The Unexpected Breaking Up of the Seminary for Young Ladies
Phiz (Hablot K. Browne)
Dickens's Pickwick Papers
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The discovery of Pickwick hiding behind the door of a girls' school is the risque stuff of French farce translated for an English audience. The aged bachelor finds himself inconvenienced by another of Alfred Jingle's devious plans: Pickwick thought he was thwarting the out-of-work actor's elopement with an under-age heiress, so with the best of intentions, he had Sam help him over the wall of Westgate House, a boarding-school for young ladies at Bury St. Edmunds. The plot unveiled by Trotter is extremely plausible since Jingle in the guise of Captain Fitz-Marshall (at Mrs. Leo Hunter's fete champetre in chapter 15) has already attempted a similar elopement with the daughter of Pickwick's friend Wardle.
When Trotter, Jingle's accomplice, does not answer his knock at the door as arranged, Pickwick suspects that he has been tricked. Having sent Sam back to the local inn, The Angel, he realizes too late that Jingle has devised this stratagem to get him out of the way while he and Trotter make their escape. Pickwick ultimately catches up with the pair of confidence men in the Fleet Prison (illustration). The embarrassed Pickwick, unable to get back over the wall on his own power, is subsequently discovered by the terrified lady teachers, the timorous Cook, and their curious charges, and learns that Job Trotter and his master are utterly unknown to the inmates and that therefore the elopement scheme is entirely spurious.
Mr. Pickwick dared not move hand or foot. It was clear that the whole establishment was roused. He made up his mind to remain where he was, until the alarm had subsided; and then by a supernatural effort, to get over the wall, or perish in the attempt.
Like all Mr. Pickwick's determinations, this was the best that could be made under the circumstances; but, unfortunately, it was founded upon the assumption that they would not venture to open the door again. What was his discomfiture, when he heard the chain and bolts withdrawn, and saw the door slowly opening, wider and wider! He retreated into the corner, step by step; but do what he would, the interposition of his own person, prevented its being opened to its utmost width.
"Who's there?" screamed a numerous chorus of treble voices from the staircase inside, consisting of the spinster lady of the establishment, three teachers, five female servants, and thirty boarders, all half-dressed and in a forest of curl-papers.
Of course Mr. Pickwick didn't say who was there: and then the burden of the chorus changed into — "Lor! I am so frightened."
"Cook," said the lady abbess, who took care to be on the top stair, the very last of the group — "cook, why don't you go a little way into the garden?'"
"Please, ma'am, I don't like," responded the cook.
"Lor, what a stupid thing that cook is!" said the thirty boarders.
"Cook,' said the lady abbess, with great dignity; "don't answer me, if you please. I insist upon your looking into the garden immediately."
Here the cook began to cry, and the housemaid said it was 'a shame!' for which partisanship she received a month's warning on the spot.
"Do you hear, cook?" said the lady abbess, stamping her foot impatiently.
"Don't you hear your missis, cook?' said the three teachers.
"What an impudent thing that cook is!' said the thirty boarders.
The unfortunate cook, thus strongly urged, advanced a step or two, and holding her candle just where it prevented her from seeing at all, declared there was nothing there, and it must have been the wind. The door was just going to be closed in consequence, when an inquisitive boarder, who had been peeping between the hinges, set up a fearful screaming, which called back the cook and housemaid, and all the more adventurous, in no time. [chapter 16]
Cohen, Jane Rabb. Charles Dickens and His Original Illustrators. Columbus: Ohio State U. P., 1980.
Hammerton, J. A. The Dickens Picture-Book. London: Educational Book Co.,1910.
Steig, Michael. Dickens and Phiz. Bloomington & London: Indiana U.P., 1978. Pp. 51-85.
Dickens, Charles. Pickwick Papers (1836-37). London: Chapman & Hall.
Dickens, Charles. Pickwick Papers (1836-37). Boston: Ticknor & Fields, 1867. Facing p. 139.
Last modified 15 December 2011