Betsey Prigg and Mrs. Gamp
14.7 cm high by 9.7 cm wide vignetted
Dickens's Martin Chuzzlewit, Vol. 7 of The Charles Dickens Library Edition, Chapter 49, "In which Mrs. Harris, assisted by a Teapot, is the cause of a Division between Friends," facing p. 801.
See below for the passage illustrated, commentary about the illustration, and work by other artists.
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Mrs Gamp resumed:
"Mrs. Harris, Betsey —"
"Bother Mrs. Harris!" said Betsey Prig.
Mrs. Gamp looked at her with amazement, incredulity, and indignation; when Mrs. Prig, shutting her eye still closer, and folding her arms still tighter, uttered these memorable and tremendous words:
"I don't believe there's no sich a person!"
After the utterance of which expressions, she leaned forward, and snapped her fingers once, twice, thrice; each time nearer to the face of Mrs. Gamp, and then rose to put on her bonnet, as one who felt that there was now a gulf between them, which nothing could ever bridge across.
The shock of this blow was so violent and sudden, that Mrs. Gamp sat staring at nothing with uplifted eyes, and her mouth open as if she were gasping for breath, until Betsey Prig had put on her bonnet and her shawl, and was gathering the latter about her throat. Then Mrs. Gamp rose — morally and physically rose — and denounced her.
"What!" said Mrs. Gamp, "you bage creetur, have I know'd Mrs. Harris five and thirty year, to be told at last that there ain't no sech a person livin'! Have I stood her friend in all her troubles, great and small, for it to come at last to sech a end as this, which her own sweet picter hanging up afore you all the time, to shame your Bragian words! But well you mayn't believe there's no sech a creetur, for she wouldn't demean herself to look at you, and often has she said, when I have made mention of your name, which, to my sinful sorrow, I have done, 'What, Sairey Gamp! debage yourself to her!' Go along with you!"
"I'm a-goin', ma'am, ain't I?" said Mrs Prig, stopping as she said it.
"You had better, ma'am," said Mrs. Gamp.
"Do you know who you're talking to, ma'am?" inquired her visitor.
"Aperiently," said Mrs. Gamp, surveying her with scorn from head to foot, "to Betsey Prig. Aperiently so. I know her. No one better. Go along with you!"
"And you was a-goin' to take me under you!" cried Mrs. Prig, surveying Mrs. Gamp from head to foot in her turn. "You was, was you? Oh, how kind! Why, deuce take your imperence," said Mrs. Prig, with a rapid change from banter to ferocity, "what do you mean?"
"Go along with you!" said Mrs. Gamp. "I blush for you." — Chapter 49, "In which Mrs. Harris, assisted by a Teapot, is the cause of a Division between Friends," pp. 779-780.
The comic narrative involving Mrs. Gamp's imaginary friend and confidant Mrs. Harris takes a sharp but inevitable turn as Betsey Prig, Sairey's fellow nurse, denounces the trusty supporter of all of Sairey's views as a mere figment of the Gampish imagination: "I don't believe there's no sich a person!" (although her use of the double negative undermines her assertion somewhat). Such betrayal by a long-term confederate in the practice of nursing (and of fleecing clients) is indeed worthy of artistic comment, so that one may find versions of this scene in the principal nineteenth-century illustrated editions.
In the Furniss narrative-pictorial sequence of twenty-eight lithographic translations of pen-and-ink drawings, we find Sairey Gamp present in just four (counting her significantly placed miniature in "Characters in the Story"); in Phiz's original forty steel-engravings, she fares no better proportionately, appearing in just five of the illustrations. She seems to have been something of an afterthought in Dickens's design since he introduced her as late as the eighth monthly number, and not significantly until the tenth monthly number in Mrs. Gamp Has Her Eye on the Future (Chapter 26, October 1843), just as Dickens was thinking of the servants and service-providers such as Mrs. Dilber in A Christmas Carol (1843). She reaches her apogee in the pair of illustrations involving her relationship with fellow-nurse Betsey Prig in the May-June 1844 numbers, Mrs. Gamp Makes Tea (Chapter 46) and Mrs. Gamp Propoges a Toast (Chapter 49), this last having been the basis for illustrations by both Fred Barnard in the Household Edition of 1872 and Harry Furniss in the Charles Dickens Library Edition of 1910. She is consistently depicted as a caricature rather than a character, although Furniss has taken pains to humanise the obese, androgynous figure borrowed from the Phiz engravings and particularly from Barnard's Then Mrs. Gamp rose — morally and physically rose — and denounced her (Chapter 49), in which the pair are no longer seated comfortably, as in the Phiz illustration, but each has risen to her feet in indignation at the behaviour of the other with respect to the fictive Mrs. Harris. In Barnard's expanded scheme of fifty-eight wood-block engravings she appears six times, excluding her portrait in Barnard's separate 1879 publication, Ten Characters from Dickens, the imperial Mrs. Gamp, on the Art of Nursing (based on Chapter 25, and used as a frontispiece in such cheap American reprints as the Dana Estes volume). In her introductory plate featuring the undertaker, Mr. Mould, and Mr. Pecksniff, "Well, Mrs. Gamp, how are you, Mrs. Gamp?" said this gentleman, in a voice as soft as his step (Chapter 19), the illustrator has been careful to work in every detail associated with her: the oversized bonnet, the shawl, the mourning dress of expansive proportions, the enormous handbag, and the umbrella with the large, hooked handle which gives her her surname.
Harry Furniss includes her just four times, although she is one of just four characters who merits an individual character study (Sairey Gamp, Chapter 22, based on the 1879 Barnard portrait). His version of the falling out between Betsey Prig and Sairey Gamp has greater depth of field and contrasting poses as Betsey turns her back, spurning the mere mention of Mrs. Harris, even as Sairey reaches over the teapot trying to get her attention. The only salient detail, apart from the sketched in bonnet and dress hanging up in the background (left), is the hatboxes (down right and upper right). His Sairey seems genuinely disturbed that Bestsey should pronounce such a heretical opinion of her beloved Mrs. Harris, her constant rhetorical prop and support, rather than indignant or angry, whereas the equivalent Barnard figure for the same moment has to support herself by holding onto the enormous chair and the small tea-table. Furniss clearly has greater sympathy for the distressed Sairey than Barnard.
Relevant Illustrations of the Incomparable Sairey, 1843-1924
Left: Hablot Knight Browne's realisation of the scene that begins amiably enough but ends badly in Chapter 49, Mrs. Gamp Propoges a Toast (June 1844). Centre: Harold Copping's 1924 colour lithograph of Betsey and Sairey sharing a convivial glass, in Sairey Gamp and Betsy Prig (Chapter 39, April 1843). Right: Clayton J. Clarke's characterisation of Sairey as endearing rather than professionally irresponsible and thoroughly addicted to gin, Sairey Gamp (1910). [Click on images to enlarge them.]
Above: Fred Barnard's realisation of the same scene in which Betsey Prig loses her temper when Sairey calls Mrs. Harris to her aid rhetorically once too often, Then Mrs. Gamp rose — morally and physically rose — and denounced her. (1872). [Click on the image to enlarge it.]
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Last modified 6 February 2016