xxx xxx

The meeting at London Bridge — twentieth steel engraving and later watercolour for Charles Dickens's The Adventures of Oliver Twist; or, The Parish Boy's Progress, first published in volume on 9 November 1838 by Richard Bentley, who then used the engraving again for the December 1838 serial number in Bentley's Miscellany, Part 21, Chapter XLVI. 4 ⅝ by 4 inches (12 cm by 10.1 cm), vignetted, facing page 261 in the 1846 single-volume edition. Cruikshank's own 1866 watercolour, commissioned by F. W. Cosens, is the basis for the 1903 chromolithograph. [Click on the images to enlarge them.]

Passage Illustrated: Noah overhears Nancy's conversation beneath LOndon Bridge

That night, and the next, and the next again, the spy sat booted and equipped in his carter's dress: ready to turn out at a word from Fagin. Six nights passed — six long weary nights — and on each, Fagin came home with a disappointed face, and briefly intimated that it was not yet time. On the seventh, he returned earlier, and with an exultation he could not conceal. It was Sunday.

"She goes abroad to-night," said Fagin, "and on the right errand, I'm sure; for she has been alone all day, and the man she is afraid of will not be back much before daybreak. Come with me. Quick!" [Chapter 45, "Noah Claypole is Employed by Fagin on a Secret Mission," p. 258]

. . . . They walked onward, looking about them with the air of persons who entertained some very slight expectation which had little chance of being realised, when they were suddenly joined by this new associate. They halted with an exclamation of surprise, but suppressed it immediately; for a man in the garments of a countryman came close up — brushed against them, indeed — at that precise moment.

"Not here," said Nancy hurriedly, "I am afraid to speak to you here. Come away — out of the public road — down the steps yonder!"

As she uttered these words, and indicated, with her hand, the direction in which she wished them to proceed, the countryman looked round, and roughly asking what they took up the whole pavement for, passed on.

The steps to which the girl had pointed, were those which, on the Surrey bank, and on the same side of the bridge as Saint Saviour's Church, form a landing-stairs from the river. To this spot, the man bearing the appearance of a countryman, hastened unobserved; and after a moment's survey of the place, he began to descend.

These stairs are a part of the bridge; they consist of three flights. Just below the end of the second, going down, the stone wall on the left terminates in an ornamental pilaster facing towards the Thames. At this point the lower steps widen: so t hat a person turning that angle of the wall, is necessarily unseen by any others on the stairs who chance to be above him, if only a step. The countryman looked hastily round, when he reached this point; and as there seemed no better place of concealment, and, the tide being out, there was plenty of room, he slipped aside, with his back to the pilaster, and there waited: pretty certain that they would come no lower, and that even if he could not hear what was said, he could follow them again, with safety.

So tardily stole the time in this lonely place, and so eager was the spy to penetrate the motives of an interview so different from what he had been led to expect, that he more than once gave the matter up for lost, and persuaded himself, either that they had stopped far above, or had resorted to some entirely different spot to hold their mysterious conversation. He was on the point of emerging from his hiding-place, and regaining the road above, when he heard the sound of footsteps, and directly afterwards of voices almost close at his ear.

He drew himself straight upright against the wall, and, scarcely breathing, listened attentively.

"This is far enough," said a voice, which was evidently that of the gentleman. "I will not suffer the young lady to go any farther. Many people would have distrusted you too much to have come even so far, but you see I am willing to humour you." [Chapter XLVI, "The Appointment Kept," pp. 260-261 in the 1846 single-volume edition]

Commentary: A Clandestine Meeting at London Bridge (1824-31)

To heighten the suspense of the clandestine meeting, the 1868 stage adaptation at the Lyceum substituted Bill Sikes and Fagin for Noah Claypole in this critical scene. This critical scene, which became the basis for the theatre's promotional poster, which alludes Mary Merrall's (Nancy's) betraying the gang; the poster implies that Nancy's murder rather than the death of Sikes and the arrest of Fagin is the stage adaptation's climax. The location of the meeting between Rose Maylie, Mr. Brownlow, and Nancy was the south landing steps of the new London Bridge, built between 1824 and 1831 to replace the decayed mediaeval structure of familiar rhyme. The new, wider bridge designed by John Rennie to accommodate increased traffic was itself torn down in 1968. The plate's setting, carefully reproduced in the stage set as Lyceum's advertising poster, is now thousands of miles from England as "Nancy's Steps" from the Surrey side, like the rest of New London Bridge, have since 1973 been in Lake Havasu City, Arizona, transported and reassembled stone by stone.

In the celebrated 1838 illustration, Cruikshank realises the moment when, having tracked Nancy across the East End, Noah overhears Sikes's mistress disclosing the plans laid by Fagin and Monks to ensure that Oliver will never come into his inheritance. The boat somewhat improbably perched on the upper stairs (left) suggests that the scene occurs by a river, and the trio bend their heads together as the respectably dressed Brownlow and Rose with rapt attention listen to Nancy as she gestures. Their postures repeat the attentive stance, head leaning in, of Fagin's recently-recruited spy, Noah Claypole (right). The illustration of the clandestine scene captures the attentiveness of the listeners, but fails to convey Nancy's extreme agitation, as she imagines Sikes' exacting a terrible retribution for her betrayal of the gang were he to find out about the meeting.

Cruikshank enjoys placing the essentially comic character, Noah, in this deadly serious scene, foregrounding him as the rapt listener. "Morris Bolter" (the alias which Fagin has bestowed upon Noah) may not accord entirely with the tense atmosphere of the scene as Dickens describes it. Noah grips his hat and stick to prevent inconveniently dropping them as he turns his attention entirely to overhearing the dialogue between Nancy and the two respectably dressed "coves". Having reported what he has overheard to Fagin and Sikes back in their lair (including Nancy's having drugged her common-law husband), Claypole seals Nancy's fate.

Cruikshank's illustration amalgamates figures from the middle-class and Newgate plots, and also incorporates the charity boy from the very beginning of the story; by implication, Fagin, Monks, Sikes, and Oliver are present since they are very much on the minds of the three characters depicted. The unmasking of Monks as none other than Edward Leeford, Oliver's half-brother, his true name and identity revealed by the "Mark of Cain" that he bears as the outward and visible sign of his spiritual deformity, "A broad red mark, like a burn or scald" (264) upon his throat. Dickens's original readers must have welcomed the physical setting of the scene as the story now enters their world, the geographical milieu of the City, under the bridge completed only seven years earlier, a recognizable feature of the cityscape that brings the fictional world of Oliver into the real world of the 1830s.

Later, Harry Furniss in his 1910 lithograph would offer a reworking of this scene made famous by the Lyceum poster. In his highly effective version Household Edition illustrator James Mahoney builds up the suspense by focussing on Nancy's shadow, the amazingly adept spy "Morris Bolter," still dressed in his rustic linen smock-frock. Instead of realizing The Meeting, the Household Edition illustrator depicts "Morris" at ground level on London Bridge as Nancy (upper right) awaits the arrival of Mr. Brownlow and Rose Maylie (upper right), his perspective shifting from The hunted to the hunter, so to speak. In When she was about the same distance in advance as she had been before, he slipped quietly down, and followed her again, employs a dark plate technique, and eschews comedy entirely; he subordinates the element of satire to the mystery surrounding Oliver's birth and his gentlemanly persecutor. Clearly for Mahoney the creation of atmosphere and the sustaining of suspense are more important than trying to outdo the original illustrator's handling of the clandestine meeting that will prove Nancy's undoing.

Cruikshank in the original sequence provides visual continuity by placing Oliver as the eponymous character in fourteen of the twenty-four monthly illustrations (the majority of these being in the first half of the novel). In contrast, in the Household Edition illustrator James Mahoney depicts Oliver in only ten of the twenty-eight wood-engravings, Sikes and Fagin appear in five each. Mahoney has already at this point signalled the importance of Monks (Leeford) by placing him in the only full-page cut, the frontispiece and a further three times. Often Mahoney subordinates such lesser figures as Noah to the setting, thereby emphasizing the importance of the figures whose faces we do see.

In Furniss's illustration, a curious Noah peers around a pillar to observe the meeting, the illustrator signalling Nancy's agitation by depicting her dress almost in motion, while Rose's dress is perfectly still. Goggle-eyed, Noah carries the carter's whip that Mahoney gave him in the 1871 illustration. The arches of the bridge now dominate the scene, and one has little sense of the landing-stairs as Furniss has moved in, as it were, for a closeup.

Illustrations from the Diamond Edition (1867), Household Edition (1871), and Charles Dickens Library Edition (1910)

Left: Sol Eytinge, Junior's Noah and Charlotte (1867). Center: James Mahoney's When she was about the same distance in advance as she had been before, he slipped quietly down, and followed her again (1871). Right: Harry Furniss's Charles Dickens Library Edition illustration The Meeting under London Bridge (1910). [Click on images to enlarge them.]

Regarding the Serial Placement of The Meeting

What is particularly confusing is the following Dickens letter and accompanying note for volume one, 1820-1839 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1965), p. 456:

"To George Cruikshank, [?17 November 1838]

Extract in Anderson Galleries catalogue, 2 Feb. 1922; MS 1.5 pp. Date: The Miscellany of Dec 38 was the only one to contain two Oliver illustrations. Bentley had apparently called on CD on 16 Nov. [456]

Sending him a box ticket for a play; referring to the illustrations to Oliver Twist; and concluding

Bentley called on me yesterday, and said that he meant to put in two Oliver plates his month and one portrait, so you will not have the trouble of doing another, which I presume — at this late period of the month — you will note be sorry for. [456]

The Pilgrim editors, Madeline House and Graham Storey, note that the illustrations referred to are The Meeting and The evidence destroyed; the portrait was of Charles Dibdin.

There were normally two Cruikshank illustrations for each No. of the Miscellany — one of them for Oliver. Since Bentley now had available all the Oliver plates Cruikshank had done for the three-volume edition and intended this month to put in two of them, no other illustration was required. [456]

That The meeting at LOndon Bridge appeared in the December 1838 instalment makes sense since this scene below the new bridge occurs in Chapter 46 (which, according to Paul Davis, was the third and last chapter in Part 20, although J. Don Vann shows it as the first chapter in Part 21, January 1839). However, The evidence destroyed realizes a scene in Chapter 38, the first in Part 17 (August 1838). The only way of testing the validity of the Pilgrim Editors' identification of the two December 1838 plates would be to consult Bentley's Miscellany itself. Clearly, Cruikshank produced twenty-five illustrations, including the so-called "Fireside" plate which Dickens had the illustrator replace for the twenty-fourth (April 1839) instalment. The entire run begins in February 1837, but skips June 1837, October 1837, and September 1838 [Davis, Charles Dickens A to Z]. J. Don Vann in Victorian Novels in Serial (MLA, 1985) notes that the death of Mary Hogarth (7 May 1837) prevented Dickens from writing the instalment for June. The first and second set of Mudfog Papers, which Dickens presumably wrote earlier, appeared in Bentley's for October 1837 and September 1838 respectively.

Related Material

Scanned images and text by Simon Cooke, color correction, sizing, caption, and commentary 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.]


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Created 8 December 2014

Last modified 14 January 2022