"Oh, the river!" she cried passionately. "Oh, the river!" Forty-sixth illustration engraved by the Dalziels for the 1872 Household Edition of David Copperfield by Fred Barnard. Chapter XLVII, "Martha" (but situated on page 329). [Dan'l Peggotty and David Copperfield have arrived at the northern bank of the Thames just in time to prevent the former Yarmouth seamstress Martha Endell from committing suicide.] 9.5 x 13.9 cm (3 ¾ by 5 ⅜ inches) framed. [Click on the image to enlarge it. Mouse over text for links.]

Passage Illustrated: Martha's Obsession with Finding a Watery Grave

As if she were a part of the refuse it had cast out, and left to corruption and decay, the girl we had followed strayed down to the river’s brink, and stood in the midst of this night-picture, lonely and still, looking at the water.

There were some boats and barges astrand in the mud, and these enabled us to come within a few yards of her without being seen. I then signed to Mr. Peggotty to remain where he was, and emerged from their shade to speak to her. I did not approach her solitary figure without trembling; for this gloomy end to her determined walk, and the way in which she stood, almost within the cavernous shadow of the iron bridge, looking at the lights crookedly reflected in the strong tide, inspired a dread within me.

I think she was talking to herself. I am sure, although absorbed in gazing at the water, that her shawl was off her shoulders, and that she was muffling her hands in it, in an unsettled and bewildered way, more like the action of a sleep-walker than a waking person. I know, and never can forget, that there was that in her wild manner which gave me no assurance but that she would sink before my eyes, until I had her arm within my grasp.

At the same moment I said "Martha!"

She uttered a terrified scream, and struggled with me with such strength that I doubt if I could have held her alone. But a stronger hand than mine was laid upon her; and when she raised her frightened eyes and saw whose it was, she made but one more effort and dropped down between us. We carried her away from the water to where there were some dry stones, and there laid her down, crying and moaning. In a little while she sat among the stones, holding her wretched head with both her hands.

"Oh, the river!" she cried passionately. "Oh, the river!

"Hush, hush!" said I. "Calm yourself."

But she still repeated the same words, continually exclaiming, "Oh, the river!" over and over again.

"I know it’s like me!" she exclaimed. "I know that I belong to it. I know that it’s the natural company of such as I am! It comes from country places, where there was once no harm in it—and it creeps through the dismal streets, defiled and miserable — and it goes away, like my life, to a great sea, that is always troubled — and I feel that I must go with it!’ I have never known what despair was, except in the tone of those words.

"I can’t keep away from it. I can’t forget it. It haunts me day and night. It’s the only thing in all the world that I am fit for, or that’s fit for me. Oh, the dreadful river!" [Chapter XLVII, "Martha," 339; header: "We Find What We Seek."]

Commentary: A Dark Plate for a Psychological Study

Left: The original Phiz working drawing for The River. Right: Phiz's finished serial illustration for Instalment No. 16 (August 1850): The River.

Barnard's 1872 composite woodblock engraving has a generalized background; in the foreground, Dan'l Peggotty and David Copperfield have already rescued the Fallen Woman from drowning herself in the Thames. This wood-engraving of the interrupted suicide is effective enough. But it is not as animated, dramatic, or moving as Phiz's August 1850 original dark steel-engraving, The River in Chapter 47, "Martha," in the sixteenth monthly number. Phiz's version, shown above right alongside its working drawing, juxtaposes the rescuers on the bank with Martha Endell, windblown and staring into the black, disturbed waters. The gloomy London skyline above the figures accords with the plate's images of dereliction and decay, sagging pylons and the skeleton of a boat. These details acquire psychological significance, while symbols of the Church (St. Paul's Cathedral on the left) and State (The Tower of London on the right) imply British society's failure to address such social problems as that of The Fallen Woman. This is all very meaningful: Dickens was much absorbed with these contemporary issues: for example, he spent considerable time volunteering on the Urania Cottage project with the philanthropic banking heiress, the Baroness Angela Burdett Coutts (1814-1906). Through his friendship with Phiz and the anecdotes that the senior illustrator undoubtedly shared with him about illustrating David Copperfield, Barnard would certainly have recognised the connection between the inmates of Urania Cottage (many of whom undertook the long voyage to Australia in search of better lives as Daughters of Empire) and the thwarted suicide of a fallen seamstress-turned-prostitute in the 1849-50 novel. However, he treats the episode with less urgency.

Related Material

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.]

The copy of the Household Edition from which this picture was scanned was the gift of George Gorniak, Editor of The Dickens Magazine, whose subject for the fifth series, beginning in January 2010, is this novel.


Bentley, Nicolas, Michael Slater, and Nina Burgis. The Dickens Index. Oxford and New York: Oxford U. P., 1988.

Dickens, Charles. David Copperfield. Illustrated by Hablot Knight Browne ("Phiz"). The Centenary Edition. 2 vols. London and New York: Chapman & Hall, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1911.

_______. The Personal History of David Copperfield. Illustrated by Sol Eytinge, Jr. The Diamond Edition. 14 vols. Boston: Ticknor & Fields, 1867. Vol. V.

_______. David Copperfield, with 61 illustrations by Fred Barnard. Household Edition. London: Chapman and Hall, 1872. Vol. III.

_______. The Personal History and Experiences of David Copperfield. Illustrated by Harry Furniss. The Charles Dickens Library Edition. London: Educational Book Company, 1910. Vol. X.

Created 25 August 2016

Last modified 19 August 2022