A Visit to Newgate
Felix O. C. Darley
9.3 x 8.2 cm vignetted
Dickens's Sketches by Boz, Household Edition, vol. 1 frontispiece.
Image from personal Dickens collection of Philip V. Allingham.
Frontispiece for Sketches by Boz, volume 1, in the Household Edition (NY: Sheldon &Co., 1864).
Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham.
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Turning to the right, then, down the passage to which we just now adverted, omitting any mention of intervening gates — for if we noticed every gate that was unlocked for us to pass through, and locked again as soon as we had passed, we should require a gate at every comma — we came to a door composed of thick bars of wood, through which were discernible, passing to and fro in a narrow yard, some twenty women: the majority of whom, however, as soon as they were aware of the presence of strangers, retreated to their wards. One side of this yard is railed off at a considerable distance, and formed into a kind of iron cage, about five feet ten inches in height, roofed at the top, and defended in front by iron bars, from which the friends of the female prisoners communicate with them. In one corner of this singular-looking den, was a yellow, haggard, decrepit old woman, in a tattered gown that had once been black, and the remains of an old straw bonnet, with faded ribbon of the same hue, in earnest conversation with a young girl — a prisoner, of course — of about two-and-twenty. It is impossible to imagine a more poverty-stricken object, or a creature so borne down in soul and body, by excess of misery and destitution, as the old woman. The girl was a good-looking, robust female, with a profusion of hair streaming about in the wind — for she had no bonnet on — and a man’s silk pocket-handkerchief loosely thrown over a most ample pair of shoulders. The old woman was talking in that low, stifled tone of voice which tells so forcibly of mental anguish; and every now and then burst into an irrepressible sharp, abrupt cry of grief, the most distressing sound that ears can hear. The girl was perfectly unmoved. Hardened beyond all hope of redemption, she listened doggedly to her mother's entreaties, whatever they were: and, beyond inquiring after 'Jem,' and eagerly catching at the few halfpence her miserable parent had brought her, took no more apparent interest in the conversation than the most unconcerned spectators. Heaven knows there were enough of them, in the persons of the other prisoners in the yard, who were no more concerned by what was passing before their eyes, and within their hearing, than if they were blind and deaf. Why should they be? Inside the prison, and out, such scenes were too familiar to them, to excite even a passing thought, unless of ridicule or contempt for feelings which they had long since forgotten.
A little farther on, a squalid-looking woman in a slovenly, thick-bordered cap, with her arms muffled in a large red shawl, the fringed ends of which straggled nearly to the bottom of a dirty white apron, was communicating some instructions to her visitor — her daughter evidently. The girl was thinly clad, and shaking with the cold. Some ordinary word of recognition passed between her and her mother when she appeared at the grating, but neither hope, condolence, regret, nor affection was expressed on either side. The mother whispered her instructions, and the girl received them with her pinched-up, half-starved features twisted into an expression of careful cunning. It was some scheme for the woman's defence that she was disclosing, perhaps; and a sullen smile came over the girl's face for an instant, as if she were pleased: not so much at the probability of her mother's liberation, as at the chance of her 'getting off' in spite of her prosecutors. The dialogue was soon concluded; and with the same careless indifference with which they had approached each other, the mother turned towards the inner end of the yard, and the girl to the gate at which she had entered.
The girl belonged to a class — unhappily but too extensive — the very existence of which, should make men's hearts bleed. Barely past her childhood, it required but a glance to discover that she was one of those children, born and bred in neglect and vice, who have never known what childhood is . . . . Talk to them of parental solicitude, the happy days of childhood, and the merry games of infancy! Tell them of hunger and the streets, beggary and stripes, the gin-shop, the station-house, and the pawnbroker's, and they will understand you. — Vol. 1, Ch. 25, p. 268-270.
Charles Dickens's career as a writer of fiction began when, in 1833, aged just twenty-one, as a short-hand reporter turned political journalist he wrote a series of 'sketches' or observations on society, under the pen name of Boz (the nickname of his brother Augustus), for The Monthly Magazine. In 1835, the young publisher John Macrone suggested to Dickens that he publish his observations of London life and chareacters stories in book form, offering £100 for the copyright. As Dickens's annual income at the time was only £382 a year, Dickens enthusiastically took up the challenge, rewriting a number of the previously published pieces and adding five new ones especially for the 1836 volume: "A Visit to Newgate," "The Black Veil," "The Great Winglebury Duel," "Our Next-Door Neighbours," and "The Drunkard's Death," the subject of Darley's frontispiece for the second volume. The fifty-six sketches were divided into four sections: fifty-six sketches — divided into "Our Parish" (seven), "Scenes" (twenty-five), "Characters" (twelve), and "Tales" (twelve). Among this last group was the satirical short story "The Tuggses at Ramsgate" from Chapman and Hall's The Library of Fiction, No. 1 (31 March 1836), which was originally accompanied by two woodcuts by the Pickwick illustrator, Robert Seymour, Captain and Mrs. Waters Greeting the Tuggs's Family on Ramsgate Sands and Vengeance of Captain Walter Waters and Lieutenant Slaughter. Mr. Cymon Tuggs discovered behind the curtains, at the Waters's lodgings (1836). The observational material in the first three sections in Sketches by Boz Illustrative of Every-day Life and Every-day People consists of non-narrative pen-portraits, but section entitled "Tales" includes what a modern reader would recognize as short stories. Dickens's original illustrator for many of the London sketches, George Cruikshank, was not commissioned to provide an illustration for "A Visit to Newgate" by either John Macrone or Dickens's new publishers, Chapman and Hall, who re-issued the complete Sketches in monthly parts, from November 1837 through June 1839. In the later two-volume edition of 1838 and the Chapman and Hall, single volume of 1839, George Cruikshank and Phiz (Hablot Knight Browne) between them had fifty illustrations, but only the forty original Cruikshank illustrations usually accompany such modern printings as The Oxford Illustrated Dickens. The Sheldon and Company volumes divide the series as follows: "Serven Sketches from Our Parish," twenty-five "Scenes," and eight "Characters" (first volume, 338 pages); four "Characters" continued, and twelve "Tales" (second volume, 331 pages).
Dated by Bentley et al. to late November 1836 on account of the presence in the condemned cell of the robber Robert Swan and the unfortunate homosexuals John Smith and John Pratt (the latter two, unlike Swan, not reprieved, but executed on 27 November), "A Visit to Newgate" (the twenty-fifth and final "Scene") was one of three pieces in Sketches by Boz, volume one, in the first collection published by John Macrone that had not previously appeared in various London periodicals. The Macrone two-volume set of February 1836 seems to have served Sheldon and Company, New York, as its model. The piece is notable for its anticipation of the last night of Fagin in Oliver Twist, but Darley has focussed on the pathetic scene between a dissolute mother and her daughter rather than the young writer's imagining himself a convicted felon spending his last night on earth in the condemned cell. Although Darley in the early 1860s can hardly have visited London's Newgate Prison, he would have been familiar with New York's Tombs and Philadelphia's Eastern Penitentiary, the latter being the subject of Dickens's seventh chapter in another piece of reportage, the travelogue American Notes for General Circulation (2 volumes, 1842). Darley does not permit the viewer to see much of the older woman's face, obscured by the straw bonnet, but focuses on the powerful face and broad-shouldered form the younger woman, who seems to be studying the reader, or perhaps the thirty-year-old Dickens as he observes everything closely and makes notes. Although he does not show the gate, Darley uses the inner yard as an effective backdrop, the twelve floor-to-ceiling bars establishing the setting in the reader's mind immediately, even though the selection illustrated is well toward the end of the volume. The illustrator, providing an illustrator to be construed proleptically, seems to have in mind the following description in particular:
In one corner of this singular-looking den, was a yellow, haggard, decrepit old woman, in a tattered gown that had once been black, and the remains of an old straw bonnet, with faded ribbon of the same hue, in earnest conversation with a young girl — a prisoner, of course — of about two-and-twenty. It is impossible to imagine a more poverty-stricken object, or a creature so borne down in soul and body, by excess of misery and destitution, as the old woman. The girl was a good-looking, robust female, with a profusion of hair streaming about in the wind — for she had no bonnet on — and a man’s silk pocket-handkerchief loosely thrown over a most ample pair of shoulders. [268-9, the page indicated below the caption of the frontispiece]
Bentley, Nicolas, Michael Slater, and Nina Burgis. The Dickens Index. New York and Oxford: Oxford U. P., 1990.
Cohen, Jane Rabb. "George Cruikshank." Charles Dickens and His Original Illustrators. Columbus: Ohio State U. P., 1980. Pp. 15-38.
Darley, Felix Octavius Carr. Character Sketches from Dickens. Philadelphia: Porter and Coates, 1888.
Davis, Paul. Charles Dickens A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Work. New York: Facts On File, 1998.
Dickens, Charles. Sketches by Boz Illustrative of Every-day Life and Every-day People. Illustrated by George Cruikshank. London: Chapman and Hall, 1839.
Dickens, Charles. Sketches by Boz Illustrative of Every-day Life and Every-day People. Works of Charles Dickens. Household Edition. 55 vols. Illustrated by F. O. C. Darley and John Gilbert. New York: Sheldon and Co., 1865. 2 vols.
Dickens, Charles. Sketches by Boz Illustrative of Every-day Life and Every-day People. Works of Charles Dickens. Diamond Edition. 14 vols. Illustrated by Sol Eytinge, Jr. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1867.
Dickens, Charles. The Letters of Charles Dickens. Ed. Graham Storey and Kathleen Tillotson. The Pilgrim Edition. Oxford: Clarendon, 1965. Vol. 1 (1820-1839).
F. O. C.
Created 21 October 2015