An imperturbable and speechless man, he had sat at his supper,
with Streaker present in a swoon.

An imperturbable and speechless man, he had sat at his supper, with Streaker present in a swoon from "The Mortals in the House," Part One of The Haunted House (1859) by Edward Dalziel. Wood engraving. From Dickens's Christmas Stories, page 81. 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.]

Passage Illustrated

"With the exception of Bottles," I observed, in a meditative tone.

(The deaf stable-man. I kept him in my service, and still keep him, as a phenomenon of moroseness not to be matched in England.)

"To be sure, John," assented my sister; "except Bottles. And what does that go to prove? Bottles talks to nobody, and hears nobody unless he is absolutely roared at, and what alarm has Bottles ever given, or taken! None."

This was perfectly true; the individual in question having retired, every night at ten o'clock, to his bed over the coach-house, with no other company than a pitchfork and a pail of water. That the pail of water would have been over me, and the pitchfork through me, if I had put myself without announcement in Bottles's way after that minute, I had deposited in my own mind as a fact worth remembering. Neither had Bottles ever taken the least notice of any of our many uproars. An imperturbable and speechless man, he had sat at his supper, with Streaker present in a swoon, and the Odd Girl marble, and had only put another potato in his cheek, or profited by the general misery to help himself to beefsteak pie.

"And so," continued my sister, "I exempt Bottles. And considering, John, that the house is too large, and perhaps too lonely, to be kept well in hand by Bottles, you, and me, I propose that we cast about among our friends for a certain selected number of the most reliable and willing —​form a Society here for three months —​ wait upon ourselves and one another —​live cheerfully and socially —​and see what happens." ["The Mortals in the House," p. 77]


James Mahoney's 1868 illustration The Haunted House for the Library Edition concerns the most exciting moment in Dickens's introduction to the framed tale for 1859, his first Extra Christmas Number for All the Year Round. As in the picture, the narrator (who has rented the eighteenth-century mansion north of London) and two companions go up on the roof of the "haunted" house to take down a damaged weathercock which has been creating a most unpleasant noise in the high wind. The implication is that purely natural phenomena such as the noisy weathervane and a servant with a bent for practical jokes are entirely responsible for the "visitations."

Whereas James Mahoney selected for illustration the narrative which Dickens contributed to the first Christmas story for his new weekly All the Year Round in 1859, other illustrators of the piece in the various anthologies seem not to have been interested in it, for neither the Diamond Edition of 1867, nor the American Household Edition volume of 1876, nor Furniss's Charles Dickens Library Edition (1910) contains an illustration for The Haunted House, which in fact does not even appear in the Ticknor and Fields volume. On the other hand, in the 1877 British Household Edition E. G. Dalziel has illustrated "The Mortals in the House" with An Insuperable and Speechless Man, He Had Sat at His Supper, with Streaker Present in a Swoon, a picture whose explanation lies several pages earlier. The enigmatic figure sitting at the servants' dining table, determinedly eating (and oblivious to the scene unfolding before him) while the other servants deal with the anxieties attendant upon living and working in a reputedly "haunted" mansion, is the deaf stableman, "Bottles." The narrator and his sister, in contemplating discharging the servants and "making do" by themselves (but entertaining a few spirit-debunking friends) are prepared to exempt "bottles" because, being deaf, he has not participated in the hysterical conversions about Master B. and the other unquiet spirits that have dominated the servants' hall. In other words, ironically, his disability allows him to function more effectively that his co-workers, and results in his keeping his situation when the others are discharged.

The Dalziel illustration suggests that the servants, with the exception of Bottles, are indulging in unhealthy hysterics: the Chief Cook, principal retailer of supernatural lore and superstitious anxieties, is administering smelling salts to "Streaker," one of the credulous housemaids, as the Odd Girl (immediately behind Streaker) stares at another medication, perhaps in hopes that it may remedy her catalepsy. Missing from the picture is the real culprit, the practical joker among the servants, Ikey. Dalziel's depiction of female "hysterics" contributes to the misogynistic tone of the narrator, who regards his credulous women servants as childish and irrational.

The Story's Context in The Extra Number for Christmas, 1859

Dickens and Wills [his sub-editor] laid plans for the Christmas number in September 1859, when Wills wrote out to a dozen potential contributors on Dickens's behalf, setting out "the simplest [idea] in the world" by way of a central concept and framework for submissions, but by late November, Dickens complained to [his business agent] Forster, despite having "myself described" this idea "in writing, in the most elaborate manner" "not a story has come to me in the least belonging to" it (Letters 9: 169). Instead, "every one" of the submissions — in fact, only two out of the five not by Dickens himself — "turns, by a strange fatality, on a criminal trial!" Called The Haunted House, the number was intended to feature a group of guests staying in a house, reputedly haunted, whose only visitations turn out, at the end of the festive season, to have been made by the memories of their own pasts — thus acting as a kind of reproof to the more credulous and literal-minded believers in the Spiritualist movement . . . . [Drew, 207]

For this first framed tale for his new journal Dickens himself contributed a framing introduction ("The Mortals in the House"), the fifth story, "The Ghost in the Corner Room," and the final tale, "The Ghost in the Corner Room." In the subsequent, anthologised texts, however, the seven-part, multi-voiced, multiply authored story became simply The Haunted House. In Three Chapters, namely those by Dickens. Excised from the series were the stories by children's author Sarah Smith (1832-1911, publishing such devout children's works as Jessica's First Prayer under the nom de plume "Hesba Stretton"), whose "The Ghost in the Clock Room") was the second inset tale; of the "smart" young journalist and Dickens protegé George Augustus Sala (third tale, "The Ghost in the Double Room"); Adelaide Anne Procter (fourth tale, "The Ghost in the Picture Room"); the novelist and regular columnist for Dickens, Wilkie Collins (fifth tale, "The Ghost in the Cupboard Room"); and the protofeminist novelist and north of England short-story writer Elizabeth Gaskell (who provided "The Ghost in the Garden Room" as the seventh part). As Deborah A. Thomas notes, Dickens's apportioning out writing tasks to a stable of regulars — some of them first-rate writers such as Collins and Gaskell, but some of them decidedly inferior — produced a rather uneven texture in the original sequence. The problem with the Household Edition's version is that, despite its more uniform style, it lacks some of the original's coherence since it includes only work by Dickens himself. The intention of the sequence, like that of the opening of A Tale of Two Cities, appears to have been to satirize the notion of "ghostly vitiation." The Haunted House "debunked credulous acceptance of supernatural phenomena and infuriated [zealous spiritualist and Dickens's adversary in the issue William] Howitt" (Thomas, 147).


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Last modified 26 April 2014