"'I ask your pardon,' said the stranger,'But do I see in there any small article of property belonging to me?'" — wood engraving from "Chambers," chapter 14 in The Uncommercial Traveller by Charles S. Reinhart (1844-1896). 10.3 cm high by 13.3 cm wide (full-page, horizontally mounted, 59). The wood-engraving illustrates a scene on the following page (60). [Click on image to enlarge it.]

The essay roves freely through the various dilapidated, old buildings that house the chambers of London's various Inns of Court. Dickens's intimate knowledge of the subject goes back as far as December 1834, when he occupied 13 and subsequently 15, Furnival's Inn, which he eventually gave up in March 1837 after marriage. As the article makes clear, the chambers occupied by attorneys in Dickens's day were to found in the four medieval Inns of Court: the and Middle Temple, Lincoln's Inn and Gray's Inn, well as the "lesser " inns of the court of Chancery (Furnival's, Lyon's, Clement's, Barnard's, the New, and the (all of which Dickens derides as "the shabby crew" towards the close of the essay). Although Dickens as a young husband had had to give up his chambers and move to the roomier quarters of the row house at 48 Doughty Street, he maintained a lifelong connection with such bachelor quarters through his agent and ultimately his biographer, John Forster, who had chambers at Lincoln's Inn, Dickens having registered as a law student at the Middle Temple in 1839.

In "Chambers," having described life at Gray's Inn, Dickens sets the scene of Mr. Testator's confrontation with the supposed owner of the borrowed furniture at Lyon's Inn. After some two or three years of using the furniture, Mr. Testator has come to regard these salvaged pieces as his own — until late one evening a mysterious stranger arrives at his door to claim them. In both Reinhart's and Dalziel's realizations, Mr. Testator has opened the door, candle in hand, and the stranger, umbrella in hand, has wasted no time in claiming his property. Mr. Testator is startled and embarrassed, but offers both an explanation (doubtless related to his desperate need for a writing desk, the first piece of furniture he borrowed from the vaults below), and a suitable restitution. In this proposition, however, he is cut off in mid-sentiment as his visitor, smelling of gin already, suggests they share a drink.

In what Poe might humorously have dubbed "The Strange Case of the Purloined Furniture," Dickens's narrator asserts that he has personal knowledge of the "Testator," who is at the time of the telling of this urban myth already dead. According to the narrative, the protagonist was "not more than thirty" at the time, and was perhaps thirty-two or thirty-three on the night of the confrontation. Thus, one might reasonably expect the two men to be wearing Regency rather than Victorian dress. "Mr. Testator" is likely a scrivener, and therefore ought to be garbed as a professional. In these respects, neither Reinhart's nor Dalziel's version is absolutely faithful to the text, for neither "Mr. Testator" is young. However, in both we note the obvious presence of furniture. Reinhart more so than Dalziel captures the genial if peculiar nature of the visitor effectively as the putative furniture-owner stretches out his sodden umbrella in order to dry it. In contrast, Dalziel's visitor does not make himself at home by removing his hat and outer garment, and does not divest himself of the umbrella. In contrast to the lively figure of Reinhart's illustration, the stranger is torpid and utterly expressionless in "'Drop of something to drink,' interposed the stranger. 'I am agreeable'" (p. 71).

Whereas Dalziel provides a physical set worthy of Ionesco's "The New Tenant," C. S. Reinhart has included merely part of a couch (right) and a chest-of-drawers (left), omitting the crucial table full of spirit bottles. Indeed, Dalziel's room is so crammed with furniture that the two figures are forced into the vacant and narrow foreground. Dalziel's plate, despite the candle and the desk-lamp, is dark, full of menacing shadows not entirely consonant with the amusing nature of the anecdote, and hardly reflective of the humourous manner of the telling. Reinhart, on the other hand, gives us a convivial, even charming stranger whose casual self-confidence contrasts the apprehensive manner (communicated through posture and facial expression) of Mr. Testator. Whereas Dalziel has focussed on atmosphere and setting by delineating the furnishing and casting all into an atmospheric chiaroscuro, Reinhart focuses on the two figures.

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 photographer and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.]

References

Dickens, Charles. The Uncommercial Traveller, Hard Times, and The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Il. Charles Stanley Reinhart and Luke Fildes. The Household Edition. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1876.

Dickens, Charles. The Uncommercial Traveller. Il. Edward Dalziel. The Household Edition. London: Chapman and Hall, 1877.

Hartnoll, Phyllis, ed. The Concise Oxford Companion to the Theatre. Oxford and New York: Oxford U. P., 1972.

Scenes and Characters from the Works of Charles Dickens; being eight hundred and sixty-six drawings, by Fred Barnard, Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz); J. Mahoney; Charles Green; A. B. Frost; Gordon Thomson; J. McL. Ralston; H. French; E. G. Dalziel; F. A. Fraser, and Sir Luke Fildes; printed from the original woodblocks engraved for "The Household Edition." New York: Chapman and Hall, 1908. Copy in the Robarts Library, University of Toronto.

Slater, Michael, and John Drew, eds. Dickens' Journalism: 'The Uncommercial Traveller' and Other Papers 1859-70. The Dent Uniform Edition of Dickens' Journalism, vol. 4. London: J. M. Dent, 2000.


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Last modified 1 March 2013