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  • Dickens, Pecksniff and the Thames
  • Michael Hollington

Samuel Carter Hall (1800–89) is best known nowadays, if at all, as the original of Pecksniff in Dickens's Martin Chuzzlewit. Accounts of his character, such as that by Julian Hawthorne, the son of the novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, seem to provide convincing evidence that this is indeed the man who sat for his satiric portrait in that novel:

Hall was a genuine comedy figure. Such oily and voluble sanctimoniousness needed no modification to be fitted to appear before the footlights in satirical drama. He might be called an ingenuous hypocrite, an artless humbug, a veracious liar, so obviously were the traits indicated innate and organic in him rather than acquired.


But despite his apparently odious personality, he had a long and largely successful career as a journalist, including the editorship of The Art Journal, from 1849–80, and in collaboration with his wife wrote a number of books, one of which, The Book of the Thames, published in 1859, is of importance in thinking about Dickens's own relationship to that river, in particular as this becomes manifest in the novels closest in date to it.

Though I had already been aware of it, my interest in the book was rekindled by the 2014 Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibition, Whistler and the Thames, at a time when I was working on the relationship between Whistler and Dickens for an article which appeared in The Dickensian. In the exhibition catalogue, Margaret MacDonald suggests that The Book of the Thames may have inspired Whistler to plan a series of 48 etchings of the Thames "from source to sea," which, although it never materialized as a completed work, generated some illustrations of clear relevance to Our Mutual Friend, including a fine 1859 image of a Greenwich pensioner (14). The Halls' volume can be described as a kind of guidebook, designed to be consulted by travelers on foot and/or by water who wish to travel the entire length of the river from its source to the sea and to examine and reflect upon the many varied sights on offer. It can almost be said to have founded a genre, [End Page 101]

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"The Thames Set, Little Wapping," etching, by James Abbott McNeill Whistler. 208 mm x 150 mm.

having spawned many successors, the most recent of which, Steve Wallis's River Thames from Source to Sea of 2016, suggests a continuing urge to map the Thames. Its popularity as a tourist activity, I shall suggest, may have something to do with the appeal to the psyche of the venerable metaphoric literary comparison of the course of a river with the progress of a life.

Indeed, it can be said, on the basis of an attractive 1976 reprint, that even if Pecksniffian writing is far from infrequent, and the inevitable datedness of a work written more than 150 years ago evident at every turn, the book more than holds its own even now in the face of the competition from later rivals. There is a quantity of valuable detailed descriptions of river plants and flowers and especially fish, together, particularly in the rural sections dealing with the upper Thames, with lively anecdotes about local characters and [End Page 102] customs. Whether or not these particular aspects of the work bear the stamp of Mrs. Hall rather than her husband, it certainly gains from being read as a collaboration, a varied congeries of heterogeneous material presented in one continuous chapterless and unbroken narrative that of course represents the unending flow of the river.

Right from the start, however, a jingoistic Pecksniffian and Podsnappian perspective on the river and its status as the indispensable conduit of British global domination is established. The Thames is billed as "the King of Island Rivers "on page one, and, two pages later, as "the mainstay of commerce, and the missionary of civilization to mankind, carrying the innumerable blessings throughout the Old World and the New" (Hall 1, 3). We are reminded here of course of the first chapter of Dombey and Son, but elsewhere the Halls lose no opportunity of pointing out the superiority...


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