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The memorial tablet to Agnes; or The Church Plate, the twenty-fourth and final steel engraving and later watercolour for Charles Dickens's The Adventures of Oliver Twist; or, The Parish Boy's Progress, published in Volume III by Richard Bentley, and again serially in April 1839 in Bentley's Miscellany, Chapter LIII. 4 ¼ by 3 ½ inches (10.8 cm by 8.4 cm), framed, facing page 310 in the 1846 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: Rose and Oliver Bid Farewell to Agnes

Within the altar of the old village church there stands a white marble tablet, which bears as yet but one word:, —"Agnes." There is no coffin in that tomb; and may it be many, many years, before another name is placed above it. But, if the spirits of the Dead ever come back to earth, to visit spots hallowed by the love — the love beyond the grave — of those whom they knew in life, I believe that the shade of Agnes sometimes hovers round that solemn nook. I believe it none the less because that nook is a Church, and she was weak and erring. [Chapter LIII, "And Last," pp. 310-311]

Commentary: Dickens Supervenes

Dickens, dissatisfied with how George Cruikshank originally brought the narrative-pictorial sequence to closure in The Fireside Plate; or, Oliver and His Family, requested that the veteran illustrator redraft it according to his specifications so that Oliver and his aunt, Rose Maylie, would be shown in profile (to accentuate the family likeness) as the pair contemplate Agnes's memorial.

Although Dickens's official illustrator for Oliver Twist in the 1837-8 Bentley's Miscellany serial felt that the so-called Fireside illustration adequately summed up Providence's rewarding Oliver for his courage and upright character in the face of adversity and moral degradation, Dickens found it trite and conventional. John Forster, Dickens's official biographer (and therefore hardly an unbiased commentator) recounts the story of the so-called "cancelled plate" in such a manner that he mitigates Dickens's high-handedness with his veteran illustrator George Cruikshank is mitigated:

when Bentley decided to publish Oliver in book form before its completion in his periodical, Cruikshank had to complete the last few plates in haste. Dickens did not review them until the eve of publication and objected to the Fireside plate ("Rose Maylie and Oliver" [final plate in vol. III]). Dickens had Cruikshank design a new plate [the Church plate] which retained the same title. This Church plate was not completed in time for incorporation into the early copies of the book, but it replaced the Fireside plate in later copies. Dickens not only objected to the Fireside plate, but also disliked having "Boz" on the title page. He voiced these objections prior to publication and the plate and title page were changed between November 9 [publication date] and 16." The publication had been announced for October, but the third-volume-illustrations intercepted it a little . . . . The matter supplied in advance of the monthly portions in the magazine, formed the bulk of the last volume as published in the book; and for this the plates had to be prepared by Cruikshank also in advance of the magazine, to furnish them in time for the separate publication: Sikes and his dog, Fagin in the cell, and Rose Maylie and Oliver, being the three last. None of these Dickens had seen until he saw them in the book on the eve of its publication; when he so strongly objected to one of them that it had to be cancelled. "I returned suddenly to town yesterday afternoon," he wrote to the artist at the end of October, "to look at the latter pages of Oliver Twist before it was delivered to the booksellers, when I saw the majority of the plates in the last volume for the first time. With reference to the last one — Rose Maylie and Oliver — without entering into the question of great haste, or any other cause, which may have led to its being what it is, I am quite sure there can be little difference of opinion between us with respect to the result. May I ask you whether you will object to designing this plate afresh, and doing so at once, in order that as few impressions as possible of the present one may go forth? [Forster, 92-94]

George Cruikshank apparently failed to appreciate why Dickens was so insistent upon replacing the "Fireside" with the "Church" plate:

". . . there was not anything in the latter part of the manuscript that would suggest an illustration . . . but to oblige Mr. Dickens I did my best to produce another etching, working hard day and night . . . but when done, what is it? Why, merely a lady and a boy standing inside of a church looking at a stone wall!" [cited in Kitton 22]

The resulting illustration is therefore probably Dickens's conception rather than the illustrator's: indeed, "A strip torn from the bottom edge of Dickens's copy of the letter [requesting the substitution] may have recorded his suggestion for the new subject with which Cruikshank eventually responded" (Richardson 296).

Wisely, when Chapman and Hall approached Dickens with the notion of issuing the novel in ten monthly parts for 1846, Dickens — perhaps feeling a little guilty about the "cancelled" plate — nominated Cruikshank rather than his usual illustrator "Phiz" to provide the monthly wrapper, which contains a number of visual allusions to the illustrations for the original magazine instalments. Significantly, perhaps, in his eleven vignettes on the 1846 wrapper Cruikshank alludes to neither the "Fireside" nor the "Church" scene that replaced it. The virtue of the "Church" plate must be that, although its does not enshrine Victorian family values as the "Fireside" plate does, it brings the story full circle, and ends with a serene contemplation of Oliver's mother, victim of the workhouse system, a pauper not even given a proper burial — hence, the memorial rather than a grave or headstone in the "Church" plate that replaced the Oliver and His Family (the "Fireside" plate).

Since the Victorian reader tended to require the closure of the traditional happy ending, complete with a marriage and an even-handed disposition of poetic justice to all major characters in a story, the so-called "Fireside" plate would seem to be preferable. After all, in summing up the fate of Agnes Dickens (perhaps moved to contemplate the death of Mary Hogarth, his beloved sister-in-law) would seem to be touching on theological doctrine and metaphysical issues that were held to be beyond the scope of a mere mass entertainer, although he does not, like Harry Furniss seventy years later, actually show or narrate The shade of Agnes (see below) hovering about the tombless memorial in the country church. Probably according to Dickens's explicit instructions, although never a good hand at female beauty, Cruikshank nevertheless depicts an almost tearful but dignified Rose patting Oliver on the shoulder as both solemnly contemplate the death of the beloved family member who fell through the gaps of the social welfare safety-net. Later artists have delivered closure by emphasizing the fate of Fagin, but for Dickens that matter had to be relegated to the penultimate illustration, Fagin in the condemned Cell, copied by both Mahoney and Furniss.

According to Ruth Richardson in "The Subterranean Topography of Oliver Twist," the composition of the final illustration was informed by Dickens's knowledge of the workhouse located several doors down from where he and his family lived at Norfolk Street in London, although he disguises the location of Oliver's workhouse by placing it well north of London. When John Dickens was transferred from the Navy Pay Office in Portsmouth back to London in January 1815, the family lodged just off Fitzroy Square, on what was then Norfolk Street. In 1829-30, when Dickens would have been old enough to investigate his surroundings with a critical eye and a social conscience, the Dickens family returned to the area, staying above a grocer's shop at Number 10 Norfolk Street (now No. 22 Cleveland Street), the address which Dickens gave for his reader's ticket to the British Museum in February of 1830).

As the author of Dickens and The Workhouse (Oxford U. P., 2012) and Dickens and Angela Burdett Coutts (forthcoming) historian, writer, and broadcaster Richardson, a thorough Londoner, knows much about the burial practices of the Cleveland Street Workhouse; here, just nine doors away, lived young Charles Dickens from 1828-31 in a building now distinguished by a blue historical plaque. The names of the occupants of nearby Marleybone houses and businesses of that period influenced Dickens's naming of characters in the novel: Sowerberry, Sikes, and Maylie. Mr. Baxter's pawnshop, which lay between the Dickenses' home and the workhouse, may have contributed to the plot surrounding Agnes's locket since Mrs. Bumble retrieves it from a nearby pawnbroker's. But, most significantly, Dickens likely knew that the remains of paupers who died in the workhouse were disposed of via a system of subterranean passages, rather than accorded proper Christian burial, even in the Cleveland Street Workhouse's own graveyard. The translation of the "unclaimed" bodies of papers was effected efficiently by a tunnel connecting the building and a new Medical School at the rear of the Middlesex Hospital. Now bricked up and forgotten, the passageway was a result of the new Anatomy Act of 1832, whereby any person dying in a workhouse without the necessary funds for a funeral or relatives prepared to pay the cost would be defined as "unclaimed" and therefore fodder for the dissection table in an anatomy school.

It serves to represent the many journeys made by the traffic in corpses which passed between the workhouse and the medical school, and the return journey of whatever dismembered remnants of the dissected poor were sent back, if they were sent back at all, for hugger-mugger burial in the workhouse yard. [Richardson 309]

Hence, in the final illustration young radical writer Charles Dickens underscores the plight of the poor and their disrespectful treatment in death as in life. This "revised" illustration is therefore a mute protest against society's regarding the poor as mere "surplus population" to be disposed of as so much inert matter. As Richardson remarks,

the Church plate deliberately re-inscribes the plot's major driver, the inciting incidents of the novel and their bleak context, reminding the reader of the book's opening with Oliver's birth and his mother's death, in the grip of the Poor Law. Like the old sepulchral image of the serpent eating its own tail, the Church plate gestures backwards in time to the beginning, and forward towards eternity . . . . . The novel's end is blighted by loss, but resolved by love, and marked by a commitment to keeping memory green. [Dickens and the Workhouse, 310]

In the Cruikshank illustration, then, Oliver, once again in a tailored suit, stands beside the other respectable orphan, his mother's sister, Rose, who was fortunate enough to be adopted by a kindly, upper-middle-class family. The illustrator shows aunt and nephew in solemn profile to accentuate the familial likeness — and to emphasize that in a sense they are Agnes's final resting place, both in terms of sentiment, memory, and genetics. In accordance with Dickens's Protestant notions about appropriate church ornamentation, the setting is devoid of paintings, crucifixes, and even other memorials to the dead; nothing is to break the reader's identification between the two living figures, so much alike in their facial features that they might be mother and son, and the name "Agnes" in the simple plaque with a peak, suggestive perhaps of a house's roof. The small window that illuminates the scene also reminds the reader of the barred window in Fagin's subterranean Newgate cell in the previous illustration. But, whereas Agnes is honoured in death and fondly remembered, Fagin faces sheer oblivion as nobody will mourn his passing or mark his burial spot. Certainly no white light will play about his unmarked grave on the grounds of Newgate Prison as it does before Rose and Oliver here.

Relevant Illustrations from the original Volume Edition (1838), Diamond Edition (1867), and Charles Dickens Library Edition (1910)

Left: Sol Eytinge, Junior's final plate for the Diamond Edition: Noah and Charlotte. Middle left: George Cruikshank's Oliver and His Family [The Fireside Plate]. Middle right: Harry Furniss's Rose Maylie (1910). Right: Harry Furniss's The Shade of Agnes (1910). [Click on images to enlarge them.]

Scanned images 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.]


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_______. Oliver Twist. Works of Charles Dickens. Household Edition. 55 vols. Illustrated by F. O. C. Darley and John Gilbert. New York: Sheldon and Co., 1865.

_______. Oliver Twist. Works of Charles Dickens. Diamond Edition. 14 vols. Illustrated by Sol Eytinge, Jr. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1867.

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Grego, Joseph (intro) and George Cruikshank. "The memorial tablet to Agnes." ["The Church Plate."] Cruikshank's Water Colours. [27 Oliver Twist illustrations, including the wrapper and the 13-vignette title-page produced for F. W. Cosens; 20 plates for William Harrison Ainsworth's The Miser's Daughter: A Tale of the Year 1774; 20 plates plus the proofcover the work for W. H. Maxwell's History of the Irish Rebellion in 1798 and Emmett's Insurrection in 1803]. London: A. & C. Black, 1903. OT = pp. 1-106]. Page 104.

Kitton, Frederic G. "George Cruikshank." Dickens and His Illustrators: Cruikshank, Seymour, Buss, "Phiz," Cattermole, Leech, Doyle, Stanfield, Maclise, Tenniel, Frank Stone, Topham, Marcus Stone, and Luke Fildes. 1899. Rpt. Honolulu: U. Press of the Pacific, 2004. Pp. 1-28.

Lynch, Tony. "Cleveland Street, London." Dickens's England: An A-Z Tour of the Real and Imagined Locations. London: Batsford, 2012. Pp. 65.

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_______. "The Subterranean Topography of Oliver Twist," Dickensian Landscapes: 19th Annual Dickens Society Symposium. Domain de Sagnes, Beziers, France: 10 July 2014. Published subsequently in Dickens Quarterly 32, 4 (December 2015): 293-312.

Created 5 January 2016

Last updated 14 January 2022