t mid-century the novels of Elizabeth Gaskell and Charles Kingsley made their audiences aware of the lives of the poor, and their advocacy of a new relationship between the classes unsettled reviewers. The foremost writer to force such awareness of the poor upon the Victorian middle and upper class audience was Dickens, whose Christmas Carol (1843) ran in strict parallel with the moral polemics of Richard Doyle, John Leech, and R. J. Hamerton. Indeed, Dickens’s presentation of the sufferings of the poor extends throughout his fictions, and in conveying his messages he was greatly assisted by his illustrators. George Cruikshank, Hablôt Knight Browne (Phiz), Leech, Doyle and Marcus Stone all provide an iconography of degradation to accompany the author’s journalistic writing of the sheer filth and ugliness of the urban experience as it was lived by the vast and degraded proletariat of the middle of the century. This emphasis is struck in the dual text enshrined in Oliver Twist (1837–38). The author’s approach is exemplified by the passage describing Oliver’s trip to one of Sowerby’s customers:

They walked on, for some time, through the most crowded and densely inhabited part of the town; and then, striking down a narrow street more dirty and miserable than any they had yet passed through, paused to look for the house which was the object of their search. The houses on either side were high and large, but very old, and tenanted by people of the poorest class: as their neglected appearance would have sufficiently denoted, without the concurrent testimony afforded by the squalid looks of the few men and women who, with folded arms and bodies half doubled, occasionally skulked along. A great many of the tenements had shop-fronts; but these were fast closed, and mouldering away; only the upper rooms being inhabited. Some houses which had become insecure from age and decay, were prevented from falling into the street, by huge beams of wood reared against the walls, and firmly planted in the road; but even these crazy dens seemed to have been selected as the nightly haunts of some houseless wretches, for many of the rough boards which supplied the place of door and window, were wrenched from their positions, to afford an aperture wide enough for the passage of a human body. The kennel was stagnant and filthy. The very rats, which here and there lay putrefying in its rottenness, were hideous with famine. [1: 80–81]

Dickens’s description is congested with the language of decay, a matter of physical rottenness suggesting the environment’s material collapse into ‘mouldering … age and decay’ while suggesting the moral and spiritual rottenness created by living in ‘stagnant … filthy … putrefying’ poverty. The fusion of the physical and psychological implies causes and effects which are brought together in deadly interaction, and Dickens’s message, that physical decay is the correlate of poverty, each feeding the other, is underscored by Cruikshank’s illustrations.

Two of Cruikshan’s illustrations for Oliver Twist: Oliver introduced to the respectable Old Gentleman and Oliver’s Reception by Fagin and the Boys. Click on images to enlarge them.

Throughout the Oliver Twist series, Cruikshank frames the characters in filth: Fagin and the gang occupy a claustrophobic space of worn-out furniture and crumbling walls, notably in Oliver Introduced to the Respectable Old Gentleman and Oliver’s Reception by Fagin and the Boys. The settings seem on the point of physical collapse, and the most hard-hitting image is perhaps the moment when Bill is shown on the roof-top inThe Last Chance. Dickens describes this place as a desolate hell, of dereliction to match the moral rottenness of Bill’s degraded character:

In Jacob’s Island, the warehouses are roofless and empty; the walls are crumbling down; the windows are windows no more; the doors are falling into the streets; the chimneys are blackened, but they yield no smoke. Thirty or forty years ago, before losses and chancery suits came upon it, it was a thriving place; but now it is a desolate island indeed. The houses have no owners; they are broken open, and entered upon by those who have the courage; and there they live, and there they die. They must have powerful motives for a secret residence, or be reduced to a destitute condition indeed, who seek a refuge in Jacob’s Island. [3: 241]

These fetid details are matched by Cruikshank’s depiction of the rickety setting, figured as a combination of blackened chimneys standing up like broken fingers, sagging roofs and rotten brickwork. Described by Dickens as a place of physical decay, Cruikshank projects it as an emblematic sign of debilitating poverty and inertia where the destitution of the buildings images the ‘destitute condition’ of the paupers who squat in the ruins and are shown in this design peering through the windows at Bill’s last stand.

Cruikshank’s visual texture, in part journalistic and in part an expressionistic exaggeration of hard realities, powerfully supports the author’s mingling of criminality and the rottenness of the cityscape. The London that emerges from the interaction of the two texts is indeed a den of iniquity, where the travails of the poor are grotesque and disturbing. Their lifestyle demands attention, and Dickens and Cruikshank make a powerful appeal to the reader/viewer’s compassion while asserting the need to control criminality.

Dickens’s collaborations with Doyle and Leech create parallel effects, although both artists emphasise their characters’ poverty by stressing the raggedness of their clothes and physical decay. These telling details are partly derived from their texts, building on Dickens’s visualizations of privation. The author provides careful specifications for Leech, his collaborator at work on A Christmas Carol (1843). His description of Ignorance and Want is both journalistic and emotive:

They were a boy and girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. [119]

Leech exactly recreates the author’s fusion of youth and age: Ignorance is imaged as a child with adult features and Want as cadaverous, the visual re-inscription of the ‘meagre’ and ‘stale’ condition of dotage. But Leech intensifies Dickens’s grotesqueness by including details absent from the text, focusing especially on their clothes, which are no longer even in the shape of garments but hang loosely from their bodies as if they were cobbled together from offcuts. Want’s costume is especially suggestive of degradation, being wrapped around the child’s shoulders as if it were a blanket; looking more like a shroud than a garment, it underscores Dickens’s implication that the children are not just old in terms of their suffering but are practically the living dead, ‘pinched’ and ‘shrivelled’ bodies so poor and degraded that they belong in the grave, a ‘surplus population’, to use Scrooge’s own terms, of no value. Leech’s design crystallizes these messages in a single, overpowering image imagined from Scrooge’s perspective, immersing the reader in a visceral crisis of understanding. The horror of ugly bodies becomes the means to focus on the effects of poverty, Gothic at the service of social observation.

Doyle, though best known for his satires of middle-class life in Manners and Customs of Ye English (1849) and Bird’s Eye Views of Society (1864), is equally hard-hitting in his representation of Trotty Veck in The Chimes (1844), showing his character in terms which echo the imagery of Britannia’s Thanksgiving Day Dream (1843). Doyle shows the character at his lowest ebb in Trotty among the Bells; dressed in rags, on hands and knees, he is the emblematic embodiment of the ruined people of the streets.

Trotty Veck among the Bells. Richard Doyle. 1844. Polly Rescues the Charitable Grinder. Phiz. 1846.

Phiz’s contribution to the representation of poverty is less direct; he does not represent the physical extremes illustrated by Doyle and Leech but focuses on other aspects of Dickens’s writing of the ‘problem’. One emphasis is on Dickens’s urban settings and communal spaces. The artist illustrates the teeming life of the streets in Dombey and Son (1847–8). In Polly Rescues the Charitable Grinder he shows Biler surrounded by the dynamic disorder of street-urchins mocking his incongruous costume, and in Coming Home from Church the newly-married Dombeys are framed by various lower-class characters. Our Pew at Church for David Copperfield likewise combines middle and working class characters who though segregated are engaged in the same communal worship.

Two illustrations by Phiz: Coming home from Church in Dombey and Son (1846). Right: Our Pew at Church in David Copperfield,

Our Pew at Church. Phiz. 1846.

These illustrations enhance Dickens’s writing of city-life by giving them material form, but more important is the artist’s focus on the author’s treatment of social problems. Phiz embodies Dickens’s urging of the acceptance of the poor by showing how the strata of society are linked, figuring the poor not as the alien Other – as they appear in the Punch cartoons – but as people whose lives constantly intermingle with those of the middle-classes. This is of course Dickens’s social model, connecting the characters in Dombey and Son, Bleak House, Great Expectations and Our Mutual Friend, and Phiz visualizes this notion by taking every opportunity to juxtapose the social orders – sometimes following textual directions and (more characteristically) adding figures of his own. Phiz works to enhance Dickens’s emphasis on the homogeneity of Victorian society, arguing for compassion and acceptance of the lower orders by stressing their proximity and familiarity as people who only differ from their bourgeois counterparts by virtue of the accident of circumstance. He sometimes emphasises the narrowness of the line between the social classes. Dickens explores some absolute polarities – with Joe the crossing-sweeper existing in the same universe as Tulkinghorn and the Dedlocks (Bleak House) – but many of his characters live on the delicate cusp of poverty and economic respectability, and it is this territory that Phiz visualizes in great detail. In his illustrations, as in Dickens’s written text, the implication is clear: no middle-class reader should treat the poor with contempt because s/he may be only a small step away from the same degradation.

Dickens’s classic formulation is Mr Micawber in David Copperfield, the impecunious idler whose situation is emblematic of the perilous lifestyle of those with only a foothold in the middle-classes. Dickens presents Micawber’s delusional expectations in the form of his many pronouncements about poverty and the notion that ‘something will turn up’, but Phiz reinforces the hard reality of the situation by inscribing the character’s shabby-gentility in the details of his clothes and accommodation; his decayed hat, especially, is a small but telling sign.

Phiz also reinforces Dickens’s insistence on the dignity of the working classes and the poor. The notion of valuing is clearly expressed in the visual arrangement of the opening pages of Bleak House, with the Dedlocks’ Chesney Wold figured as the pictorial frontispiece and Joe the crossing-sweeper positioned on the title page. The top and bottom of society are juxtaposed in a diptych, insisting not only on their contrast, but ultimately on their equivalence of value: the Dedlocks may be Joe’s social superior, but it is the apparently insignificant child who symbolically occupies the more important space, indicating to the reader his pre-eminence. Joe himself is shown not as a pathetic creature but as laconic and self-aware, with crossed legs, leaning on a post; though dressed in rags, he is (at this stage at least) in control of his environment.

The Visit to the Brick-makers in Bleak House.

This focus highlights Dickens’s writing of the poor as characters rather than types, and Phiz develops this idea in his illustration of The Visit to the Brick-makers in Bleak House. The scene ostensibly presents the family’s degradation, living in a ‘wretched hovel’.

there were in this damp, offensive room a woman with a black eye, nursing a poor little gasping baby by the fire; a man, all stained with clay and mud and looking very dissipated, lying at full length on the ground, smoking a pipe; a powerful young man fastening a collar on a dog; and a bold girl doing some kind of washing in very dirty water. They all looked up at us as we came in, and the woman seemed to turn her face towards the fire as if to hide her bruised eye; nobody gave us any welcome. [75]

These details are reproduced in the illustration, which gives a convincing view of an overcrowded room and its lower-class characters. However, the main emphasis is on the Pardiggle’s undermining of the working family’s dignity as they impose their patronising charity, inspecting their inferiors as objects of pity. The brick-maker powerfully asserts his rejection of their paternalism, insisting

‘I wants it done, and over. I wants a end of these liberties took with my place. I wants an end of being drawed like a badger. Now you’re a-going to poll-pry and question according to custom – I know what you're a-going to be up to. Well! You haven’t got no occasion to be up to it. I’ll save you the trouble. Is my daughter a-washin? Yes, she IS a-washin. Look at the water. Smell it! That’s wot we drinks. How do you like it, and what do you think of gin instead! An’t my place dirty? Yes, it is dirty – it's nat’rally dirty, and it’s nat'rally onwholesome; and we've had five dirty and onwholesome children, as is all dead infants, and so much the better for them, and for us besides. Have I read the little book wot you left? No, I an’t read the little book wot you left. There an’t nobody here as knows how to read it; and if there wos, it wouldn't be suitable to me. It's a book fit for a babby, and I’m not a babby. If you was to leave me a doll, I shouldn’t nuss it. How have I been conducting of myself? Why, I’ve been drunk for three days; and I’da been drunk four if I’da had the money. Don’t I never mean for to go to church? No, I don't never mean for to go to church. I shouldn't be expected there, if I did; the beadle’s too gen-teel for me. And how did my wife get that black eye? Why, I give it her; and if she says I didn’t, she's a lie!’ [75–76]

The brick-maker’s description of how his family lives reveals their terrible circumstances, but Dickens insists on his dignity: ‘I’m not a babby.’. The character refuses to accept his objectification as a ‘problem’ but asserts the need to deal with his class as if it were made up of adults, not children or patients, and Phiz makes this position clear in his design. In his treatment, the family members are entirely self-contained in their activities, not even turning around to return the Pardiggles’ voyeuristic gaze, while the brick-maker glares at their self-consciously sympathetic looking. Phiz perfectly captures his defiant look as he stretches through the composition’s middle-ground, physically asserting his right to exist in a world where charity counts for very little and may be demeaning rather than helpful, increasing rather than narrowing the distance between classes.

Often read purely as an expression of Dickens’s representation of the need for compassion, this scene also satirizes the attitude of the middle-classes for whom the poor can only be a impersonal interest. Yet in all of Dickens’s texts and Phiz’s designs the suffering of the poor can only be addressed by engaging with its people.

Social Commentary and Victorian Illustration: The Representation of Working Class Life, 1837–1880

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Created 27 April 2019