Stephen and Rachel in the Sick-Rooms

Walker's 1868 wood engraving appears opposite p. 47 in Dickens's Hard Times for These Times

In his initial scene within the pages of the text, "Stephen and Rachel [sic] in the Sick-room," Walker focuses upon the romantic triangle of the subplot (which is complemented by the Harthouse/Bounderby/Louisa triangle of the main plot). As Stephen watches, stupefied, from the foreground (from the viewer's perspective, so to speak) and Rachel momentarily doses beside the bed, the dipsomaniac's right hand stealthily reaches for the larger of the two bottles on the small table (repeating the table of the first plate) while her left grasps a mug. The working-class sick-room is depicted in stark contrast to the affluent factory-owner's dining-room, a corner of which appears in the first plate. Here, bare floorboards protrude from beneath the ragged-edged carpet. Standing on a small (possibly three-legged) table without a cloth at the bedside a single candle illuminates the humble cell, unadorned except for an indeterminate picture in the rear (in contrast to the patriarchal portrait in the first plate). Whereas Dickens tells us that "A candle faintly burned in the window" at the very opening of Ch. 13, Book One, here it blazes with sacramental intensity, creating a haloed effect by its reflection on the wall above Rachel's head. There is no basin, but in her hands Rachel holds the linen strip mentioned in the letter-press. We see neither the trimmed fire nor the swept hearth, extensions of Rachel' s benign influence and tidymindedness, but all is in good order. Rachel sits immediately by the bed, ready to minister to Mrs. Blackpool, as in the text screened by a curtain; this latter object, shown as part of a foreshortened canopy above the bed, Walker uses to tantalize and engage the viewer.

The precise moment captured is cued by the two bottles on the table, the strip of linen that the sleeping Rachel clutches, the moving hand. At the top of the page, Stephen rouses himself; at the bottom, Rachel has fallen into a dose, "wrapped in her shawl, perfectly still." Stephen notices the curtain slightly move as, on the page following, the hand steals forward. We have yet to see the creature in the bed and, held in suspense since the larger bottle for which she seems to be reaching contains poison, we visualise her from the clues Dickens has already provided: she is not in her right mind, is wounded in the neck, and bruised. We see her in our mind' s eye, but each of us completes her face and form differently, according to our individual conceptions of and experiences with the Fallen Woman.

Although Dickens develops the scene through Stephen's consciousness, here he seems a mere cipher; enclosed in darkness in Walker's plate, "as if a spell were on him, . . . motionless and powerless," Stephen's face and expression are revealed only in the accompanying letter-press. The picture's focal points are the dark bottle, the surreptitious hand, and the tranquil, mature beauty of Rachel's face, so like Louisa's in the former plate, despite their differences in class, education, and wealth. Walker leaves the defining of Mrs. Blackpool's image, softened by neither Christian name nor pet-name in the text, to the author himself, as the text describes the "haggard" aspect, the "woful [sic] eyes," the "debauched features," all evidence of "brutish instinct." The woman's "greedy hand" that has in the past sold out and betrayed the marriage vow for drug-money now stretches forth--but this time its owner is aware of the bottle and grasps "a mug." Thus, Walker has heightened the suspense in this chapter by conflating two moments (two reachings) into one.

Related Materials

Reference List

Dickens, Charles. Hard Times and Pictures from Italy. One vol. London: Chapman and Hall [1875?].

Hammerton, J. A. The Dickens Picture-Book. London: Educational Book [1910].


Victorian Web Victorian Book Illustration Frederick Walker Charles Dickens

Last modified March 12, 2002