She prayed a good good prayer and I
joined in it poor me. — illustration for Dickens's 'Mrs. Lirriper's

"She prayed a good good prayer and I joined in it poor me." — illustration for Dickens's "Mrs. Lirriper's Lodgings" by E. A. Abbey. American Household Edition (1876) of Dickens's Christmas Stories, p. 206. [Click on the image to enlarge it.] See commentary below.

The framed-tale for the 1863 Extra Christmas number of All the Year Round, Mrs. Lirriper's Lodgings, appeared on 12 December. Although orchestrated, introduced, and concluded by Dickens himself, the story was a collaborative effort by his staffers Andrew Halliday, Amelia Edwards, Edmund H. Yates, and the novelist Elizabeth Gaskell, supported by Dickens's son-in-law, Charles Allston Collins. The American Household Edition reprints only parts one and seven, which are by Dickens, but coherence does not suffer because these are the "bookends," so to speak, and what lies between those pieces is digressive. In the passage at the conclusion of the initial chapter, "How Mrs. Lirriper carried on the Business," Dickens describes how the mother of the infant whom the lodging house-keeper afterwards adopts dies shortly after the moment realised in her dialogue with the kindly old woman. The running head for page 205 is appropriate: "Mrs. Edson's Last Days."

The Passage Illustrated in "Mrs. Lirriper's Lodgings"

She said something to me that had no sound in it, but I saw she asked me:

"Is this death?"

And I says:

"Poor dear poor dear, I think it is."

Knowing somehow that she wanted me to move her weak right hand, I took it and laid it on her breast and then folded her other hand upon it, and she prayed a good good prayer and I joined in it poor me though there were no words spoke. Then I brought the baby in its wrappers from where it lay, and I says:

"My dear this is sent to a childless old woman. This is for me to take care of."

The trembling lip was put up towards my face for the last time, and I dearly kissed it. [Ch. 1, p. 205]

The death-bed scene had become a staple of Victorian fiction long before February, 1850, when Barkis "went out with the tide" in David Copperfield. In weekly part thirty-nine (30 January 1841) the George Cattermole illustration of the death of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop, to which Oscar Wilde reacted later with so much disdainful cynicism, speaks directly to the Victorian failing — maudlin sentimentality. In that early period, the death of a young woman or a child held a peculiar fascination for the Common Reader.

Certainly in "At Rest" Cattermole played upon this morbid fascination, depicting Nell, already two days dead, as if she were asleep, the headboard with the Virgin and Christ Child and the Gothic window suggesting that the death-room is a sacred space, and that Nell's earthly travails have concluded in some sort of beatification. Her face is full, unmarred by death, and under her right hand a strategically placed Bible implies that she died in a Christian frame of mind. The focus and the overall tone in Cattermole's famous illustration, then, are very different from those in this late Victorian illustration by E. A. Abbey in that, whereas nobody else is in the picture of the dying child, whose beauty and tranquillity elicit sacred tears at her escape from an existence marred by the paedophilic pursuit of Dan'l Quilp, in Abbey's illustration Mrs. Lirriper (left) is far more important than the emaciated, barely seen young woman in the bed, the shading on which suggests that the moment of death has arrived. Abbey would not have us waste our sympathy on the dying character, but reserve it for the boardinghouse's landlady, who will now take upon herself responsibility for raising the dead woman's infant. In the text, Mrs. Lirriper's cockney slang and pronunciation render her an object of amusement; however, Abbey's illustration, sounding an antiphonal note, would have the reader take her seriously — an even admire her for her social conscience.

The deep shading above the young woman's head is at once realistic (for the patterned curtain beside the head of the bed prevents sunlight from penetrating the area behind her head) and symbolic, the shadow of death about to engulf her, and creating an effective chiaroscuro against the intense whiteness of the sheets between Mrs. Lirriper and the bedside chair. Whereas in Phiz's "I find Mr. Barkis 'going out with the tide" in David Copperfield the death-room is filled with the mourning wife and brother-in-law, as well as the narrator, and such symbolic objects as an open Bible and pictures on the walls, here only the small rocking cradle (left, implying the presence of a baby) and the snuffed candle (right) provide additional meanings or commentary. Since we cannot read Mrs. Lirriper's expression as Abbey has turned her face away from us, we must have read the accompanying text on the previous page in order to understand fully what is happening in the somewhat prosaic illustration of the death of a poor, young mother in a rooming-house. Since the illustrator has restricted himself to the realistic mode, Abbey shows the reader merely the physical circumstances; only in the accompanying Dickens text does the reader encounter the pietistic description of the young mother's soul departing:

I don't know how to tell it right, but I saw her soul brighten and leap up, and get free and fly away in the grateful look. [205]

Indeed, the dying woman's face betrays no emotion and conveys no faith in an afterlife, in contradiction of earlier death-bed scenes by Phiz and Cattermole. And, of course, Abbey's wood-engraving of death in a humble room lacks the touch of humour in Phiz's depiction of the death of the carrier, who even while dieing cannot relinquish his hold on his strong box.

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 person who scanned the image, and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.


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Last modified 4 December 2012