–Or, why everyone should read about Bottle-Nosed Ned and partake of the “maritime advantages” of the oozing green waters of Mudfog.
“Mudfog is a pleasant town—a remarkably pleasant town—situated in a charming hollow by the side of a river, from which river, Mudfog derives an agreeable scent of pitch, tar, coals, and rope-yarn…”~Charles Dickens, “Public Life of Mr Tulrumble”
It may not be a “watering-place” for dandies and rich convalescents, in spite of the charming emerald (i.e. ghoulishly greenish) water that “comes oozing down the streets and tumbling over the fields—nay, rushes into the very cellars and kitchens of the houses, with a lavish prodigality that might well be dispensed with.” It might not be quite the epitome of grand architectural style, yet “we consider the Town-hall one of the finest specimens of shed architecture, extant: it is a combination of the pig-sty and tea-garden-box, orders; and the simplicity of its design is of surpassing beauty.” (We shall ignore the unworthy comparisons to the Limehouse dockyards of London and the Ratcliffe Highway with its seedy characters.)
Who wouldn’t want to go on holiday to Mudfog?
A couple of weeks ago I was among a pool of potential jurors awaiting a case to be settled out-of-court (or not) in the foggy Chancery air of our county courthouse. Intending to start Master Humphrey’s Clock while passing the time in the jurors’ assembly room, I got sidetracked by a story that preceded it in the edition I have: “Public Life of Mr Tulrumble, Once Mayor of Mudfog.”
I was hooked from the start.
What was it about this whimsical little story? Boze and I shared a few favorite quotes/passages (of which there are many). There’s nothing better than a story with great characters and setting/atmosphere, though perhaps this might be as like to that ideal as Mudfog to a fashionable watering-place. But…Bottle-Nosed Ned? The “green and stagnant water,” the asthmatic church-clock, the profusion of pubs and waterside characters…? In this instance, I’ll take Mudfog.
“The thick damp mist hung over the town like a huge gauze curtain. All was dim and dismal. The church-steeples had bidden a temporary adieu to the world below; and every object of lesser importance—houses, barns, hedges, trees, and barges—had all taken the veil.”
Mudfog is a delightfully damp hideaway, and the story is a funny-fond sendup of Dickens’ childhood Chatham where he spent some of his happiest years.
It is also a sendup of politics and public characters, of pomposity and ambition, in its misguided mayor who “affected to look down upon his old companions with compassion and contempt.”
In the story’s thematic consistency, humor, and vividness, it’s really a perfect thing of its kind. One feels the theme of water and dampness which are present from the opening paragraphs setting the Mudfoggy scene, to the overabundance of alcoholic refreshment taken by Bottle-Nosed Ned during his exploits in Mr Tulrumble’s political parade.
And it is hilarious. One can’t help but delight in the way Mr Tulrumble got his little wake-up call about the real superiority of the cozy chimney-corner at the Lighterman’s Arms, and the music and hornpipe-dancing of the Jolly Boatmen, to all “the sage men of Mudfog” and “the lonely magnificence of Mudfog Hall.”
But back to the story:
It was unfortunate that Mr Tulrumble, a coal-dealer who sat—and slept soundly—at various council meetings of public weal, should, after his promotion in Mudfoggian office, have chanced to view the grand Lord Mayor’s show in London. The impact of the spectacle was such that Tulrumble hires one of the town’s notable characters, the lax Ned Twigger—aka, “Bottle-Nosed Ned”—to don a suit of heavy brass armor for his local mayoral parade.
“Now there happened to be in Mudfog, as somehow or other there does happen to be, in almost every town in the British dominions…a merry-tempered, pleasant-faced, good-for-nothing sort of vagabond, with an invincible dislike to manual labour, and an unconquerable attachment to strong beer and spirits, whom everybody knew, and nobody, except his wife, took the trouble to quarrel with, who inherited from his ancestors the appellation of Edward Twigger, and rejoiced in the sobriquet of Bottle-nosed Ned. He was drunk upon the average once a day, and penitent upon an equally fair calculation once a month; and when he was penitent, he was invariably in the very last stage of maudlin intoxication. He was a ragged, roving, roaring kind of fellow, with a burly form, a sharp wit, and a ready head, and could turn his hand to anything when he chose to do it.”
Ned must accomplish his mission for Tulrumble without getting into his habitual state of drunkenness. (What was Tulrumble thinking in plying Ned with rum beforehand to get him relaxed enough for the donning of the armor?)
“With every additional piece he could manage to stand upright in, he had an additional glass of rum; and at last, after many partial suffocations, he contrived to get on the whole suit, and to stagger up and down the room in it, like an intoxicated effigy from Westminster Abbey.”
I think you can begin to imagine how this whole mayoral spectacle will come off, so I’ll leave it at that.
“Public Life of Mr Tulrumble” was published in Bentley’s Miscellany in January of 1837, being the first of a series of “Mudfog Papers” featured in that periodical. Dickens was still writing Pickwick, and was about to begin Oliver Twist, which “begins in a workhouse in the same town of Mudfog” (Ackroyd 216). As noted on the Victorian Web, these papers were “not published as a collection during his [Dickens’] lifetime.”
Ackroyd sums up this transitional period (as Oliver takes shape in 1837):
“In other words, at this point, harassed by family difficulties, exhausted by overwork, and suffering from a variety of ailments, Dickens himself did not at first seem to realise that he was embarking upon the novel which in later years would perhaps more than any other be identified with his name. He had the idea only of a series of articles in mind (‘The Chronicles of Mudfog’ perhaps), but then almost as soon as he began he found that he had ‘hit on a capital notion’. For he had created the figure of Oliver, the child born and brought up in a workhouse, the child who dared to ask for more, and at once he saw the possibilities which could be extracted from it. The idea of a series of sketches was abandoned.”
~Peter Ackroyd, Dickens, pg. 216
Nonetheless, although Dickens got rid of the Mudfog references in Oliver once he’d published it in its completion in November of 1838, we still have several Mudfoggian stories, besides “Mr Tulrumble”: several reports of meetings of the Pickwick Club-like Mudfog Association for The Advancement of Everything (known to be a sendup of the British Association for the Advancement of Science); “The Pantomime of Life”; “Some Particulars Concerning a Lion,” etc. (And why haven’t I read that yet?)
You can read “Public Life of Mr Tulrumble” at the Victorian Short Fiction Project’s page, or download the pleasantly peach-toned pdf facsimile from Bentley’s Miscellany at the same place.
I hope you enjoy it, friends, and I hope to see you at the Lighterman’s Arms and our comfortable chimney-corner.
Ackroyd, Peter. Dickens. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1990
Dickens, Charles. “Public Life of Mr. Tulrumble.” Bentley’s Miscellany, vol. 1, no. 1, 1837, pp. 49-63. Edited by Kaden Bradley. Victorian Short Fiction Project, 22 July 2022, https://vsfp.byu.edu/index.php/title/public-life-of-mr-tulrumble/.