The Ghostly Passengers in the Ghost of a Mail
Phiz (Hablot K. Browne)
Dickens's Pickwick Papers
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Tricorn hats, rapiers, big cuffs, powdered wigs, and a damsel in distress entering a coach: these are the properties of historical romance, a genre at which Dickens and Phiz are poking fun in the September 1837 instalment of The Pickwick Papers. In the illustration accompanying the short story "The Tale of The Bagman's Uncle," Phiz realizes a scene from another of the novel's whimsical inset tales of the supernatural (the most celebrated being the Christmas ghost story "The Goblins who Stole a Sexton," narrated by Wardle at Dingley Dell) as the protagonist, Jack Martin ("The Bagman's Uncle") is carried back to eighteenth-century Edinburgh. Released from the Fleet Prison and now back at the Bush Inn, Bristol, Mr. Pickwick and Sam enter the travellers' room and encounter the one-eyed bagman, who offers to entertain the host (none other than Moses Pickwick himself) and his guests with a story his uncle had told him. The narrator is Tom Smart, whom Pickwick and the reader met much earlier, when he told "The Bagman's Story" in chapter 14. However, this story's protagonist is his uncle, Jack Martin, who, like the sexton Gabriel Grub, has had too much to drink when the main part of the action occurs. After a well-lubricated party in the old town of Edinburgh, he climbs into a compound containing derelict coaches and falls asleep in one, whereupon he finds himself listed as a passenger on an eighteenth-century mail coach about to depart for London. After the moment realised in the illustration, the gallant Jack heroically rescues the young lady from the machinations of the villainous son of the Marquess of Filletovile — the young aristocrat in the powdered wig who despite his fashionable exterior and delicate gesture grips her wrist cruelly in Phiz's illustration.
"'This,' said the guard, pointing to an old-fashioned Edinburgh and London mail, which had the steps down and the door open. 'Stop! Here are the other passengers. Let them get in first.'
"As the guard spoke, there all at once appeared, right in front of my uncle, a young gentleman in a powdered wig, and a sky-blue coat trimmed with silver, made very full and broad in the skirts, which were lined with buckram. Tiggin and Welps were in the printed calico and waistcoat piece line, gentlemen, so my uncle knew all the materials at once. He wore knee breeches, and a kind of leggings rolled up over his silk stockings, and shoes with buckles; he had ruffles at his wrists, a three-cornered hat on his head, and a long taper sword by his side. The flaps of his waist- coat came half-way down his thighs, and the ends of his cravat reached to his waist. He stalked gravely to the coach door, pulled off his hat, and held it above his head at arm's length, cocking his little finger in the air at the same time, as some affected people do, when they take a cup of tea. Then he drew his feet together, and made a low, grave bow, and then put out his left hand. My uncle was just going to step forward, and shake it heartily, when he perceived that these attentions were directed, not towards him, but to a young lady who just then appeared at the foot of the steps, attired in an old-fashioned green velvet dress with a long waist and stomacher. She had no bonnet on her head, gentlemen, which was muffled in a black silk hood, but she looked round for an instant as she prepared to get into the coach, and such a beautiful face as she disclosed, my uncle had never seen — not even in a picture. She got into the coach, holding up her dress with one hand; and as my uncle always said with a round oath, when he told the story, he wouldn't have believed it possible that legs and feet could have been brought to such a state of perfection unless he had seen them with his own eyes. [chapter 49, p. 426-427]
Through his deliberate exaggeration of the weaponry Phiz implies that the reader should take this second "tall tale" by Tom Smart with a grain of salt. That Dickens has set the majority of the inset tale in Edinburgh, that the romantic situation is an eighteenth-century "costume piece," and that Dickens's first-person narrator pokes fun at Scottish names ("a Baillie Mac something and four syllables after it, who lived in the old town of Edinburgh"  in the Canongate) suggests that the story is a lampoon of the romances of Sir Walter Scott, the best-selling fiction writer of the Romantic era whose artistic success (but not his penurious death) young Charles Dickens hoped to emulate. Phiz's Jack Martin (right) scratches his forehead in disbelief; the henchman's gigantic blade (which in the text he is "wearing" — presumably carrying the weapon in a scabbard, but which the illustrator has thought fit to emphasize as an obvious signifier of danger to the protagonist by having the burly henchman carry it out of its scabbard) serves to separate the red-nosed dreamer from his dream-vision.
A curious connection to the book's other dream-vision, that of Gabriel Grub in "The Goblin and the Sexton" in the January 1837 number, is the lantern standing centre in the foreground, suggesting a night-time setting for each illustration (in the September 1837 instalment, the blunderbuss-wielding guard is carrying such a lantern). That this is a dream Phiz suggests by rendering the six secondary characters — on the top of the coach, on another carriage (right rear), and including the trumpeter — in unshaded outlines, as if they are phantoms or delusions.
Cohen, Jane Rabb. Charles Dickens and His Original Illustrators. Columbus: Ohio State U. P., 1980.
Davis, Paul. Charles Dickens A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Work. New York: Facts On File and Checkmark Books, 1998.
Dickens, Charles. Pickwick Papers (1836-37). Il. Hablot Knight Browne. The Charles Dickens Edition. Boston: Ticknor & Fields, 1867.
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.
Last modified 7 January 2012