Mrs. Bardell faints in Mr. Pickwick's arms
Phiz (Hablot K. Browne)
Dickens's Pickwick Papers
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"He, too, will have a companion," resumed Mr. Pickwick, "a lively one, who'll teach him, I'll be bound, more tricks in a week than he would ever learn in a year." And Mr. Pickwick smiled placidly.
"Oh, you dear —" said Mrs. Bardell.
"Bless my soul," cried the astonished Mr. Pickwick; "Mrs. Bardell, my good woman — dear me, what a situation — pray consider. — Mrs. Bardell, don't — if anybody should come —"
"Oh, let them come," exclaimed Mrs. Bardell frantically; "I'll never leave you — dear, kind, good soul;" and, with these words, Mrs. Bardell clung the tighter.
"Mercy upon me," said Mr. Pickwick, struggling violently, "I hear somebody coming up the stairs. Don't, don't, there's a good creature, don't." But entreaty and remonstrance were alike unavailing; for Mrs. Bardell had fainted in Mr. Pickwick's arms; and before he could gain time to deposit her on a chair, Master Bardell entered the room, ushering in Mr. Tupman, Mr. Winkle, and Mr. Snodgrass.
Mr. Pickwick was struck motionless and speechless. He stood with his lovely burden in his arms, gazing vacantly on the countenances of his friends, without the slightest attempt at recognition or explanation. They, in their turn, stared at him; and Master Bardell, in his turn, stared at everybody.
The astonishment of the Pickwickians was so absorbing, and the perplexity of Mr. Pickwick was so extreme, that they might have remained in exactly the same relative situations until the suspended animation of the lady was restored, had it not been for a most beautiful and touching expression of filial affection on the part of her youthful son. Clad in a tight suit of corduroy, spangled with brass buttons of a very considerable size, he at first stood at the door astounded and uncertain; but by degrees, the impression that his mother must have suffered some personal damage pervaded his partially developed mind, and considering Mr. Pickwick as the aggressor, he set up an appalling and semi-earthly kind of howling, and butting forward with his head, commenced assailing that immortal gentleman about the back and legs, with such blows and pinches as the strength of his arm, and the violence of his excitement, allowed.
"Take this little villain away," said the agonised Mr. Pickwick, "he's mad."
"What is the matter?" said the three tongue-tied Pickwickians.
"I don’t know," replied Mr. Pickwick pettishly. "Take away the boy." (Here Mr. Winkle carried the interesting boy, screaming and struggling, to the farther end of the apartment.) "Now help me, lead this woman downstairs." [Chapter XII, "Descriptive of a Very Important Proceeding on the Part of Mr. Pickwick; no less an Epoch in his Life, than in this History"]
Commentary: The Mistaken Proposal
Things are sometimes not what they seem; and an auditor may apprehend an utterance in ways that the speaker would not expect. Certainly these reflections spring to the viewer's mind when he or she analyses the situation in the first of two Phiz illustrations for August 1836, Mrs. Bardell faints in Mr. Pickwick's arms> A cynic might even suggest that the widow's "fainting" is mere a piece of stage business to cement for the witnesses who are about to appear the notion that her lodger has proposed marriage, instead of merely having put a hypothetical question about the costs of keeping a servant — specifically, the former "boots" at the White Hart, Sam Weller, for it is he to whom Pickwick is alluding when he mentions that one of the benefits of the arrangement will be a suitable "companion" (or, as we might say, "father figure") for young Tommy Bardell, as in Thomas Nast's 1873 woodcut, which captures the quiet moment prior to Mrs. Bardell's misconstruing Pickwick's question as a proposal of marriage.
The background in Phiz's revised version of this illustration, as Michael Steig notes, includes telling details in the Hogarthian manner:
Left: Father Time. Right: Cupid shooting an arrow at a reclining woman. Click on the images to enlarge them.
The peculiar figure with his scythe above the clock on the mantelpiece must be Father Time (perhaps conveying the editorial that both Mr. Pickwick and the widow area little too old to be falling prey to the romantic passions). The ornately-framed neoclassical picture above the mantle also offers oblique commentary in that it involves Cupid's preparing to shoot an arrow at a bare-breasted woman (perhaps his mother, the goddess Venus), whose languorous pose provides a female figure far more alluring than Mrs. Bardell's. In a "sinking" effect, the equivalent figure to Cupid in the foreground is the vicious Tommy Bardell.
Phiz's Household Edition version: “Take the little villain away, ” said the agonized Mr. Pickwick (1873).
The 1873 versions of this scene have no such tantalising Hogarthian details in the background. Phiz's focus in his Household Edition woodcut is solely on the foregrounded action, which fills the horizontal frame: the smirking friends, among whom Tupman alone seems solicitous of Mrs. Bardell's condition; and Pickwick, trying to prevent Martha Bardell from falling, even as her fractious ten-year-old, Tommy, tries to throw Pickwick himself off balance by kicking his shins and tugging at his coat-tail. Although the later illustration is decidedly inferior in its lack of emblematic detail and its failure to convey as sharply the reactions of the three comic Pickwickians to the spectacle of the fainting widow, the Household Edition woodcut has the virtue of making Mrs. Bardell more comely — and of making Master Tommy, with his wild hair, more of an individual than a type. The three friends (well individualised in face and form) enter from the right in the 1836 illustration, but from the usual direction for stage entrances (the left; i. e., stage right) in the Household Edition woodcut, which in its solidity, grouping of figures, and minimising of the properties in the background seems more of a theatrical moment or tableau vivant.
The continuity between the 1836 and 1870s illustrations lies — despite the shifting of the observers from right to left — in the costuming, juxtapositions, and postures of the six characters: in particular, we note Tupman's girth, Pickwick's rotund figure and obvious dismay, Mrs. Bardell's hat and apron, and Mr. Winkle's gaiters. The two illustrations also incorporate a blank mirror above the mantelpiece to imply a lack of perception or clarity of apprehension; in the 1873 illustration, the heads of Mr. Pickwick and Mrs. Bardell are so positioned that the viewer cannot see whether the Father Time clock is still present, and the top register of the 1873 coincides with the top of the mirror, so that one cannot see the ornately-framed (and ironically themed) neoclassical picture of the triumph of erotic desire.
Since Phiz customarily executed more than one version of any 1836-37 steel plate to allow for the wear and tear of taking thousands of impressions, differences between different etchings are sometimes evident. Here, for example, Frederic G. Kitton notes:
in the etching where Master Bardell is seen kicking Mr. Pickwick, the boy was first drawn with his head down, but was subsequently represented with it raised, the attitudes of Snodgrass and Winkle being also slightly changed. . . .
Michael Steig, who possessed complete sets of both earlier and later printings of these illustrations, reported considerable improvement in the second version:
Browne's 1836 and 1838 versions of his third illustration, "Mrs. Bardell faints in Mr. Pickwick's arms" (ch. 12), provide an especially interesting example of this talent and its development. In the 1836 plate, with its harsh and scarcely relieved verticals, the rendering of both room and characters is rudimentary and stiff. Considered abstractly, the overall composition adequately conveys the point of the scene — Mr. Pickwick at the center holds Mrs. Bardell, harried by Master Bardell on one side while scrutinized by his friends on the other. Most interesting, however, are the rather tentatively etched details above the door: a stuffed owl and the sculptured head of what appears to be an elderly man. Presumably these constitute some kind of ironic reference to wisdom and sagacity, or perhaps the head simply suggests Pickwick's rather advanced age.
In the redesigned plate for the 1838 edition not only has Browne enormously improved the rendering of characters and scene so that the illustration comes alive in contrast to the stiff, formal feeling of the earlier one, but he eliminates the two vaguely emblematic details and introduces three new, much clearer ones: a framed picture above the mirror, showing Cupid aiming an arrow at a languid nude; on the chimneypiece, a pair of vases with fresh flowers in them; and between these, an ornamental clock featuring Father Time with his scythe. The clock is immediately behind Pickwick's head, while the right-hand vase is behind Mrs. Bardell's, so that the clear implication is a lightly ironic commentary upon the conjunction of age and (relative) youth. [Steig 26-27]
Another approach: Thomas Nast's setting the scene (1873)
Thomas Nast's approach to this episode in the novel for the American Household Edition: He, too, will have a companion," resumed Mr. Pickwick.
Cohen, Jane Rabb. Charles Dickens and His Original Illustrators. Columbus: Ohio State U. P., 1980.
Davis, Paul. Charles Dickens A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Work. New York: Facts On File and Checkmark Books, 1998.
Dickens, Charles. Pickwick Papers (1836-37). Illustrated by Hablot Knight Browne. The Charles Dickens Edition. Boston: Ticknor & Fields, 1867.
Dickens, Charles. "Pickwick Papers (1836-37). Illustrated by Hablot Knight Browne. The Household Edition. London: Chapman and Hall, 1874.
Dickens, Charles. "Pickwick Papers (1836-37). Illustrated by Thomas Nast. The Household Edition. New York: Harper and Bros., 1873.
Guiliano, Edward, and Philip Collins, eds. The Annotated Dickens. Vol. 1. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1986.
Hammerton, J. A. The Dickens Picture-Book. London: Educational Book Co., 1910.
Kitton, Frederic G. Dickens and His Illustrators. 1899. Rpt. Honolulu: U. Press of the Pacific, 2004.
Steig, Michael. Dickens and Phiz. Bloomington & London: Indiana U.P., 1978.
Last modified 8 June 2019