The Guests at Watts's Charity

The Guests at Watts's Charity by Harry Furniss. 1910. 9.2 x 14.4 cm. Dickens's Christmas Stories, 16, The Charles Dickens Library Edition, facing XVI, 32. See commentary below following the passage illustrated. [Click on image to enlarge it.]

Passage Realised

The Travellers were all assembled, the cloth was laid, and Ben had brought a great billet of wood, and had laid it artfully on the top the fire, so that a touch or two of the poker after supper should make a roaring blaze. Having deposited my brown beauty in a red nook of the hearth, inside the fender, where she soon began to sing like an ethereal cricket, diffusing at the same time odours as of ripe vineyards, spice forests, and orange groves, — I say, having stationed my beauty in a place of security and improvement, I introduced myself to my guests by shaking hands all round, and giving them a hearty welcome.

I found the party to be thus composed. Firstly, myself. Secondly, a very decent man indeed, with his right arm in a sling, who had a certain clean agreeable smell of wood about him, from which I judged him to have something to do with shipbuilding. Thirdly, a little sailor-boy, a mere child, with a profusion of rich dark brown hair, and deep womanly-looking eyes. Fourthly, a shabby-genteel personage in a threadbare black suit, and apparently in very bad circumstances, with a dry suspicious look; the absent buttons on his waistcoat eked out with red tape; and a bundle of extraordinarily tattered papers sticking out of an inner breast-pocket. Fifthly, a foreigner by birth, but an Englishman in speech, who carried his pipe in the band of his hat, and lost no time in telling me, in an easy, simple, engaging way, that he was a watchmaker from Geneva, and travelled all about the Continent, mostly on foot, working as a journeyman, and seeing new countries mdash; (I thought) also smuggling a watch or so, now and then. Sixthly, a little widow, who had been very pretty and was still very young, but whose beauty had been wrecked in some great misfortune, and whose manner was remarkably timid, scared, and solitary. Seventhly and lastly, a Traveller of a kind familiar to my boyhood, but now almost obsolete, — a Book-Pedler, who had a quantity of Pamphlets and Numbers with him, and who presently boasted that he could repeat more verses in an evening than he could sell in a twelvemonth. ["In An Ancient Little City," 36-37]


The seventh "traveller" is an extension of the journal's "conductor," editor Charles Dickens, who in the Christmas 1854 number of Household Words, assumes a role analogous to that of Harry Bailey in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales to establish a rhetorical context for the tales orally delivered at Watts's Charity, Rochester, one Christmas Eve. As Deborah Thomas points out,

beginning with The Seven Poor Travellers in 1854, Dickens not only inaugurated the idea of a framework for the Christmas number, but he introduced the method, used in many of his subsequent numbers, of composing this framework in the form of a first-person monologue by one of the characters in the work. This method, in turn, ultimately provided an occasion for the self-revealing first-person narrators who dominate most of the holiday numbers after 1861 (and perhaps helped to prepare for dickens' sophisticated handling of the technique of the first-person narrative in Great Expectations, begun at the end of 1860). [82]

Of the eight parts, Dickens wrote only the "frame," the introduction ("In An Ancient Little City," a title suggestive of the Nativity story), "The Tale of Richard Doubledick," and "The Road"); George Augustus Sala the second and fifth; Adelaide Anne Procter the third and the seventh; Eliza Lynn the sixth; and as his initial appearance in these seasonal collections Wilkie Collins the fourth. Artfully, Furniss has positioned the seventh traveller, the principal narrator, with the tails of his respectable coat towards the reader, who may then imagine this character with Dickens's face, if he or she so wishes. In this lithograph imitative of the dark plates of Hablot Knight Browne ("Phiz") in Bleak House, the other seven figures, from left to right, are as follows: the sailor-boy and "little widow, who had been very pretty and was still very young," and behind them, the matronly presence attached to the charity; the "shabby-genteel personage in a threadbare black suit"; the Geneva watch-maker; the traveller "with his right arm in a sling"; and seated before the hearth, in the right foreground, the ancient book-pedler. The matron (left, rear) is apparently carrying a steaming roast turkey, provided by the narrator. Not seen in the illustration are the servant Ben, who carries the beer, the "Inattentive Boy with hot plates" (37), the female carrying sauces, "Man with Tray on his head, containing Vegetables and Sundries [and the] Volunteer Hostler from Hotel, grinning, And rendering no assistance" (37). Furniss must have concluded that these marginal figures would simply have cluttered the scene. Although the picture is not particularly remarkable for its poses, shading, and juxtapositions, Furniss has given the narrator a posture suggestive of an orchestra conductor, as is appropriate to the "Conductor" of Household Words, and to the principal narrator who will coordinate the narratives of the other characters.

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 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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Last modified 29 August 2013