The Uncommercial Traveller, p. 48. [Click on image to enlarge it.]by Edward G. Dalziel. Wood engraving. From Dickens's "Shy Neighbourhoods," chapter 10 in
Donkeys again. I know shy neighbourhoods where the Donkey goes in at the street door, and appears to live up-stairs, for I have examined the back-yard from over the palings, and have been unable to make him out. Gentility, nobility, Royalty, would appeal to that donkey in vain to do what he does for a costermonger. Feed him with oats at the highest price, put an infant prince and princess in a pair of panniers on his back, adjust his delicate trappings to a nicety, take him to the softest slopes at Windsor, and try what pace you can get out of him. Then, starve him, harness him anyhow to a truck with a flat tray on it, and see him bowl from Whitechapel to Bayswater. There appears to be no particular private understanding between birds and donkeys, in a state of nature; but in the shy neighbourhood state, you shall see them always in the same hands and always developing their very best energies for the very worst company. I have known a donkey — by sight; we were not on speaking terms — who lived over on the Surrey side of London-bridge, among the fastnesses of Jacob's Island and Dockhead. It was the habit of that animal, when his services were not in immediate requisition, to go out alone, idling. I have met him a mile from his place of residence, loitering about the streets; and the expression of his countenance at such times was most degraded. He was attached to the establishment of an elderly lady who sold periwinkles, and he used to stand on Saturday nights with a cartful of those delicacies outside a gin-shop, pricking up his ears when a customer came to the cart, and too evidently deriving satisfaction from the knowledge that they got bad measure. His mistress was sometimes overtaken by inebriety. The last time I ever saw him (about five years ago) he was in circumstances of difficulty, caused by this failing. Having been left alone with the cart of periwinkles, and forgotten, he went off idling. He prowled among his usual low haunts for some time, gratifying his depraved tastes, until, not taking the cart into his calculations, he endeavoured to turn up a narrow alley, and became greatly involved. He was taken into custody by the police, and, the Green Yard of the district being near at hand, was backed into that place of durance. At that crisis, I encountered him; the stubborn sense he evinced of being — not to compromise the expression — a blackguard, I never saw exceeded in the human subject. A flaring candle in a paper shade, stuck in among his periwinkles, showed him, with his ragged harness broken and his cart extensively shattered, twitching his mouth and shaking his hanging head, a picture of disgrace and obduracy. I have seen boys being taken to station-houses, who were as like him as his own brother. [46-47]
First published in All the Year Round on 26 May 1860, "Shy Neighbourhoods" presents the ruminations of the pedestrian Uncommercial Traveller upon less savoury London neighbourhoods and the animals he encounters on his walks. Having just disposed of the topic of ornamental and domestic poultry of the kind found in "shy neighbourhoods," Dickens's flaneur and commentator on the social scene eventually turns his attention to dogs, but not before devoting a paragraph to a donkey anecdote, donkeys being essential adjuncts to all sorts of commercial enterprises prior to the introduction of the internal combustion engine. In a sense, the donkey is a partner in the periwinkle business, and his truancy is the direct result of his business partner's negligence.
Dickens projects some of his own identity as a flaneur upon the donkey in the vicinity of Jacob's Island, the foul, ramshackle islet off Bermondsey in south-east London long known to readers of Dickens as the haunt of the house-breaker Bill Sykes in Oliver Twist, chapter 50 (1841). Jocularly, the Uncommercial Traveller describes the animal as if he were a vagrant or miscreant apprehended by the constables for some petty infraction. Dickens delights in characterizing the poor creature who has wandered off with his cart in tow as a "blackguard" for turning truant and making himself an object "of disgrace and obduracy" (47). He has abandoned his post and his duties as a purveyor of periwinkles on the Surrey side of the Thames, and become stuck in a narrow passage between the houses.
Dalziel cannot effectively communicate Dickens's satirical tone, or even remind the viewer of that other Jacob's Island "blackguard," the notorious Sykes. However, he does capture the essentials of the scene: the hapless donkey and his cart (complete with "flaring candle in a paper shade," 47), the poker-faced arresting constables, the curious bystanders, and the row houses of the Green Yard. Like Gustave Doré, who recorded the city in in some hundred and eighty scenes in London: A Pilgrimage (1872), Dalziel in 1877 is fascinated by the proletarian denizens of the metropolis; he also delights in the swirling coat of the donkey, the mild consternation of the constables, and the curiosity of the street boy (right). He breaks the general darkness of the scene with the fitful illumination of a single street-lamp (left) and the muted lights of the stone building in the background. As in the view of the theatre on a Sunday night, once again the illustrator has inserted (centre, beside the central constable) a bearded man in a respectable top-hat who looks very much like Dickens in 1860. A clever Dalziel detail is three smashed spokes of the wheel to imply the perils through which the donkey (his expression unseen, and therefore to be imagined according to the author's describing his countenance as "degraded," 46) has dragged his cart.
Other urban scenes
- Poor Mercantile Jack
- Mr. Grazinglands looked in at a pastry cook's window
- Blinking old men . . . let out of workhouses
- Mr. J. Mellows
- Look at this group at a street corner
Scanned image and text 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.]
Dickens, Charles. The Uncommercial Traveller. Il. Edward Dalziel. The Household Edition. London: Chapman and Hall, 1877.
Scenes and Characters from the Works of Charles Dickens; being eight hundred and sixty-six drawings, by Fred Barnard, Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz); J. Mahoney; Charles Green; A. B. Frost; Gordon Thomson; J. McL. Ralston; H. French; E. G. Dalziel; F. A. Fraser, and Sir Luke Fildes; printed from the original woodblocks engraved for "The Household Edition." New York: Chapman and Hall, 1908. Copy in the Robarts Library, University of Toronto.
Slater, Michael, and John Drew, eds. Dickens' Journalism: 'The Uncommercial Traveller' and Other Papers 1859-70. The Dent Uniform Edition of Dickens' Journalism, vol. 4. London: J. M. Dent, 2000.
Last modified 14 February 2013