isn't your proper hemisphere. Keep it up! Hooray!" These expressions, delivered in a most boisterous tone, and accompanied with loud peals of laughter, roused Mr. Pickwick from one of those sound slumbers which, lasting in reality some half-hour, seem to the sleeper to have been protracted for three weeks or a month.
The voice had no sooner ceased than the room was shaken with such violence that the windows rattled in their frames, and the bedsteads trembled again. Mr. Pickwick started up, and remained for some minutes fixed in mute astonishment at the scene before him.
On the floor of the room, a man in a broad-skirted green coat, with corduroy knee-smalls and grey cotton stockings, was performing the most popular steps of a hornpipe, with a slang and burlesque caricature of grace and lightness, which, combined with the very appropriate character of his costume, was inexpressibly absurd. Another man, evidently very drunk, who had probably been tumbled into bed by his companions, was sitting up between the sheets, warbling as much as he could recollect of a comic song, with the most intensely sentimental feeling and expression; while a third, seated on one of the bedsteads, was applauding both performers with the air of a profound connoisseur, and encouraging them by such ebullitions of feeling as had already roused Mr. Pickwick from his sleep. [chapter 41]
At the upper right appear the "Rules" of the prison (perhaps real enough, but an interpolation devised by Phiz to comment upon the prevailing anarchy of the place) hanging in tatters, obviously disregarded, as the prisoners make a virtue of their incarceration by drinking at all hours. Perhaps the inmates surrender to the oblivion of alcohol to escape their squalid and unwholesome conditions, but to Pickwick — and to Dickens's readers who are unacquainted with such dismal holes as justice has erected for the defense of property — their slatternly lifestyle is utterly incomprehensible. In Phiz's illustration, Pickwick, hardly crediting his senses, holds his head, the only normative character in the picture. Already, despite the earliness of the hour, one of the inmates is smoking a cigar; shortly, he and his companions will attempt to persuade Pickwick to refresh their drinks and purchase more cigars, alcohol and nicotine being the drugs of choice in this ring of Purgatory.
[Click on image for additional commentary about Hogarth's plate.]
Thus, Phiz's image of prison life combines the hopelessness of Dickens's description and the debauchery of Hogarth's The Rake's Progress, Scene Seven, "Tom Rakewell in Prison," as the inmates attempt to turn morning into night. Pickwick, then, stands for the normal observances of civilised society and the normal passage of time, including sleeping at night (as his nightcap signifies), while those who have abandoned any hope of release into the normal world beyond the Fleet's walls have given themselves over to a bacchanal existence outside the constraints of real time, and wear the same clothing day in and day out, without respect to season or hour. An apparent invention of the illustrator, the man with an extreme headache on the bed to the left symbolises the despair to which many in the Fleet abandon themselves. As Steig notes,
In both "The Warden's Room" (ch. 41) and "Discovery of Jingle in the Fleet" (image) Pickwick expresses astonishment and perplexity. But in the former it is a reaction to the seeming anarchy of the situation and his own helplessness as a victim of his roommates' riotousness (an unused version, showing even more riotous behaviour, is in the Pierpont Morgan Library, and reproduced in the Victoria Edition of Pickwick, 2 vols. (London: Chapman and Hall, 1887), 2: 201.); the "Rules of the Fleet" posted upon the wall (and nowhere mentioned in the text) seem an ironic comment upon the lack of order — and yet the actual rules of custom allow Pickwick to buy his way into a private room, for even here his money can prevent physical suffering. [Steig 36]
Cohen, Jane Rabb. Charles Dickens and His Original Illustrators. Columbus: Ohio State U. P., 1980.
Guiliano, Edward, and Philip Collins, eds. The Annotated Dickens. Vol. 1. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1986.
Hammerton, J. A. The Dickens Picture-Book. London: Educational Book Co., 1910.
Steig, Michael. Dickens and Phiz. Bloomington & London: Indiana U.P., 1978.
Dickens, Charles. "Pickwick Papers (1836-37). London: Chapman & Hall.
Last modified 17 December 2011