Now, anybody who passed through the Dials on a hot summer's evening, and saw the different women . . . gossiping on the steps, would be apt to think that all was harmony. . . .
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Sketches by Boz
Three-quarter-page illustration for "Scenes," Ch. 5, in Dickens's Sketches by Boz, the Household Edition.
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Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham
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Now anybody who passed through the Dials on a hot summer's evening, and saw the different women of the house gossiping on the steps, would be apt to think that all was harmony among them, and that a more primitive set of people than the native Diallers could not be imagined. Alas! the man in the shop ill-treats his family; the carpet-beater extends his professional pursuits to his wife; the one-pair front has an undying feud with the two-pair front, in consequence of the two-pair front persisting in dancing over his (the one-pair front's) head, when he and his family have retired for the night; the two-pair back will interfere with the front kitchen's children; the Irishman comes home drunk every other night, and attacks everybody; and the one-pair back screams at everything. Animosities spring up between floor and floor; the very cellar asserts his equality. Mrs. A. "smacks"Mrs. B.'s child for "making faces." Mrs. B. forthwith throws cold water over Mrs. A.'s child for "calling names." The husbands are embroiled— the quarrel becomes general—an assault is the consequence, and a police-officer the result.— "Scenes," Chapter 5, "Seven Dials," p. 34.
Seven Dials, the British equivalent of Paris's St. Antoine
. . . where misery clings to misery for a little warmth, and want and disease lie down side-by-side, and groan together. — John Keats on Seven Dials.
SEVEN DIALS. An open area in the parish of St. Giles-in-the-Fields, on what was once "Cock and Pye Fields", from which seven streets, Great Earl-street, Little Earl-street, Great White-Lion-street, Little White-Lion-street, Great St. Andrew's street, Little St. Andrew's-street, Queen street, radiate, and so called because there was formerly a column in the centre, on the summit of which were seven sun-dials, with a dial facing each of the streets. — Cunningham, 445.
Fred Barnard and George Cruikshank have taken very different approaches to the notorious warren known as "The Seven Dials," a breeding ground of vice, disease, and crime at the junction of seven roads in Covent Garden. Originally laid out by Thomas Neale, Member of Parliament and real estate developer, in the early 1690s, He intended the Seven Dials to be a fashionable address, in much the same manner as Place Vaugeois (originally, Place Henri IV) in Paris, but the housing development deteriorated quickly into an Anglo-Irish slum. The only revenant of Neale's original intention is the neoclassical Sundial Pillar erected in 1693-4, designed by architect Edward Pierce as the centrepiece for the conjunction of the streets, with six sundial faces, the seventh 'style' being the column itself. In the early nineteenth century, the availability of cheap lodgings caused an influx of poor Irish labourers, who patronised a legion of gin-shops in the vicinity, an area celebrated in a comic song by Moncrieff. Whereas even poor wine is expensive for the working poor in the Defarges' Wine Shop in Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities, rendering the suburb of St. Antoine a breeding ground for vice and revolution, the cheap gin of London seems to act as a soporific, encouraging petty crime but nullifying the possibility of the concerted action necessary for a revolution.
The phrase "the different women of the house" (34) underscores the irregular rooming arrangements of the Irish immigrants and their burgeoning families are crammed into the small rooms, several families to a single suite. Whereas Cruikshank sees the poor women as mere caricatures of human nature, Barnard realizes the four women of differing ages as individuals: the attractive adolescent with shapely waist putting up her hair (left) the benign young mother with a babe in arms (up centre), the thin, middle-aged woman holding a jar (upper right) and the heavier, kindly older woman in old-fashioned cloth-cap minding the children. They seem happy enough in their poverty and lack of sophistication, like blissful inhabitants of Polynesia. The cat and the bird-cages are superb examples of realia that complement the cheerful women, the bellicose, ragged, wild-haired boy mindlessly threatening the bonneted, skinny child (down right), and the toddler reaching for the bony cat. Pointedly Barnard realises the pleasant women and avoid showing the men who ill-treat them in the same paragraph. Barnard captures a golden moment of conviviality and implies the violence about to erupt only in the rowdy child.
Cruikshank brilliantly realises the comedy of the rich working-class dialogue, capturing in the expressions and postures of the Irish women their feisty characters. Although his pot-boy does not pause as he exhorts "Mary" to pitch into her adversary he is "drawn from life," with a portable rack for his beer tankards. However, the group study by Barnard offers a contrasting view of class and female solidarity akin to Barnard's depiction of the women of St. Antoine in his 1874 illustration of the denizens of the working-class suburb near the Bastille, St. Antoine in which, as here, Barnard sees the women as a civilising force, even in the midst of poverty and privation.
Although the descriptions of various shops in the Dials are not strictly speaking part of Dickens's description of the group of women gosipping on the stoop, Barnard has inserted signage for "Canaries" and "Rags" to suggest that the multi-generation household occupies a building partly given over to commercial activity of a sordid variety that are aspects of what we today term "recycling" as rags were employed in paper-making and bones in china manufacture. Specifically the well-tended birdcages and ramshackle signs are alluding to the following passage:
Here and there, a little dark chandler's shop, with a cracked bell hung up behind the door to announce the entrance of a customer, or betray the presence of some young gentleman in whom a passion for shop tills has developed itself at an early age: others, as if for support, against some handsome lofty building, which usurps the place of a low dingy public-house; long rows of broken and patched windows expose plants that may have flourished when "the Dials" were built, in vessels as dirty as "the Dials" themselves; and shops for the purchase of rags, bones, old iron, and kitchen-stuff, vie in cleanliness with the bird-fanciers and rabbit-dealers, which one might fancy so many arks, but for the irresistible conviction that no bird in its proper senses, who was permitted to leave one of them, would ever come back again. [33-34, two paragraphs prior to the scene with the harmonious discussion among "the native iuallers."]
Although the neighbourhood involves the coexistence of shops and lodgings, there seems to be connection between the women and the stores, whereas in the next sketch, "Meditations in Monmouth Street," the shop-vendors clearly live behind the shop and manage their customers and inventory while children play in the gutter, a situation that blurs the distinction between public and private life, and between work and leisure and the commercial elides with the domestic sphere.
"On the Geography of Seven Dials"
Situated at the northern extremity of St. Martin's-lane, having the Broker-row for its eastern, and Monmouth-street for its western boundaries, in longitude nothing, and lat. 0º 5', is a singular conformation of country, radiating from a common centre and an illuminated clock, known — from the number of its rays — as "Seven Dials." These rays are formed by several habitations built of burnt bricks and mortar in regular rows, or streets, all diverging from the above-named apex.
The geology of this district is peculiar. The superficial strata consist of granite rhomboids placed closely together, the whole forming a compact surface, or carriage-way. On each side is a smoother formation of flags, which, from their worn appearance, are supposed to be those which "braved a thousand years."
In the department of Natural History, Seven Dials is peculiarly productive. Dogs, cats, and a great variety of insects, together with donkeys, abound. The last are used for conveying from one part of the district to another the vegetable productions which form a large article of import from Covent Garden-market. The indigenous vegetation consists of boxes of mignonette, picturesquely laid out on the window-sills; together with large quantities of mustard and cress, cleverly grown upon flannel in exposed situations. Cabbage-leaves are thickly sown in every gutter.
The trade of Seven Dials is extensive, it being the entrepôt for glass bottles, rags, old iron, left-off clothing, and second-hand toothbrushes. An enlarged commerce is also carried on in lollypops, and other sweet articles affecting the Colonial sugar-markets.
But the most important feature of the country is that presented by its inhabitants — a brave and affable race, whose manners and customs are more worthy of observation than emulation. The ladies are peculiarly easy in their deportment. This trait is doubtlessly imparted to them by the free intercourse which has taken place from the earliest ages between the Seven-dialers and foreign immigrants. The Irish particularly abound in every direction of the dials, and have introduced many of their national customs, especially the use of whisky and the shillelah, in the employment of both which the hospitable natives are highly proficient. — Punch, Jan-Jun. 1842, quoted by Lee Jackson in Dirty Old London (New Haven: Yale UP, 2014). Accessed 23 April 2017. http://www.victorianlondon.org/districts/sevendials.htm
Relevant Illustrations of "The Dials" — 1839 and 1872
Above: George Cruikshank's animated scene in which the female (and markedly working-class) denizens of the Dials, having consumed gin recently, despite the earliness of the hour, square off for a physical altercation in Seven Dials (1839). [Click on the image to enlarge it.]
Above: Dudley Street, Seven Dials by French social realist Gustave Doré — a busy street scene with sets of shops which can be seen on the right. The shops are selling shoes which are lining up on the floor around the opening from under the ground. Children and their mothers are in front of them. This image was first published in Douglas Jerrold's London, a Pilgrimage (1872), on p. 158. [Click on the image to enlarge it.]
Ackroyd, Peter. Dickens: A Biography. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1990.
Bance, M. "History Notes: Seven Dials, in the Parish of St. Giles, London." Preston Pages. Accessed 24 April 2017. http://www.prestonpages.com/history_sevendials.php
Bentley, Nicolas, Michael Slater, and Nina Burgis. The Dickens Index. New York and Oxford: Oxford U. P., 1990.
Cunningham, Peter. "Seven Dials." Hand-Book of London. London: J. Murray, 1850. Pp. 445.
Davis, Paul. Charles Dickens A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Work. New York: Checkmark and Facts On File, 1999.
Dickens, Charles. "Seven Dials," Chapter 5 in "Scenes," Sketches by Boz. Illustrated by George Cruikshank. London: Chapman and Hall, 1839; rpt., 1890. Pp. 51-54.
Dickens, Charles. "Seven Dials," Chapter 5 in "Scenes," Sketches by Boz. Illustrated by Fred Barnard. The Household Edition. London: Chapman and Hall, 1876. Pp. 32-34.
Dickens, Charles. "Seven Dials," Chapter 5 in "Scenes," Sketches by Boz. Illustrated by Harry Furniss. The Charles Dickens Library Edition. London: Educational Book Company, 1910. Vol. 1. Pp. 65-69.
Dickens, Charles, and Fred Barnard. The Dickens Souvenir Book. London: Chapman & Hall, 1912.
Hawksley, Lucinda Dickens. Chapter 3, "Sketches by Boz." Dickens Bicentenary 1812-2012: Charles Dickens. San Rafael, California: Insight, 2011. Pp. 12-15.
"On the Geography of Seven Dials." Punch, Jan.-June, 1842, quoted by Lee Jackson in Dirty Old London. New Haven: Yale UP, 2014. Accessed 23 April 2017. http://www.victorianlondon.org/districts/sevendials.htm
Slater, Michael. Charles Dickens: A Life Defined by Writing. New Haven and London: Yale U. P., 2009.
Sajjo, Takao. "T. W. Hill and ‘Tom King and the Frenchman'." Accessed 23 April 2017. www.dickens.jp/archive/sb/sb-saijo.pdf
Last modified 24 April 2017