Dickens, Wegg, and Wooden Legs

Adrienne E. Gavin

Canterbury Christ Church College

"Look at wooden legs. If there was only one man with a wooden leg what a property he'd be! If you was to advertise Shakespeare played entirely by wooden legs, it's my belief you wouldn't draw sixpence" claims Mr. Vuffin, freak show proprietor, in Charles Dickens's The Old Curiosity Shop (204). With his penchant for the anatomically unusual, Dickens as novelist is something of a Victorian freak show proprietor himself and while his novels are not filled "entirely by wooden legs," the number of wooden legs within them reveal his fascination with these limbs. Dickens "has a fondness for the wooden leg, which becomes for him, as the novels proceed, an unconscious obsession [that] apparently began early" (V.R., "A Few," 386).

Usually presented comically, often fleetingly, and always significantly, wooden legs appear in most of Dickens's novels. The Pickwick Papers includes a report given by a man who, finding "a wooden leg expensive, going over the stones," wore second-hand wooden legs but found that because of his intake of gin and water they "split and rot very quickly." Having given up alcohol he "buys new wooden legs now" which "last twice as long as the others used to do, and he attributes this solely to his temperate habits" (505). In Martin Chuzzlewit, Mrs. Gamp, who speaks of her deceased husband as: "a wooden leg gone likeways home to its account" (625), reveals that he used to send his son to "sell his wooden leg for any money it 'ud fetch as matches in the rough, and bring it home in liquor" (404). Barnaby Rudge contains Simon Tappertit, "enraptured [with his legs] to a degree amounting to enthusiasm" (79) who, after those legs are crushed in a riot, is "discharged by proclamation, on two wooden legs" (734) -- legs which, under extreme provocation, his wife removes "leaving him exposed to the derision of those urchins who delight in mischief" (734). David Copperfield, arriving at Salem House, is met by "a stout man with a bull-neck, [and] a wooden leg" (66) and Bella Wilfer in Our Mutual Friend is attended on her wedding day by "a gruff and glum old pensioner" with two wooden legs (649). As John Carey suggests, "The things you can do with a wooden leg, the damage it is subject to, its relations with its owner, are endlessly fascinating to [Dickens]" (91-92).

Dickens's pre-eminent wooden-legged character is Silas Wegg in Our Mutual Friend. An avaricious, unsympathetic, often comic character, Wegg nevertheless has suffered. His wooden leg signals loss as well as disability and these aspects are emphasized by the 1998 BBC television adaptation of the novel. Dickens's and his readers' innate fascination is not just with the presence of a wooden leg but with the absence of the leg of flesh and blood which the wooden version replaces. This article examines Wegg against the historical background of Dickens's interest in wooden legs, Victorian surgery and prosthetics, and nineteenth-century commodification of body parts.

"Crude surgery and the Napoleonic Wars meant that wooden legs were not an uncommon sight in Dickens's lifetime" (Cotsell 50), and Edward Forse reminds us that "it must be remembered how common -- and popular! -- were wooden legs in early Victorian days" (427). V.R., writing in 1936, confirms "It is quite true that wooden legs were more frequent in life and literature in Dickens's period than they are to-day. Soldiers frequently showed such wooden substitutes at a time when operating was a crude business and many a limb which would be saved now was cut off" ("Wooden Legs" 74). Dickens's own interest in wooden legs probably originated in seeing them in childhood. Accidents were a common cause of amputation, and in Portsmouth, where Dickens spent his first three years, "there seems to have been a plethora of road accidents, with many people, particularly children, being crushed by wagon wheels" (Allen 16).

Chatham, where Dickens lived from the age of four or five until the age of ten, was "the haunt of the sailors and soldiers who were stationed there at a time when the Napoleonic Wars had just come to an end, leaving the inheritance of wasted lives, [and] maimed bodies" (Ackroyd 23). Peter Ackroyd points out that there "were a lot of gentlemen with wooden legs in this naval port (it was, you might say, an occupational hazard)" (33). Dickens's aunt married an army surgeon whose son Dickens would visit at the Ordnance hospital in Chatham where he may well have seen patients in recovery from amputation. Perhaps fictionally, he recalls from childhood: "... we stealthily conducted the man with the wooden leg -- whom we knew intimately -- into the coal cellar, and in getting him over the coals to hide him behind some partition there was beyond, his wooden leg bored itself in among the small coals" (qtd. in Ackroyd 33). This stump image recurs in Dickens's description of Silas Wegg among the ashes of the dust heap.

When his family moved to London in 1822 Dickens had a more verifiable experience with an amputated limb. His uncle, Thomas Culliford Barrow, had broken his leg in 1814 in a fall while alighting from a Hackney coach, and although the break was set, another fall resulted in a compound fracture in the same place, which incapacitated him for several years and eventually resulted in a necessary amputation of the leg. It was during this period of incapacity that Dickens was taken to visit him (Allen 77). The "operation would have been performed without anaesthetic and it is recorded that, when Thomas Barrow recovered from his swoon of pain, he asked 'Where's my leg?' and was told that it was 'under the table'" (Ackroyd 61). Dickens later wrote to Barrow, "I cannot forget that I was once your little companion and nurse, through a weary illness" (Pilgrim vol. 1: 144).

Not only life but literature probably encouraged Dickens's interest. Michael Cotsell points to wooden-legged characters in books Dickens read as a child such as "Hatchway, a comic character in a favourite novel of his childhood, Smollett's Peregrine Pickle" (50). Wooden legs were not uncommon in ballads and Thomas Hood's satirical poem "Miss Kilmansegg and Her Precious Leg" (1840) in which Miss Kilmansegg, injured after a riding accident, wears a golden leg may have influenced aspects of Our Mutual Friend (Cotsell 51).

Dickens was aware of the comic possibilities of wooden legs from a young age. His second extant letter, a note to a schoolmate, puns on the word "Leg" and ends with a PS: "I suppose all this time you have had a wooden leg. I have weighed yours every saturday [sic] Night" (Letters vol. 1: 1). His attraction for wooden legs continued. In 1848 he writes to a friend: "There is rather a good Britannia Saloon Bill out announcing a gentleman with a wooden leg to dance the Highland Fling. There is a portrait of him in the bill, with his wooden leg highly ornamented with rosettes. It appears to me that this demands our attention" (Letters vol. 5: 429).

Many of the wooden legs Dickens saw may have belonged to war veterans. Accounts given by participants in the Napoleonic Wars provide valuable information not only about the horrors of amputation in battle conditions in the pre-anaesthesia period, but also of nineteenth-century wooden legs themselves. "Old Stick-Leg" contains extracts from the diaries of Major Thomas Austin (1793-1881) who had his leg amputated as a result of having part of it blown off by a cannon ball at the Siege of Antwerp in 1814. One-Leg is a biography of Henry William Paget, First Marquess of Anglesey (1768-1854) who lost his leg at the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815 being struck by grape shot which shattered his knee. "In the popular version, Uxbridge [Anglesey's name at the time of injury] exclaims 'By God, sir, I've lost my leg!' Wellington momentarily removes the telescope from his eye, considers the mangled limb, says 'By God, sir, so you have!' and resumes his scrutiny of the victorious field" (Anglesey 149).

Fortitude during amputation is recorded of both men. Austin recounts his experience at the surgeon's hands: "One of the operators, with knife in hand, inquired if I was ready: and the reply 'Yes' was scarcely uttered when the keen, well-tempered blade had completed the first part of the operation, next in order came the saw; and although I had frequently heard that the pain caused by separating the bone and marrow was dreadful, I found it in reality not more painful than other parts of the operation. Taking up the arteries caused a much more sickening sensation than either the cutting or sawing" (Austin 149). Austin stipulated that he should see his leg once it had been severed and, like Anglesey's amputated limb, it was later buried in its own grave (Austin 149-50).

Wegg's amputation we learn is the result of "an accident" (55) and was a "hospital amputation" (83). It is not clear whether Wegg's operation would have involved anaesthesia or not. Cotsell suggests that "Allusions within the novel suggest it is set in the early 1860s" (16), but despite the fact that Mr. Venus still has Wegg's leg in his possession, we are first introduced to Wegg as "a man with a wooden leg" who "ha[s] sat for some years" at his pitch (52) and so presumably has had his wooden leg for some time.

Anaesthesia or not, amputation was a perilous business. It was performed with an amputation knife used to rapidly cut around the skin and muscle followed by a sawing through of the bone, the tying of the arteries and the closing and dressing of the wound. The amputation itself might take only a minute or two, and before anaesthesia there were many speed records. Amputation was the most common major operation but one which carried a high death rate. "Despite the high mortality of about 30%, amputation was regularly performed in cases of disease and trauma" ("Amputations"). Industrial accidents not infrequently caused loss of limbs, but more frequently accidents were caused by means of transport, whether carriage or train. Dickens himself during the time he was writing Our Mutual Friend was involved in the Staplehurst train disaster on the 9th of June 1865. Road accidents led to many amputations, without which the patient would swiftly die from infection; on average four or five people were killed each week in the streets of London alone during the 1860's (Cartwright 13).

Before the introduction of anaesthesia surgeons required speed, strength, dexterity and assistants to hold the patient down. Alcohol might be offered in an attempt to dull pain, and mesmerism and various narcotics had also been tried. In 1846 anaesthesia, recently discovered in America, was first used in England in the form of ether; chloroform soon followed in 1847. Robert Liston, a friend of Dickens's and a skilled surgeon known for his speed at amputations, performed on 21 December 1846 the first operation in Europe using anaesthesia. It was accepted into amputation and other surgical procedures fairly rapidly, although anaesthesia was not used for operations on a widespread basis until the 1860s (McMurtry 130). Dickens underwent an operation without anaesthesia in 1841 as did his father a few days before his death in 1851.

Percival Leigh, writing about chloroform in Dickens's journal Household Words, notes that with its use a patient "may be carved without caring about it more than if he were a leg of mutton; may have a limb removed with no greater inconvenience than he would suffer from having his hair cut" (153). The reality was more complex. Although London was the leading centre of surgery during Dickens's writing career, and while Wegg may have endured a pain-free operation, he would still have been at high risk for infection. Antiseptic procedures were not introduced during Dickens's lifetime; Joseph Lister only began experimenting with antiseptic surgery in 1865. Operations were usually performed by surgeons in the frock coats now notoriously known for being blood-stained from previous operations. Frederick Cartwright, however, suggests "it was not dirty operative technique so much as the generally dirty conditions of nineteenth-century life which caused the danger" (43). The risk of infection would have been exacerbated for Wegg by the fact that his was a hospital amputation.

Hospitals were generally charitable or voluntary and dealt mainly with the poor. They were crowded, dirty, and noisy and being in a hospital was considered by genteel folk a disgraceful thing, almost tantamount to being in the workhouse. "We do not find members of 'respectable callings' among the patients until the late eighteen-sixties. The ordinary occupant of a hospital bed was indescribably filthy and infested with vermin, bugs, fleas, and lice" (Cartwright 10). Conditions in medical hospitals ranged from bad to abysmal, and infection was rife: "Research suggest[s] that over a third of patients released from hospitals as cured after surgery died within two years" (F. B. Smith 271).

Wegg, then, is a survivor, who may also have had to endure a crowd of people watching his amputation. Many operations were performed in surgical amphitheatres which were designed to give good natural light and contained space for an audience ranged in semi-circular tiers above the operating floor on which would be the operating table, those people immediately concerned with the operation, and a box of sawdust to collect blood. Spectators might include not just surgeons, dressers, and medical students but members of the public jostling for a good view and, in the pre-anaesthesia era, timing the operation. A notice outside the entrance to a still extant Victorian operating theatre at "The Old Operating Theatre, Museum and Herb Garret" in London reprints a description given by John Flint South, a surgeon at St. Thomas's Hospital 1831-63: "There was also a continual calling out of 'Heads, Heads' to those about the table whose heads interfered with the sightseers. The confusion and crushing were at times very great." Operations were in this sense a performance with surgeons sometimes receiving applause for their efforts. For the patient it was another aspect of Victorian surgery to be endured with fortitude.

When an amputee had recovered safely and sufficiently enough to begin wearing a wooden leg there were various types to choose from. The broad division was between the expensive and more aesthetically pleasing artificial limbs also popularly know as "cork legs," and the common wooden legs of what we might call the "peg" or "pin" variety such as Wegg uses. Cork legs were often articulated and included various springs and joints. "Everybody was walking about St. Peter's and the Vatican on somebody else's cork legs" writes Dickens of tourists in Rome in Little Dorrit (498). "These legs were called 'cork legs' in England, not because they were made of cork, for they were not, but because the best kind of them were made in London in Cork Street" (Forse 427). Common wooden legs by contrast did not offer jointed movement, and were widespread among the poorer classes. They were, however, also sometimes worn for practical reasons by those who could afford the more expensive kind.

Austin writes of his experiments with both types: "After employing at great expense one of those London manufacturers of mechanical contrivances, who profess to remedy all defects, I found that the common wooden, or Jack Hatchway, leg is the best and most useful. In fact, no artificially formed leg to imitate the natural limb would stand the work which my active habits required of it (196). Of "cork legs" which he "constructed from [his] own idea," he comments: "Although I could walk exceedingly well in a room, or on smooth ground, with my improved contrivance, such legs are not suitable for rough work. Finding the springs, which move the foot, continually giving way, I finally gave up using the artificial leg; and have since been enabled with the more homely-looking wooden pin (196-97).

Wooden legs needed replacing when they aged, split, or were otherwise made unusable. Austin writes "I have worn out some dozens of wooden legs in my geological and shooting excursions" (197). His great-nephew recalls Austin's use when hunting of something that may have helped Wegg in his exploration of the dust heaps: "On to the base of the wooden leg he screwed a thin circular board, about a foot in diameter, to prevent it sinking deep into the marshes" (Austin 204).

Wegg with his limited means has a common wooden leg. As his prospects improve through his relationship with Boffin and his pecuniary desires swell, he does not decide to purchase a cork leg, but he does decide that it is not genteel or respectable for his amputated leg to remain in Venus's anatomical emporium. An avaricious and money-seeking person in all his other endeavours, he still finds it important to buy back his remains; money is the means to keep body together and he wishes "to collect [him]self like a genteel person" (88). Wegg feels keenly the loss of his limb and his synecdochic method of referring to the limb as "I" reflects his awareness that it was (and is) a part of him that he does not want sold off in a shop just as David Copperfield feels uncomfortable at the thought of his caul being sold. That he is able to buy it back reflects nineteenth-century commercialism and commodification of the body. His desire to do so reveals some concerns the Victorians had about the body.

Wegg's conversations with Venus about the restoration of his limb set business interests against human instincts. Venus has bought Wegg's leg from a Hospital Porter as "'one of a warious lot'" (88) and is frustrated because he cannot work him "'into a miscellaneous one, nohow. Do what I will, you can't be got to fit'" (85). Venus is astute enough to realize, however, that the leg "might turn out valuable yet, as a Monstrosity" (88). Wegg, quite naturally, feels insulted at both the miscellaneousness and the imputed monstrosity of his leg. His desire to regain "himself" may contain echoes of fears of dissection and anatomization that were present in the Victorian consciousness. There was a shortage of bodies for dissection throughout the nineteenth-century and, particularly before the passage of the Anatomy Act of 1832 (which slightly eased the shortage), resurrectionists or grave robbers flourished. Fears the public had about not being allowed to lie in peace were exacerbated by the exploits of Burke and Hare who took the business of finding cadavers to sell to anatomists one step further by murdering to gain bodies. Their trial in 1828 created an impact on people's imaginations that lasted for the remainder of the century. After being publicly hanged, Burke's skin was tanned and sold in strips, and his body dissected and publicly viewed by thousands of people "in what was probably the premier autopsy in history" (McDade 105). Anatomical pursuits were often thus connected in the public's mind with criminality or destitution; furthermore, having parts of one's body sold, experimented upon, dissected, or articulated was not something a respectable person wanted. Wegg, with his rising prospects, does not want his body "'dispersed, a part of me here, and a part of me there'" (88).

He seeks to restore his physical loss, but he also has to deal with the disability that his wooden leg causes him. It may have encouraged him into his profession as a ballad seller: "Street singers were often physically disabled" (Cotsell 51). It also forces him into finding a partner to search the dust mounds. He modestly remarks [to Venus] on the want of adaptation in a wooden leg to ladders and such like airy perches, and also hints at an inherent tendency in that timber fiction, when called into action for the purposes of a promenade on an ashey slope, to stick itself into the yielding foothold, and peg its owner to one spot (300-01). His wooden leg is also his point of weakness. Venus throws him down when they struggle "well knowing that, once down, he would not be up again easily with his wooden leg" (484).

While detracting in no way from Wegg's unsavoury nature and comic value, the 1998 BBC television adaptation of Our Mutual Friend in which Wegg is played by Kenneth Cranham, emphasizes both Wegg's loss and his disability. His physical movement, described repeatedly in the novel as "stumping," is shown clearly in the production as we see him moving carefully and with difficulty on his crutches. His wooden leg appears propped up in front of him in the first shot we see of him at his stall and in the last shot of him as it hangs off the back of the scavenger's cart into which he has been ignominiously thrown. We see his amputated leg wrapped in brown paper being delivered to him in exchange for payment in a silent scene between Venus and Wegg and his leg or crutches are never far out of the shot when he is present. As Grahame Smith suggests in his review of the adaptation "Kenneth Cranham endowed Wegg with a touch of humanity in his final tears in addition to, say, the malevolence of his mad dance of triumph outside Boffin's mansion, wooden leg and crutch in a whirling crescendo of malice" (146).

Wegg's wooden leg is most significantly focused upon in the adaptation's dream sequence in which Wegg envisions treasure flowing out of the dust mounds which makes him dance around in glee upon his still intact legs of flesh; he is happy and smiling. Waking after the dream turns to nightmare, he feels immediately for his lost limb but finds only his stump. Realizing it was only a dream, he gazes over the side of his bed as the camera shot moves slowly over to show his single boot, spotlit, standing beside the bed. This is a scene which draws specific and empathetic attention to his loss and enables us to read behind Wegg


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