Mrs. Bardell encounters Mr. Pickwick in the Prison
Phiz (Hablot K. Browne)
Dickens's Pickwick Papers
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In the second of the August 1837 illustrations, the last of the debtors' prison sequence, Phiz realises one of the key moments in the "breach of marriage" plot as Mr. Pickwick confronts his accuser, the devious Mrs. Bardell. The ingenious agent of Dodson and Fogg, Jackson, on the pretext of hastening the client to an emergency meeting with her attorneys, has just delivered Mrs. Bardell, Tommy Bardell, and Mrs. Cluppins to the central yard of the Fleet Prison. Since the scene is full of considerable emotion (ranging from Sam's facetiousness, Pickwick's hauteur, Mrs. Bardell's shocked disbelief, Tommy's roaring, and Mrs. Cluppins's terror) and contains a number of characters in varying poses, Phiz does not limit the picture with a vignette or frame; rather, he distributes the figures so that they seem to burst out of the margins as Sam (left) with mock politeness tips his hat, and Mrs. Sanders hastily exits in a baroque swirl of fabric (right), abandoning her friends to the very institution in which Mrs. Bardell had caused her mercenary agents to incarcerate Pickwick. Having used the unscrupulous Dodson and Fogg as her tools but having failed to to pay her court costs, Mrs. Bardell is now the subject of poetic justice as her own attorneys (through their suave functionary, Jackson), Pickwick still proving obdurate, seize their own client "in execution of costs" (405 in the 1867 edition). To paraphrase Shakespeare's Hamlet, she has been hoisted on her own petard, and must become an inmate — together with her odious son Tommy (centre, beside his shocked mother) — of the Fleet.
In this plate, the horizontal band formed by the main characters is juxtaposed both to the vertical of the gateway and to the dynamic thrust of the jailer, who appears to have just pushed the ladies and child down the steps. One reads from top to bottom left, and then to the right, just as one "sees" in the text the arrival at prison, the revelation to Mrs. Bardell that she is a prisoner, and then the encounter with Pickwick. The triangular arrangement, however, makes it possible to read the illustration in two directions, as though causally: from Mrs. Bardell up to the jailer and down to Pickwick, implying that her lawsuit has brought him to prison; or in reverse, beginning with Pickwick, implying that his stubborn adherence to principle has caused him unwittingly to make a victim out of his former landlady. Yet Pickwick and Mrs. Bardell also are part of the same compositional horizontal band, linked as victims of a vicious system. [Steig 36]
To emphasise their incarceration and loss of liberty, Phiz emphasises the high iron bars (right), the stout stone archway and iron portcullis (upper centre), and the turnkeys' utter disregard for the scene playing out beneath them. The overturned sewing basket (lower centre) — a detail apparently of Phiz's invention — implies the utter frustration of Mrs. Bardell's designs upon Pickwick. Pickwick's posture (with his hands clutched under his coat-tails) echoes that of the scrutinising turnkey (left) in "Mr. Pickwick Sits for His Portrait", implying that she, too, is about to undergo the humiliation of induction.
"What place is this?" inquired Mrs. Bardell, pausing.
"Only one of our public offices," replied Jackson, hurrying her through a door, and looking round to see that the other women were following. "Look sharp, Isaac!"
"Safe and sound," replied the man with the ash stick. The door swung heavily after them, and they descended a small flight of steps.
"Here we are at last. All right and tight, Mrs. Bardell!" said Jackson, looking exultingly round.
"What do you mean?" said Mrs. Bardell, with a palpitating heart.
"Just this," replied Jackson, drawing her a little on one side; "don't be frightened, Mrs. Bardell. There never was a more delicate man than Dodson, ma’am, or a more humane man than Fogg. It was their duty in the way of business, to take you in execution for them costs; but they were anxious to spare your feelings as much as they could. What a comfort it must be, to you, to think how it’s been done! This is the Fleet, ma’am. Wish you good–night, Mrs. Bardell. Good–night, Tommy!"
As Jackson hurried away in company with the man with the ash stick another man, with a key in his hand, who had been looking on, led the bewildered female to a second short flight of steps leading to a doorway. Mrs. Bardell screamed violently; Tommy roared; Mrs. Cluppins shrunk within herself; and Mrs. Sanders made off, without more ado. For there stood the injured Mr. Pickwick, taking his nightly allowance of air; and beside him leant Samuel Weller, who, seeing Mrs. Bardell, took his hat off with mock reverence, while his master turned indignantly on his heel.
"Don't bother the woman," said the turnkey to Weller; "she's just come in."
"A prisoner!" said Sam, quickly replacing his hat. "Who's the plaintives? What for? Speak up, old feller."
"Dodson and Fogg," replied the man; "execution on cognovit for costs." [chapter 46]
Cohen, Jane Rabb. Charles Dickens and His Original Illustrators. Columbus: Ohio State U. P., 1980.
Dickens, Charles. "Pickwick Papers (1836-37). Il. Hablot Knight Browne. London: Chapman & Hall.
---. "Pickwick Papers (1836-37). Il. Hablot Knight Browne. The Charles Dickens Edition. Boston: Ticknor & Fields, 1867.
Guiliano, Edward, and Philip Collins, eds. The Annotated Dickens. Vol. 1. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1986.
Hammerton, J. A. The Dickens Picture-Book. London: Educational Book Co., 1910.
Steig, Michael. Dickens and Phiz. Bloomington & London: Indiana U.P., 1978.
Last modified 25 December 2011