Mr.Bumble and Mrs. Corney
12.5 x 8.8 cm framed
Second illustration for The Adventures of Oliver Twist, Centenary Edition (1912), facing p. 128.
Pears, like Dickens's original illustrator, George Cruikshank, and Harry Furniss after him, mocks the Mrs. Corney, Matron of the Workhouse, and Mr. Bumble, the pompous beadle. [Continued below]
[Click on illustration to enlarge it.]
Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham.
[You may use these images 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.]
"The tea was made, and handed in silence. Mr. Bumble, having spread a handkerchief over his knees to prevent the crumbs from sullying the splendour of his shorts, began to eat and drink; varying these amusements, occasionally, by fetching a deep sigh; which, however, had no injurious effect upon his appetite, but, on the contrary, rather seemed to facilitate his operations in the tea and toast department.
"You have a cat, ma'am, I see," said Mr. Bumble, glancing at one who, in the centre of her family, was basking before the fire; "and kittens, too, I declare!"
"I am so fond of them, Mr. Bumble, you can't think," replied the matron. "They're so happy, so frolicsome, and so cheerful, that they are quite companions for me."
"Very nice animals, ma'am," replied Mr. Bumble, approvingly; "so very domestic."
"Oh, yes!" rejoined the matron with enthusiasm; "so fond of their home too, that it's quite a pleasure, I'm sure."
"Mrs. Corney, ma'am," said Mr. Bumble, slowly, and marking the time with his teaspoon, "I mean to say this, ma'am; that any cat, or kitten, that could live with you, ma'am, and not be fond of its home, must be a ass, ma'am.
[Chapter 23, "Which contains the substance of a pleasant conversation between Mr. Bumble and a lady; and shews that even a beadle may be susceptible on some points," p. 128]
Dickens regards Mrs. Corney and Mr. Bumble as irresponsible public servants who exploit positions of trust for personal gain. For Dickens poetic justice is ultimately served by placing the couple ass inmates into the workhouse they had once administered. They are justly punished for attempting to suppress the truth of Oliver's birth by secreting the locket that belonged to his mother. If one may make a modest criticism of Pears' amiable, middle-aged couple it is simply that they are too amiable, too attractive, albeit somewhat self-centred, as well they ought to be as agents of the 1834 New Poor Law. Moreover, those readers accustomed to the detailism of Cruikshank and Phiz must have taken issue with the lack of context for the figures as the bare wall, ornamented only with striped wallpaper, contains no portraits, and the furnishings of the parlour, indications of Mrs. Corney's affluence, are minimalised.
Although George Cruikshank seventy-four years earlier took obvious delight in depicting the budding romance of the middle-aged parish beadle and the workhouse matron, having already depicted the self-satisfied humbug in Oliver Escapes Being Bound Apprentice to the Sweep (Part 2, March 1837), he does repeat the felicity. With an eye for the grotesque, Cruikshank must have found the notion of the courtship of Mrs. Corney by the arrogant, ridiculous Bumble irresistible, a scene which he echoed in the domestic romance of Charlotte and Noah Claypole, Mr. Claypole as he appeared when his master was out (Part 12, March 1838), in which Bumble plays a minor role, peering in at the window. Cruikshank in both instances undercuts the romance by the leering, smirking faces of the would-be lovers. The problem with Pears' reinterpretation is not with the properties, which are exactly as Dickens's text specifies — Pears has even positioned a bottle of port behind Bumble, on the chest of drawers. However, one does not receive the perspective of Mr. Bumble that Mrs. Corney is affluent, a good catch from a materialistic standpoint. Rather, Pears, with an eye for beauty, even in the middle-aged, makes her physically attractive and pleasant; clearly, as Bumble learns to his cost, she is neither compliant nor comfortable.
Cruikshank expands Dickens's description of the pair's mutually flirtatious behaviour by focussing on a mother cat and three kittens romping on the carpet, before the fire, their frisky behaviour an analogue for that of amorous Bumble and simpering Mrs. Corney. And, of course, the cats suggest the sexual dimension of the scene that the writer of the early Victorian period could not directly address, although Cruikshank's animated beadle does not seem particularly "tender" in his appreciation of the widow. The bottles of freshly decanted port for the infirmary sit on Mrs. Corey's sideboard, but are not likely to be transferred to the sick ward. An astute touch is Cruikshank's suggesting Mrs. Corney's vanity by the portrait of her hanging above the sideboard — one might have expected a portrait of the long-deceased Mr. Corney. And perhaps a hint of the entrapment of Bumble in an unhappy marriage is given in the birdcage hanging from the ceiling, above the fireplace. Although other illustrators have given the cats a place of prominence, they must have seemed too sentimental a touch to Charles Pears, for they are not in evidence in his treatment of the tea-drinking scene in Mrs. Corney's well-appointed parlour — not nearly so lavishly furnished in Pears' plate.
Illustrators since Cruikshank have also enjoyed to varying degrees the opportunity for visual satire that the pompous Bumble presents. Sol Eytinge, Junior, in the 1867 Diamond Edition volume that Dickens himself may very well have perused on his second American reading tour, depicts Bumble in full uniform presenting Mrs. Corney with the bottle of port, but the dual study lacks the amorous overtones of the Cruikshank plate. In contrast, Household Edition illustrator James Mahoney has realised the same parlour and mature figures, but has transformed the playful cats into tranquil felines dozing before the fire as Mr. Bumble prepares to propose to the widow, who is tearfully considering her single marital status. In Mahoney, sentiment has unfortunately replaced humour, as Bumble in this 1871 illustration seems genuinely concerned about the lachrymose widow (when in fact he has just scrutinized her silverware and china). However, whereas in 1910 Harry Furniss reinjected the humorous element and the playful cats in his visual satire of the corpulent agents of the Poor Law, Pears dismisses the satirical note almost entirely.
In what ways, then, is Pears' reinterpretation an improvement over the work of Cruikshank and Mahoney? Pears conveys a sense of the couple, enjoying their tea and each other's company, as real people rather than as Cruikshankian caricatures. Although he includes such indications of comfortable affluence as the padded chairs, the tea service, the lace-topped chest-of-drawers, Pears does not clutter the composition with the bric-a-brac to which early Victorian taste usually ran in such a room for entertaining. His figures are intelligible as he conveys by their postures and expressions both their characters and relationships, while he uses their clothing to imply their social status. Moreover, there is not a trace of that all too Victorian failing, sentimentality, which dominates Mahoney's otherwise realistic treatment. In other words, Pears' revision of the tea-drinking scene is completely consistent with the changing tastes and attitudes of the fin de siecle, even if the dual study fails to convey much about Dickens's criticism of their egotism, veniality, and hypocrisy.
Illustrations from the original 1837-38 serial publication and later editions
Left: George Cruikshank's Mr. Bumble and Mrs. Corney taking tea. Centre: Sol Eytinge, Junior's Mrs. Corney and Mr. Bumble. Right: Kyd's extra illustration (1889) Mr. Bumble. [Click on images to enlarge them.]
Left: Kyd's Player's cigarette card no. 3, Mr. Bumble (1910). Right: Harry Furniss's Mr. Bumble and Mrs. Corney (1910). [Click on images to enlarge them.]
Above: James Mahoney's 1871 wood-engraving of the fatuous beadle consoling the tearful matron of the workhouse, "Don't sigh, Mrs. Corney." [Click on the image to enlarge it.]
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Last modified 21 March 2015