Sairey Gamp and Betsy Prig
Approximately 7 x 5 inches (18.8 x 12.5 cm)
From Character Sketches from Dickens, facing p. 76.
Scanned image, caption, and commentary below by Philip V. Allingham
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It is instructive to compare the original etching on steel by Hablot Knight Browne ("Phiz") with Copping's 1924 lithograph. According to critic Michael Steig, in the original serial of 1843-1844
Plate 35 (No. XVIII), "Mrs. Gamp propoges a toast," is the third and last [illustration in Phiz's narrative-pictorial program for the serial version of the novel] to feature Sairey Gamp in person. This famous illustration, depicting the moment immediately preceding the apostasy of Betsey Prig [the moment which Fred Barnard in the Household Edition chose instead], is by and large a faithful reproduction of Dickens' description of the scene, down to the bursting bandboxes, the pattens, the pictures over the mantel, the umbrella, and the garments looking like a hanged double of Sairey. [DSA 2, 139]
The scene which Copping has chosen to exemplify the comedic aspect of the picaresque novel, "Sairey Gamp and Betsey Prig," occurs in what was originally episode eighteen (chapter 49, "In Which Mrs. Harris, Assisted by a Teapot, is the Cause of a Division Between Friends," June 1844). Compare Copping's more realistic handling of his materials to Phiz's "Mrs. Gamp Propoges a Toast." Gone are the lovingly realized background details such as Sairey's additional outfits hanging above the friends about to experience a falling-out.
In one of his prefaces to Martin Chuzzlewit, Dickens declares that his main object was "to exhibit in a variety of aspects the commonest of all vices; to show how selfishness propagates itself; and to what a grim giant it may grow, from small beginnings." In the person of Pecksniff he created a character that has become a by-word for hypocrisy, whilst other characters, such as Sairey Gamp and old Martin Chuzzlewit, have taken their place in the gallery of immortals. On the reverse side, equally inimitable, are to be found Tom Pinch, Mark Tapley, Ruth Pinch, John Westlock, and scores of others. The selections made from the book represent these phases. Old Martin is introduced in the first excerpt, delightful Ruth Pinch and her brother in the next, whilst the immortal tea party of Sairey Gamp and Betsy Prig forms the third. [Matz 68]
If, as Margaret Cardwell suggests in her introduction to the World's Classics edition of the novel (1984), "The reader wants Mrs. Gamp and Mr. Pecksniff to survive for ever, perpetually exhibiting the resilience which is theirs" (xiii), the reader's quintessential image of the indefatigable sick-room nurse is that provided by Phiz in "Mrs. Gamp propoges a toast," the captioned illustration for Chapter 49, "In Which Mrs. Harris, Assisted by a Teapot, is the Cause of a Division between Friends," Part 18 (June 1844) as the serial novel drew to its poetically just conclusion. Although Dickens originally aligned her with the novel's deceivers and hypocrites, the voluble alcoholic grew beyond that original orientation in the minds and hearts of the Victorian novel-reading public, becoming an endearing figure, so that, though the novelist must have felt the necessity to expose Mrs. Harris as a product of Sairey's fecund imagination and verbal creativity, one senses that Dickens felt that he could bring himself to explode Mrs. Harris's inventor. Despite her considerable bulk, boozy discourse, and obvious humbug, Sairey Gamp is akin to thirty-four-year-old Charles Dickens in that she too has constructed a character for her own satisfaction and affirmation. Mrs. Harris exists primarily for the sake of advertisement, a fictive testimonial to the calibre of her friend's ministrations to those leaving this world and those entering it. Thus, the story-teller puts his reader in the odd position of ardently wishing to see Mrs. Harris dispatched as a Dickensian Bunbury, while feeling that Sairey should be left, psychologically speaking, intact. The memorable passage realized by Phiz in 1844 and Copping in 1924 occurs just prior to an explosion of Betsey Prigg's exasperation at yet another allusion to Mrs. Harris:
"Betsey," said Mrs. Gamp, filling her own glass, and passing the teapot, "I will now propoge a toast. My frequent pardner, Betsey Prig!"
"Which, altering the name to Sairah Gamp; I drink," said Mrs. Prig "with love and tenderness." — Martin Chuzzlewit, chapter 59.
All too soon, their mutual tenderness will suddenly morph into chagrin, rancour, and vituperation as Betsey, imbibing too freely of the gin-charged teapot, pronounces upon Mrs. Harris that fateful sentence of annihilation: "I don't believe there's no sich a person!" This falling out (or, confronting her latent disbelief) is all the more ironic in that Betsey, despite her employment in an institution (St. Bartholomew's Hospital), is a virtual twin to Sairey, not only in physique (as Phiz's illustration demonstrates) but in her slatternly conduct, brutal exploitation of patients in her charge, and utter ignorance of the principles of her professional practice. Perhaps, therefore, the falling out is prompted by jealousy, in that Betsey cannot brook the notion of her confidant's having another crony, no matter how elusive.
Copping seems to have studied Phiz's original illustration carefully, for although his perspective has shifted from a frontal ('theatrical') to a side view (in Copping's plate we must be standing to one side of Betsey Prig), the later artist has included the cupboard (immediately behind Sairey, denoted by her large hat), the edge of mantelpiece with the picture of Mrs. Harris, the assorted hat boxes, the mahogany chairs, the handle-less chest of drawers (depicted off-left in Phiz's plate), and the teapot strategically located between the imbibers. Since Copping has, as it were, zoomed in on the pair, he cannot show either the massive bed or the pair of gowns hanging above it. A curious departure is the red fringed tablecloth Copping has added. Although equally corpulent, Copping's nurses have less cartoon-like, more realistic faces, in keeping with his more realistic style of portraiture. Whereas Phiz's figures are almost lost in the detailed realisation of Mrs. Gamp's room, presented as if it were a stage set, Harold Copping fills his frame with his two subjects, whose glasses are clearly gin-filled and somewhat larger than their counterparts in the original monthly etching.
Much of the charm of Sairey Gamp in the Phiz illustrations is lost in Copping's coloured but relatively colourless character study of an overweight, bleary-eyed, ungracefully aging slattern. Patient, plodding realism is the wrong mode for visualizing the distinctive voice of Dickens's Sairey Gamp. The caricaturist Phiz, in contrast, presents the interior of the first floor front in all its detail as an extension of Sairey herself, jumbled, confused, whimsical, and thoroughly engaging: a Dickensian original, almost superfluous to the novel's plot but one of the best things in The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit.
Cardwell, Margaret. "Introduction." Charles Dicklens's The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit: His Relatives, Friends, and Enemies; Comprising All His Wills and His Ways: With an Historical Record of What He Did, and What He Didn't: Showing, Moreover, Who Inherited the Family Plate, Who Came in for the Silver Spoons, and Who for the Wooden Ladles. The Whole Forming a Complete Key to the House of Chuzzlewit. Edited by Boz. With Illustrations by "Phiz." (1843-44). Oxford and New York: Oxford U. P., 1984.
Matz, B. W., and Kate Perugini; illustrated by Harold Copping. Character Sketches from Dickens. London: Raphael Tuck, 1924. Copy in the Paterson Library, Lakehead University.
Steig, Michael. Dickens and Phiz. Bloomington & London: Indiana U. P., 1978. [Complete text]
—. "Martin Chuzzlewit's Progress by Dickens and Phiz." Dickens Studies Annual 2 (1972): 119-149.
Last modified 15 February 2009