"Looking over too, I saw, lying on the towing-path, with her face turned up toward us, a woman." — wood engraving from "Some Recollections of Mortality," chapter 19 in The Uncommercial Traveller by Charles S. Reinhart (1844-1896). 10.3 cm high by 13.3 cm wide (half-page, horizontally mounted, 79). The wood-engraving illustrates a scene on the same page of text. [Click on image to enlarge it.]

Passage Realised

Pacing presently round the garden of the Tower of St. Jacques de la Boucherie, and presently again in front of the Hotel de Ville [Paris], I called to mind a certain desolate open-air Morgue that I happened to light upon in London, one day in the hard winter of 1861, and which seemed as strange to me, at the time of seeing it, as if I had found it in China. Towards that hour of a winter's afternoon when the lamp-lighters are beginning to light the lamps in the streets a little before they are wanted, because the darkness thickens fast and soon, I was walking in from the country on the northern side of the Regent's Park — hard frozen and deserted — when I saw an empty Hansom cab drive up to the lodge at Gloucester-gate, and the driver with great agitation call to the man there: who quickly reached a long pole from a tree, and, deftly collared by the driver, jumped to the step of his little seat, and so the Hansom rattled out at the gate, galloping over the iron-bound road. I followed running, though not so fast but that when I came to the right-hand Canal Bridge, near the cross-path to Chalk Farm, the Hansom was stationary, the horse was smoking hot, the long pole was idle on the ground, and the driver and the park-keeper were looking over the bridge parapet. Looking over too, I saw, lying on the towing-path with her face turned up towards us, a woman, dead a day or two, and under thirty, as I guessed, poorly dressed in black. The feet were lightly crossed at the ankles, and the dark hair, all pushed back from the face, as though that had been the last action of her desperate hands, streamed over the ground. Dabbled all about her, was the water and the broken ice that had dropped from her dress, and had splashed as she was got out. The policeman who had just got her out, and the passing costermonger who had helped him, were standing near the body; the latter with that stare at it which I have likened to being at a waxwork exhibition without a catalogue; the former, looking over his stock, with professional stiffness and coolness, in the direction in which the bearers he had sent for were expected. So dreadfully forlorn, so dreadfully sad, so dreadfully mysterious, this spectacle of our dear sister here departed! A barge came up, breaking the floating ice and the silence, and a woman steered it. The man with the horse that towed it, cared so little for the body, that the stumbling hoofs had been among the hair, and the tow-rope had caught and turned the head, before our cry of horror took him to the bridle. At which sound the steering woman looked up at us on the bridge, with contempt unutterable, and then looking down at the body with a similar expression — as if it were made in another likeness from herself, had been informed with other passions, had been lost by other chances, had had another nature dragged down to perdition — steered a spurning streak of mud at it, and passed on. [79]

Commentary

Suicide, and particularly death of jumping off a bridge in either London or Paris, was commonly associated with prostitutes in the middle-class consciousness. Certainly Reinhart's illustration from Dickens's 16 May 1863 All the Year Round essay of the subject of morgues and inquests only touches upon the subject of female suicide, so that one must accept the American Household Edition illustrator's image as sensationalising the chapter. in contrast, Edward Dalziel in the British Household Edition chooses a more conventional and pious subject, the confession of a young female servant before a coroner's inquest. The question of a woman throwing herself into the river out of sheer desperation comes up several times in Dickens's fiction, notably with Meggy Veck in The Chimes (1844) — realised at the very beginning of the Fourth Quarter by Richard Doyle's "Margaret and Her Child" — and with Martha Endell's contemplating precisely just such a means of self destruction in Chapter 47 of David Copperfield (August 1850). In "The River" Phiz provides a powerful image of a young woman's standing on the brink of self-destruction, while the respectable, male recorders of the scene, Mr. Peggotty and David, look on, horrified and transfixed, but immobilised. Fred Barnard transforms this scene into a contrite plea for forgiveness in "Oh, the river!" she cried passionately. "Oh, the river!" for the Household Edition of the novel. Clearly the subject of female suicide by drowning was a subject of considerable interest to Victorian readers over three decades, as reflected the voyeuristic appeal of the Paris Morgue for Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens.

The destruction of a child (the subject of the Coroner's inquest here) is a significant part of the plot of Great Expectations (1861), in that Jaggers has let it be supposed in his defense of Molly that the child perished at her mother's hand. The plot gambit of the Fallen Woman's drowning herself lies behind the scene which the Uncommercial Traveller comes upon at Gloucester-Gate, London, beside the Regent's Park canal, as realized by C. S. Reinhart. Edward Dalziel, on the other hand, has chosen a safer and more conventional subject, a servant-girl's confession of concealing a birth, rather than the original charge of infanticide, in "Then dropped upon her knees before us, with protestations that we were right". Whereas Dickens's persona does rush to judgment about the desperate circumstances that have culminated in the thirty-year-old woman's watery death, he exudes sympathy for the servant-girl, whom he persuades his fellow jurors to exonerate with respect to the greater charge. She is, after all, a grieving mother and a "respectable" servant, whereas the other woman is likely a prostitute unworthy of the middle class observer's sympathy.

The setting, suggested by the barge and towline, is the Cumberland arm of the Regent's Park canal near Gloucester Gate, a waterway constructed during the Napoleonic wars for military purposes,but afterward adapted to commerce. Having lived at No. 1 Devonshire Terrace nearby from late 1839 through 1843, Dickens would have been familiar with the spot. Unfortunately, one cannot walk into this picture as no trace today remains of the canal south of Gloucester Gate bridge. Reinhart's composition is stark in its simplicity, offering no details of the physical setting and foregrounding the body of the comely young woman who seems almost alive, for certainly in Reinhart's depiction the corpse has suffered no signs of decomposition, and, in fact, the young man seems to be reaching up at the phlegmatic figure of the costermonger standing above her. Reinhart has dispensed with the policeman and the hansom cab to focus the reader's attention on the male figure contemplating the corpse and the statuesque corpse itself.

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 5 March 2013