The Smallweed Family (253) — Chapter 21, 3 ½ by 5 ½ inches (9 cm high x 14.1 cm wide), vignetted, fourteenth illustration in Charles Dickens's Bleak House, Charles Dickens Library Edition (1910), facing XI, 305. Original caption: "What work are you about now?" says Judy Smallweed,  like a very sharp old beldame. "I'm  a-cleaning the upstairs back room, miss," replies Charley. "Mind you do it thoroughly, and don't loiter. Make haste! Go along!". [Click on the images to enlarge them.]

Passage Illustrated: The Smallweeds' Parlour

Judy answers with a nod of deepest meaning and calls, as she scrapes the butter on the loaf with every precaution against waste and cuts it into slices, "You, Charley, where are you?" Timidly obedient to the summons, a little girl in a rough apron and a large bonnet, with her hands covered with soap and water and a scrubbing brush in one of them, appears, and curtsys.

"What work are you about now?" says Judy, making an ancient snap at her like a very sharp old beldame.

"I'm a-cleaning the upstairs back room, miss," replies Charley.

"Mind you do it thoroughly, and don't loiter. Shirking won't do for me. Make haste! Go along!" cries Judy with a stamp upon the ground. "You girls are more trouble than you're worth, by half."

On this severe matron, as she returns to her task of scraping the butter and cutting the bread, falls the shadow of her brother, looking in at the window. For whom, knife and loaf in hand, she opens the street-door. [Chapter XXI, "The Smallweed Family," 293-94]

Commentary: Another Extraneous Group

At the time of the volume's publication, literary critics in the popular press faulted Bleak House for its extremely loose p[lot construction, and the Smallweed family offer a case in point. Dickens introduces the extended working-class family for the purposes of variety (and character comedy) after he has begun to unravel the mysteries of Esther's parentage and the relationship of Lady Dedlock and the penniless law-writer "Nemo" who has just died of a drug overdose. The introduction of "Small" (Bartholomew or "Chickweed") and his brood seems to an authorial ploy to interrupt the revelations from the main plot, to defer the solution of the mystery, and thereby intensify suspense. Small's connection to the main plot is that he is one of Guppy's closest friends.

Fred Barnard's Household Edition illustration depicting the money-lender and his mark: Grandfather Smallweed astonishes Mr. George (1873).

Dickens's introducing these petite bourgeois urbanites appears to have nothing whatsoever to do with the novel's main plot, but in the Dickens universe connection, coincidence, and even accidental meetings take on a suggestion of the Divine Hand moving the pieces on the board. Joshua (alias "Grandfer") Smallweed is a small-time money-lender confined to his chair through a combination of age and poor health. as is characteristic of such uni-dimensional families in Dickens, the neanderthal Smallweeds pass their days quarreling and throwing objects such as pillows at one another. However, through these minor characters Dickens will advance the unravelling of Nemo's identity as Captain Hawdon. Joshua uses a debt that Trooper George, proprietor of a shooting gallery, owes him as leverage to acquire a sample of Captain Hawdon's handwriting for the  investigative attorney Tulkinghorn. Unbeknownst to readers at this point is that Joshua Smallweed is in fact Krook's brother-in-law, a relationship that will later enable him to access Krook's papers and attempt to blackmail Sir Leicester Dedlock about his wife's relationship to "Nemo," now definitively identified as Captain Hawdon.

Other​ Illustrations​ of The Smallweeds, 1852-67

Left: The original Phiz comic relief scene that precedes the arrival of Trooper George, The Smallweed Family (September 1852). Right: Sol Eytinge, Jr.'s 1867 Diamond Edition of the proletarian family: The Smallweed Family.

Related Material, including Other Illustrated Editions of Bleak House

Scanned image, colour correction, sizing, caption, and commentary 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.]


Bentley, Nicolas, Michael Slater, and Nina Burgis. The Dickens Index. New York and Oxford: Oxford U. P., 1990.

"Bleak House — Sixty-one Illustrations by Fred Barnard." Scenes and Characters from the Works of Charles Dickens, Being Eight Hundred and Sixty-six Drawings by Fred Barnard, Gordon Thomson, Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz), J. McL. Ralston, J. Mahoney, H. French, Charles Green, E. G. Dalziel, A. B. Frost, F. A. Fraser, and Sir Luke Fildes. London: Chapman and Hall, 1907.

The Characters of Charles Dickens pourtrayed in a series of original watercolours by "Kyd." London, Paris, and New York: Raphael Tuck & Sons, n. d.

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_______. Bleak House. Illustrated by Harry Furniss [28 original lithographs]. The Charles Dickens Library Edition. 18 vols.​ London: Educational Book, 1910. XI.

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Created 5 March 2021