Christmas Eve at Mr. Wardle's, steel-engraving from the January 1837 "Christmas" number, Chapters 27-29 of Dickens's Pickwick Papers, facing page 242. 11.3 cm high by 10.3 cm wide — 4 ½ by 4 ⅛ inches. Engraving by Phiz (Hablot K. Browne) for Part X. [Click on the image to enlarge it.]

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.]

Details and Related Material

Context of the Illustration

As Mr. Weller concluded this moral tale, with which the fat boy appeared much affected, they all three repaired to the large kitchen, in which the family were by this time assembled, according to annual custom on Christmas Eve, observed by old Wardle's forefathers from time immemorial.

From the centre of the ceiling of this kitchen, old Wardle had just suspended, with his own hands, a huge branch of mistletoe, and this same branch of mistletoe instantaneously gave rise to a scene of general and most delightful struggling and confusion; in the midst of which, Mr. Pickwick, with a gallantry that would have done honour to a descendant of Lady Tollimglower herself, took the old lady by the hand, led her beneath the mystic branch, and saluted her in all courtesy and decorum. The old lady submitted to this piece of practical politeness with all the dignity which befitted so important and serious a solemnity, but the younger ladies, not being so thoroughly imbued with a superstitious veneration for the custom, or imagining that the value of a salute is very much enhanced if it cost a little trouble to obtain it, screamed and struggled, and ran into corners, and threatened and remonstrated, and did everything but leave the room, until some of the less adventurous gentlemen were on the point of desisting, when they all at once found it useless to resist any longer, and submitted to be kissed with a good grace. [Chapter 28, "A good-humored Christmas chapter, containing an account of a wedding, and some other sports beside: which although in their way, even as good customs as marriage itself, are not quite so religiously kept up, in these degenerate times," pp. 242-43]


Provisioned with a substantial cod fish and several barrels of oysters, the Pickwickians now descend upon Manor Farm, Dingley Dell, for a full round of traditional Christmas festivities. Augmenting these will be the wedding of one of old Wardle's daughters, Isabella, to Mr. Trundle. The illustration focuses upon Mr. Pickwick's kindness and gallantry towards Mr. Wardle's elderly and somewhat deaf mother (centre) at one of the many dances held at Dingley Dell. Michael Steig in his chapter on the early Dickens-Browne collaborations explains the difficulties that this complex textual scene presented for the young illustrator:

Although food and eating occur frequently throughout Dickens novels, there is surely no other where they function so pervasively as symbols of community and love. . . . The genuine agape of Pickwick is expressed most directly in "Christmas Eve at Mr. Wardle's" (ch. 28). This is the first of Phiz's plates for Dickens to have had duplicate steels etched at the time of original publication in parts, rather than a new etching executed for the 1838 Pickwick (The variant steels are reproduced in J, pp. 40-42.); doubtless because the practice was a novelty for Browne, it is the only example among all the duplicated steels for which he made two different drawings and etched both, instead of tracing one drawing on the grounds of two or more steels. It is clear that Browne had trouble getting all the details from Dickens' text (including the earlier description of the Dingley Dell kitchen) into the drawing. The problem of including four couples in the crowded scene is solved by a triangular composition, with Pickwick and old Mrs. Wardle at the apex, and Winkle and Tupman with their partners at the comers, while Snodgrass and his partner are slightly back of Pickwick. But in what was probably the first steel (I base my assumption as to which is the first version on the fact of awkwardness corrected, and the subsequent addition of a caption only to the "second" in the 1838 edition. Cf. J, p. 40.), the fireplace is scarcely recognizable, Browne contorts Arabella's neck and head to an extreme degree, and gives the woman next to Wardle an imbecile expression and undue prominence. [pp. 31-2]

In Christmas Eve at Mr. Wardle's, the protagonist offers Mr. Wardle's aged mother his hand as a token of an opportunity to dance with the rest of the company, and thereby recapture (if only momentarily) a sense of her lost youth as she joins young and middle-aged revellers in seasonal festivity. In the 1873 Christmas Eve plate, Phiz shifts his attention to the scene in which the younger women of the house surround a middle-aged and bashful Pickwick under the mistletoe, precisely the subject which Nast addresses. In contrast to the sprightliness of Phiz's figures in both 1837 and 1874 Phiz illustrations, there is an unfortunate woodenness about the seven figures in the Nast mistletoe scene, It was a pleasant thing to see Mr. Pickwick in the centre of the group.

Bibliographical Note

The picture of the Christmas party at Dingley Dell has rightly acquired iconic status, frequently serving as a metonymy for the good-hearted, old-fashioned Samuel Pickwick, his faithful, wise-cracking valet Sam Weller, and his quirky followers who traverse the metropolis and the Home Counties in search of domestic adventures. This illustration for the January 1837 or tenth monthly part would actually have appeared at the head of the serial instalment, and therefore would have immediately arrested the purchaser's attention. In The Dickens Picture-Book (1910), J. A. Hammerton notes the reason for the discrepancies between the two printings of the original serial illustration: "Owing to the wear and tear of the plates, due to the increased circulation of the monthly parts, they were etched in duplicate from the tenth number [January 1837], which accounts for some of the noticeable differences to be found in various copies of the first issue" (pp. 85-6). By February 1837, possibly as a result of the engaging holiday number with its inset narrative, sales of Pickwick had risen to 14,000, and rose with each successive number until final monthly sales totalled 40,000. Since Seymour had experienced difficulties with steel-engraving in the opening numbers as the plates had a tendency to crumble even during a limited run, and "all his efforts to rebite and repair the original ones failed to halt their disintegration" (Patten, p. 65), the only recourse was to have a duplicate set at hand when the initial set became unserviceable.

Related Household Edition Illustrations (1873, 1874)

Left: Thomas Nast's It was a pleasant thing to see Mr. Pickwick in the centre of the group. [At Dingley Dell, under the misletoe]. Right: Phiz's 1874 version of the Christmas party: Before Mr. Pickwick distinctly knew what was the matter, he was surrounded by the whole body, and kissed by every one of the [Click on the images to enlarge them.]


Cohen, Jane Rabb. Charles Dickens and His Original Illustrators. Columbus: Ohio State U. P., 1980.

Dickens, Charles. The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. Illustrated by Robert Seymour, Robert W. Buss, and Hablot Knight Browne ('Phiz'). London: Chapman & Hall: 1836-37.

Dickens, Charles. Pickwick Papers. The Household Edition. London: Chapman and Hall, 1874 (illustrated by Phiz); New York: Harper & Bros., 1873 (illustrated by Thomas Nast).

Dickens, Charles. The Pickwick Papers. Illustrated by Robert Seymour and Hablot Knight Browne. London: Chapman & Hall, 1896.

Hammerton, J. A. "Notes on The Pickwick Papers." The Dickens Picture-Book. London: Educational Book, 1910. Pp. 85-6.

Lester Valerie Browne. Phiz: The Man Who Drew Dickens. London: Chatto and Windus, 2004.

Patten, Robert L. "Pickwick Papers and the Development of Serial Fiction." Charles Dickens and His Publishers. Oxford: Oxford U. P., 1978; rpt. Santa Cruz, Cal.: The Dickens Project, 1991. Pp. 45-74.

Steig, Michael. Chapter 2. "The Beginnings of 'Phiz': Pickwick, Nickleby, and the Emergence from Caricature." Dickens and Phiz. Bloomington & London: Indiana U. P., 1978. Pp. 24-50.

Last modified 5 November 2019