"Rather a heavy sea on, Sir, and a head-wind" for Chapter II, "The Passage Out" by Thomas Nast, in Charles Dickens's American Notes, 290. Wood-engraving, 4 ¼ by 5 ½ inches (10.7 cm high by 13.4 cm wide), vignetted.

Passage Illustrated: The Topsy-Turvey State-room

It is the third morning. I am awakened out of my sleep by a dismal shriek from my wife, who demands to know whether there’s any danger. I rouse myself, and look out of bed. The water-jug is plunging and leaping like a lively dolphin; all the smaller articles are afloat, except my shoes, which are stranded on a carpet-bag, high and dry, like a couple of coal-barges. Suddenly I see them spring into the air, and behold the looking-glass, which is nailed to the wall, sticking fast upon the ceiling. At the same time the door entirely disappears, and a new one is opened in the floor. Then I begin to comprehend that the state-room is standing on its head.

Before it is possible to make any arrangement at all compatible with this novel state of things, the ship rights. Before one can say ‘Thank Heaven!’ she wrongs again. Before one can cry she is wrong, she seems to have started forward, and to be a creature actually running of its own accord, with broken knees and failing legs, through every variety of hole and pitfall, and stumbling constantly. Before one can so much as wonder, she takes a high leap into the air. Before she has well done that, she takes a deep dive into the water. Before she has gained the surface, she throws a summerset. The instant she is on her legs, she rushes backward. And so she goes on staggering, heaving, wrestling, leaping, diving, jumping, pitching, throbbing, rolling, and rocking: and going through all these movements, sometimes by turns, and sometimes altogether: until one feels disposed to roar for mercy.

A steward passes. "Steward!" — "Sir?" — "What is the matter? what do you call this?" — "Rather a heavy sea on, sir, and a head-wind."

A head-wind! Imagine a human face upon the vessel’s prow, with fifteen thousand Samsons in one bent upon driving her back, and hitting her exactly between the eyes whenever she attempts to advance an inch. [Chapter II, "The Passage Out," 289]

Nast's Original Conception (1877) and Frost's Re-interpretation (1880)

Nast depicts the state-room (which has just appeared in perfect order in the headpiece for the first chapter) in total chaos as the Britannia encounters heavy weather in the mid-Atlantic in January 1842. To contribute to the reader's sense of Dickens's restlessness and constant motion in his reading tour of 1842, Nast has turned floor and ceiling at an angle to suggest the discomfort of the passengers, whom he suggests by their belongings suspended in mid-air. The shoes seem to be about to walk to America on their own, and Dickens in his dressing-gown grips the side of the bunk to stay within it. So effective was Nast's original conception thatFrost felt it worthy of emulation in the British Household Edition of 1880. However, the American expatriate, then working alongside British illustrator Gordon Thomson at the London offices of Chapman and Hall, A. B. Frost, re-oriented the plate to a vertical, subtracted the figure of Dickens, and added the unflustered steward, who, unlike the incommoded passengers, seems quite used to rough weather and heavy seas. Both pictures capture the sense of dislocation, defamiliarisation, and disorientation which Dickens's prose so effectively describes, but Nast's illustration does so with his characteristic visual hyperbole and wit.

The Introductory Illustrations in the 1868, 1880, and 1910 Editions

Above: Frost's version of the chaotic state-room as the steward enters, Rather a heavy sea on, Sir, and a head-wind (1880).

Left: Marcus Stone's epic opening illustration, The Emigrants (frontispiece for the 1868 edition). Right: Harry Furniss's psychological study The Solitary Prisoner in the Philadelphia Penitentiary serves as the frontispiece in the 1910 Charles Dickens Library Edition.

Related Material

Scanned image, colour correction, sizing, caption, and commentary by Philip V. Allingham. [You may use this image 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.] Click on the image to enlarge it.


Dickens, Charles. American Notes. Works, New York: Peter Fenelon Collier & Son, 1890.

__________. Pictures from Italy, Sketches by Boz and American Notes. Illustrated by Thomas Nast and Arthur B. Frost. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1877 (copyrighted in 1876).

__________. American Notes for General Circulation and Pictures from Italy. Illustrated by J. Gordon Thomson and A. B. Frost. London: Chapman and Hall, 1880.

Created 22 May 2019

Last modified 8 June 2020