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  • Sources for the Characterization of Miss Miggs in Barnaby Rudge
  • Rodney Stenning Edgecombe (bio)

One of the earliest literary renderings of the uncharitable Evangelical shrew – a figure made definitive in the comic Miss Miggs (Barnaby Rudge) and the tragic Mrs. Clennam (Little Dorrit) – seems to have originated with a Catholic observer, no doubt facilitated by a sense of detachment in such matters:

Here stood Ill-nature like an ancient Maid, Her wrinkled Form in Black and White array’d; With store of Pray’rs, for Mornings, Nights, and Noons, Her Hand is fill’d; her Bosom with Lampoons.

(The Rape of the Lock, Canto 4, ll. 27–30)

William Hogarth soon afterwards provided additional accretions to this vignette from The Rape of the Lock in both his painting and print of Morning, the first of The Four Times of Day. The oil might have modified Ill-Nature’s puritanical monochrome into honeyed satins, but she becomes subfusc once again in her print avatar, which would in any case have enjoyed an altogether wider circulation. Both painting and print, like Pope’s thumbnail, convey the spite and envy of sexual frustration through a spareness of figure, implicit in the datum of the “wrinkled Form,” since plump people don’t line as readily as thin ones, forcing upon socialites in one of David Leavitt’s fictions a disquieting choice between face and figure.

Following Pope, Hogarth also externalizes the evidence of prayer, which is set in opposition to an inner meanness fuelled by sexual jealousy and a sense of deprivation. Ill-nature carries her orisons in propria manu, but Hogarth’s spinster (for such she seems to be) delegates the portage of her prayerbook to a frost-bitten footboy. Barnaby Rudge places Miss Miggs firmly within this anti-apostolic succession of Evangelical shrews, and so do the illustrations with which Browne invested it. Dickens stresses the bony, uncontoured nature of her physiognomy – “This Miggs was a tall young lady, very much addicted to [End Page 129]

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Hogarth, Morning, print, from The Four Times of the Day, 1736

pattens in private life; slender and shrewish, of a rather uncomfortable figure, and though not absolutely ill-looking, of sharp and acid visage” (65; ch. 7) – all the while stressing the embonpoint of Dolly and Martha Varden (“who did not want for personal attractions, being plump and buxom to look at”), a datum that explains the latter’s eventual renouncement of fanaticism and reincorporation into the family of humankind. There is a marked physical [End Page 130] continuity, moreover, between Hogarth’s spinster, presented in profile, and the plate entitled “Miggs in the Sanctity of Her Chamber” (Tillotson 71) one that shows Browne with a better-than-usual command of volumetric values, perhaps because he has a masterpiece to hand to inspire him. His graphic inadequacies needn’t be rehearsed here, but they can be traced to his “Dispensing … with the living model,” which forced him “to rely upon a set of conventions for the realisation of these marvellously varied characters of Dickens” (Hammerton 8).

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Miss Miggs

I’m less troubled by his conventionality, however, than by the anamorphic quality that his figures take on in the absence of three-dimensional experience. All too often they anticipate the slant we find in adaptations of widescreen imagery to the standard television frame. Think, for example, [End Page 131] of the distorting angle in the various images of Mr. Chester and in that of Hugh’s attempt on Dolly Varden. That is why I attribute the absence of this habitual graphic vice from “Miggs in the Sanctity of Her Chamber” to the palimpsestic presence of the Hogarth print, a likelihood borne out by the fact that Miss Miggs and the spinster in Morning wear similar caps. The latter, moreover, has a stray curl very similar to those framing Miggs’s face, and lappets that serve the same function as the Abigail’s more generous allotment of locks, viz, that of creating an element of dynamism to offset the immobility of predators ready to pounce – the one about to launch herself on Simon Tappertit...


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pp. 129-138
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