At the upper end of this dungeon . . . . the Englishman first beheld him, sitting on an iron bedstead, to which he was chained by a heavy chain. by Edward G. Dalziel. Wood engraving. From Dickens's "The Italian Prisoner" (complete text on this site), chapter twenty-eight in The Uncommercial Traveller. [Click on image to enlarge it.]

Passage Realised

Some years ago, this man at my feet, whose over-fraught heart is heaving as if it would burst from his breast, and whose tears are wet upon the dress I wear, was a galley-slave in the North of Italy. He was a political offender, having been concerned in the then last rising, and was sentenced to imprisonment for life. That he would have died in his chains, is certain, but for the circumstance that the Englishman happened to visit his prison.

It was one of the vile old prisons of Italy, and a part of it was below the waters of the harbour. The place of his confinement was an arched under-ground and under-water gallery, with a grill-gate at the entrance, through which it received such light and air as it got. Its condition was insufferably foul, and a stranger could hardly breathe in it, or see in it with the aid of a torch. At the upper end of this dungeon, and consequently in the worst position, as being the furthest removed from light and air, the Englishman first beheld him, sitting on an iron bedstead to which he was chained by a heavy chain. His countenance impressed the Englishmen as having nothing in common with the faces of the malefactors with whom he was associated, and he talked with him, and learnt how he came to be there. [137]


On 13 October 1860 Dickens published this mixed form of propaganda/sketch/short fiction/essay and autobiographical/historical/journalistic account of the Italian patriot Giovanni Carlavero (Dickens's pseudonym for Sanvanero, whose story also resembles that another, more recent political prisoner, Carlo Poerio) in All the Year Round, reflecting Dickens's personal support for the nationalist Giuseppe Mazzini and the popular liberal cause of Risorgimento or Italian Reunification and liberation from Austrian and Papal tyranny. In Dickens' Journalism, Slater and Drew point out that, in this article, Dickens seems to be abandoning the persona of the Uncommercial Traveller, maintained for seven months already in 1860, in order to narrate more convincingly and without the Traveller's customary aloofness and cynicism "what is said to be 'strictly a true story' from the period of his Italian travels and residence in 1844-5" (190). The short story "The Italian Prisoner" solicits the sympathy of Dickens's broad middle-class readership for the plight of the Italian people by emphasising the suffering of Carlavero and the nobility of the English aristocrat who attempts to intervene on Carlavero's behalf, Lord Dudley Coutts. The manifest sympathy of the English first-person narrator makes him effectively more than a mere commentator — a kind of secondary protagonist — even though he interacts with the prisoner only some years after Carlavero's release, and retails the sympathetic Englishman's impressions second-hand.

In composing the prison scene from Dickens's narration of it, Dalziel sharply contrasts the respectable middle-class garb of the English humanitarian, the imposing uniform of the prison functionary, and the white shirt of the prisoner, his hair dishevelled and his face blackened. A pillar of the establishment, inflexible and unbending with respect to the treatment of the "recommended" inhabitant of the gloomy cell, the pillar-like official represents the repressive system against which Carlavero has rebelled and which the Englishman reviles. The vaulting of the cell creates a corona around the prisoner's head (the spikes implying a crown of thorns), while flaring torch highlights his clothing and the faces of his visitors. That the cell is underground is suggested by there being little light penetrating the iron bars (upper left). The illustrator has utilised the overwhelming darkness effectively to suggest the apparent hopelessness of the prisoner's situation, while the torch (associated with the English liberal) raises the prospect of assistance, and perhaps even the light of freedom, as in Beethoven's Fidelio. Although Dalziel does not indicate the cancerous tumour on the prisoner's neck, he makes the prisoner's expression a subtle blend of mistrust and numbness — he seems almost incapable of speech. None of the figures betrays much expression, although the turnkey takes a certain clinical interest in his charge.

Scanned image 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 23 February 2013