by Charles S. Reinhart (1844-96). 10.2 cm high by 13.3 cm wide (half-page, horizontally mounted in the middle of 17). [Click on image to enlarge it.]
The wood-engraving illustrates a scene on page 26 in "Poor Mercantile Jack," the fifth chapter in Charles Dickens's The Uncommercial Traveller, this essay having first appeared in All the Year Round on 10 March 1860. The American Household Edition, also containing Reinhart's wood-engravings for Hard Times (1854) and Fildes' for The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870), was published by Harper and Brothers in 1876.
As a fiddle and tambourine band were sitting among the company, [Constable] Quickear suggested why not strike up? "Ah, la'ads!" said a negro sitting by the door, "gib the jebblem a darnse. Tak’ yah pardlers, jebblem, for 'um QUAD-rill."
This was the landlord, in a Greek cap, and a dress half Greek and half English. As master of the ceremonies, he called all the figures, and occasionally addressed himself parenthetically — after this manner. When he was very loud, I use capitals.
"Now den! Hoy! ONE. Right and left. (Put a steam on, gib 'um powder.) LA-dies' chail. BAL-loon say. Lemonade! TWO. AD-warnse and go back (gib 'ell a breakdown, shake it out o' yerselbs, keep a movil). SWING-corners, BAL-loon say, and Lemonade! (Hoy!) THREE. GENT come for'ard with a lady and go back, hoppersite come for'ard and do what yer can. (Aeiohoy!) BAL-loon say, and leetle lemonade. (Dat hair nigger by 'um fireplace 'hind a' time, shake it out o’ yerselbs, gib 'ell a breakdown.) Now den! Hoy! FOUR! Lemonade. BAL-loon say, and swing. FOUR ladies meet in 'um middle, FOUR gents goes round 'um ladies, FOUR gents passes out under 'um ladies' arms, SWING — and Lemonade till 'a moosic can't play no more! (Hoy, Hoy!)"
The male dancers were all blacks, and one was an unusually powerful man of six feet three or four. The sound of their flat feet on the floor was as unlike the sound of white feet as their faces were unlike white faces. They toed and heeled, shuffled, double-shuffled, double-double-shuffled, covered the buckle, and beat the time out, rarely, dancing with a great show of teeth, and with a childish good-humoured enjoyment that was very prepossessing. They generally kept together, these poor fellows, said Mr. Superintendent, because they were at a disadvantage singly, and liable to slights in the neighbouring streets. But, if I were Light Jack, I should be very slow to interfere oppressively with Dark Jack, for, whenever I have had to do with him I have found him a simple and a gentle fellow. Bearing this in mind, I asked his friendly permission to leave him restoration of beer, in wishing him good night, and thus it fell out that the last words I heard him say as I blundered down the worn stairs, were, "Jebblem's 'elth! Ladies drinks fust!" [Chapter 5, "Poor Mercantile Jack," p. 25]
Michael Slater and John Drew have had difficulty establishing the exact date of events that Dickens's Uncommercial Traveller reports as having transpired one Friday night and early Saturday morning on the Liverpool docks prior to March in 1860. "The last occasions on which he is known to have been in Liverpool on a Friday were on 20 August and 15 October 1858, during successful public reading engagements at the Philharmonic" (63) — but late summer and early fall do not square with Dickens's description of "snow yet lying in the frozen furrows," and "north-east winds" rolling the tops of the river's waves into "hailstones" (Dickens, 23); clearly the setting is winter. Slater and Drew speculate that Dickens formed the impressions reflected in the article when he visited Liverpool in the last two weeks of March 1860 (p. 97), although they have no firm documentary evidence
We have already seen the unpleasant underside of maritime commerce in the squalor and poverty of the neighbourhood near Wapping Stairs on the London docks in the third chapter, "Wapping Work-house," as in Edgar G. Dalziel's "A Young Man ... All Dirty and Shiny and Slimy", but this is our first encounter with the immorality of a port city. Accompanied by a Liverpool police superintendent and several constables bearing fairy-tale names as their noms de guerre, the insatiably curious Uncommercial Traveller visits an odious succession of seedy public houses, gambling dens, and bordellos which cater to the various tastes and needs of the Mercantile Jack, that is, the merchant sailors of all nations who frequented the international port on the Mersey.
At the beginning of this fifth article, Dickens's highly observant and socially conscious persona, the Uncommercial Traveller, descends into a world of nightmare in which the denizens turn night into day; "hence the attribution of supernatural powers to 'Mr. Superintendent' and his talented officers, whose names are adapted from the Grimm fairytale of 'Fortunio'" (Slater and Drew, 63). As the editors of the Dent Edition note, the fairy-tale motif enables Dickens to avoid naming the vices his persona observes:
The euphemistic tendency partly explains Dickens's attitude towards 'Dark Jack', by whom he intends African American sailors plying the trade route between Liverpool and the cotton=growing Southern states of America [just prior to the secession of those states]. The Negro master of ceremonies — copunterpart to the modern 'MC' — issues the dance instructions in what seems to be a mixture of English and French (balloon say = 'balancez', lemonade = 'promenade' [?], appropriate as the dance is a quadrille, typical of the ''Cadien' music of the American South, imported by refugees from French Canada [Acadia in Nova Scotia] during the Seven Years' War. 
In illustrating the same chapter for the British Household Edition, Edward G. Dalziel depicts in "Bags to hold your money,' says the witch, shaking her head, and setting her teeth; "You as has got it", a gathering of unsavoury "witches" who are awaiting the arrival of their best customer, the unsuspecting Mercantile Jack, at their equally unsavoury establishment. The scene, in contrast to the dancing of Black sailors sailors from the American south, is anything but lively and good natured, but underscores more clearly the Dantean nature of the Uncommercial's descent into an underworld that few readers of All the Year Round could conceive of.
In the Reinhart drawing, most of the figures are apparently African or African- American, although Dickens specifies that only "The male dancers were all blacks" and that Dark Jack's "delight" is "his white unlovely Nan" (25). Only two of the "Four Ladies" of whom the MC speaks are evident among the dancers in Reinhart's illustration, and the one right of centre is certainly a Negro, whereas the logic of the narrative would have all of the female dance-partners as Caucasian, denizens of the English port. Dickens would certainly have commented on the race of the female dancers were they Black. The musicians (a fiddler and a tambourine player, as in the text) and the two sailors in the background (upper left) would appear to be white, and we cannot detect the strangely garbed Master of Ceremonies, whose view rather than that of the Uncommercial Traveller and his police escort Reinhart may be giving us. Certainly the American illustrator has captured something of the joie de vivre of the dancing sailors in their light-footed abandon. And, as with the former slave Cicero whom Martin and Mark encounter outside the offices of the New York Rowdy Journal in Martin Chuzzlewit two decades earlier, Dickens expresses admiration for the positive outlook and cheerful demeanour of the Black sailors, for whom the Traveller buys beer before leaving the establishment. Dickens's narrator does not express a negative view of the mixed race party, but the American illustrator (for whatever reason) has transformed this into a gathering of largely Negro revellers.
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 photographer 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.
Dickens, Charles. The Uncommercial Traveller, Hard Times, and The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Il. Charles Stanley Reinhart and Luke Fildes. The Household Edition. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1876.
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.
Created 3 April 2013
Last modified 6 January 2020