A Bower of Ballads: The Potentials of Popular Print in Our Mutual Friend

Charlotte Becker, Assistant Director of the English Broadside Ballad Archive (EBBA) at the University of California, and Lecturer in the English Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara, reflects on the ballads in the second instalment of Our Mutual Friend.

Chapter 5 of Our Mutual Friend is entitled ‘Boffin’s Bower,’ but the chapter begins in a far less Comfortable and Fashionable location: Silas Wegg’s station for selling fruits, nuts, gingerbread, and halfpenny ballads.  Our narrator comically details the discomforts of Wegg’s corner station, from the constantly inclement weather to the questionable condition of his edible wares.  Yet Mr. Boffin, in contrast with the narrator, is wholeheartedly delighted by Wegg’s station:

‘Lard!’ exclaimed Noddy Boffin, in a tone of great enjoyment, as he settled himself down, still nursing his stick like a baby, ‘it’s a pleasant place, this! And then to be shut in on each side, with these ballads, like so many book-leaf blinkers! Why, it’s delightful!’ (37)

Boffin’s ‘great enjoyment’ at finding himself ‘shut in’ by ballads emphasises the ballads’ materiality; they pleasingly shape his spatial experience. Being hemmed in with ballads makes Wegg’s corner a comfortable shelter in Boffin’s ever-generous view (perhaps it even qualifies as another ‘bower,’ if we imagine the leaves of paper as shade-tree leaves).  And though Boffin can’t read the ballads for himself, these amiable objects pleasantly occupy his peripheral vision like ‘blinkers.’

It is easy to see their appeal, even to an illiterate eye: the ballads surrounding Boffin as he sits in Wegg’s ‘bower’ would have been simply but attractively designed, likely adorned with woodcut illustrations.  Perhaps they looked like this early nineteenth-century edition of ‘The Cruel Cooper of Ratcliff‘, or ‘The Weaver’s Garland‘: both now held at the Huntington Library. Or they might have been in the form of ‘slip songs,’ ballads printed on broadsides but then cut apart into smaller sections before being sold, such as these two slip songs entitled ‘The Scolding Wife‘ from the Firth Collection at the Bodleian Library.

By the time this instalment of Our Mutual Friend was published in June 1864, ballads had been written, sung, printed, and pasted up as decorations throughout Britain for centuries. But ballads were never subjected to such sustained, rigorous analysis as they were in the hundred and fifty years that followed the 1765 publication of Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. Ironically, though, this period of intense antiquarian and literary interest in ballads (and which, of course, persisted during Our Mutual Friend’s publication) often ignored the purely visual and material enjoyment of printed ballads that Mr. Boffin experiences at Wegg’s corner.

The way nineteenth- and early twentieth-century thinkers imagined ballads bequeaths us a tripartite classification scheme for the genre.  ‘Traditional’ ballads are those believed to originate from an ancient, folk musical tradition, transmitted orally for centuries with little recourse to manuscript or print, treating palatable topics such as chivalric legend and unrequited love.  Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry is generally seen as the genesis of the ‘traditional’ ballad classification, and the idea flowered even more fully in antiquarian-ethnographic projects such as Sir Walter Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802-1803) and Francis James Child’s 1850s English and Scottish Ballads as well as its later, extended manifestation of the 1880s, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (Dugaw 98).

The second category, ‘literary’ ballads, is perhaps most obviously exemplified by Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads.  ‘Literary’ ballads are loose imitations or evocations of ‘traditional’ ballads, not intended to be sung, but certainly meant to situate the poet in a literary trajectory that apparently had ancient roots and a potentially egalitarian future.  As Dianne Dugaw puts it, literary ballads ‘nostalgically summoned a vanishing past while they sought a new kind of collective identity in an early modern world giving way to the modern’ (108). Romantic- and Victorian-era poets who had little else in common with each another – from Letitia Elizabeth Landon to Oscar Wilde – shared an affinity for writing poems that they called ‘ballads’. (On the uses and implications of literary ballads in the nineteenth century, see Bristow.)

Meanwhile, ‘broadside’ or printed ballads (including slip songs), such as those Wegg is peddling, have often been treated as a third category, separate from and inferior to their ‘traditional’ and ‘literary’ cousins.  Printed broadside ballads date as far back as the sixteenth century, with a true heyday in the seventeenth century when broadside ballads circulated by the millions (Watt 11).  Broadside ballads continued to be printed into the nineteenth century both as slip songs and in the traditional broadsheet format.  Yet antiquarians like Scott and Child considered broadside ballads inferior to ‘traditional’ ballads because they had been ‘corrupted’ by translation into print (unlike the ‘pure’ oral ballads). Broadside ballads’ inclusion of bawdy, political, and satirical contents seemed another reason to imagine them distinct from the ‘traditional’ ballads whose topics could be more easily squared with romantic nostalgia for the rural British past.  (For more on these classifications and the seventeenth-century broadside ballad heyday, see Nebeker.)

Since the late twentieth century, however, more and more ballad scholars have begun to agree that a hard distinction between ‘traditional’ and ‘broadside’ ballads is misleading, in light of plentiful evidence that ballads frequently crossed back and forth between oral-aural and print media.  Adam Fox points out that it is impossible to tell whether the enormously popular ballad ‘Chevy Chase’ is most truly ‘the product of oral, scribal, or print culture’ (5).  Along the same lines, Paula McDowell advises us that it is most productive to see ballads as ‘hybrid textual and oral’ artefacts (198).  But when we return to Our Mutual Friend, it’s clear that this relatively recent scholarly insight on the complex oral-aural-print nexus supporting ballad culture would have seemed a commonplace to Mr. Boffin or Silas Wegg – and perhaps to Dickens as well.

Indeed, Boffin and Wegg seem blissfully unaware of any prevailing cultural preference for ‘traditional’ and ‘literary’ ballads as distinct from broadsides: for them, it is in fact the printed page that makes oral performance and literary experience possible.  In Wegg and Boffin’s conversation we encounter broadside ballads’ richly multi-media nature, and find that orality, material textuality, and literariness are mutually interdependent, not mutually exclusive.  During Wegg and Boffin’s first meeting ballads are bought and sold, arranged, collected, looked at (as opposed to read), read (as opposed to looked at), sung, and listened to.  And beyond these diverse uses, we also see glimpses of ballads’ dynamic social and subjectivity-forming properties.

In addition to showing Boffin’s delight at simply being around ballads, the scene quickly establishes ballads’ conjoined oral-aural and textual dimensions.  Boffin recounts to Wegg that he first took notice of Wegg’s ballads through his ears, when his back was actually turned toward Wegg’s corner. ‘I was listening,’ Boffin tells the initially dubious Wegg (37). Boffin’s stopping to listen as Wegg sings to the butcher-boy harks back to the broadside ballad’s seventeenth-century heyday, when a ballad sung from a broadsheet for sale was a sure way to draw a sociable crowd (Smith 170-171).  And Boffin’s aural enjoyment – his ‘hadmiration amounting to haw’ – intensifies when he notices that Wegg’s songs spring from printed sheets.  He is amazed by Wegg’s ability ‘to read or to sing any one of ‘em off straight’ by simply ‘whip[ping] on [his] spectacles’! (37).

After breaking down the imaginary barrier between print and orality, the scene proceeds to test the ‘literary’ merits of Wegg’s ballads.  Boffin’s naive belief that Wegg is a ‘literary’ man, rather than a merely ‘literate’ one, challenges us to imagine what it would mean to consider these near-homonyms as synonyms.  Being ‘literate,’ of course, means that one is able to read; to be ‘literary’ means that one is able to read well, or to exercise a certain ‘critical appreciation’ (OED) while one reads.  To Mr. Boffin, ballads are sufficiently ‘literary’ to fulfil the ‘poetry’ requirement on his personal syllabus: ‘I wasn’t thinking of poetry,’ he tells Wegg, ‘except in so fur as this: – If you was to happen now and then to feel yourself in the mind to tip me and Mrs. Boffin one of your ballads, why then we should drop into poetry’ (39).  Boffin also repeatedly, admiringly points out that ‘all Print is open’ to Wegg based on his ability to read ballads and make something of them, further narrowing the ‘literate’-’literary’ gap.  Printed on one side of an unbound sheet, ballads are quite literally open for all to view (if not actually read), in contrast with the reticent, bound volumes in the Veneering’s library, at which Charley Hexam gazes with ‘awakened’ but frustrated curiosity at the beginning of Chapter 3. The ballads’ openness versus the volumes’ impenetrability, presented in relation to Boffin’s and Charley’s aspirations to literacy, connects this question of being ‘literate’ vs. ‘literary’ to issues of class and access rather instead of suggesting that there is an objective, ideal way to appreciate what one reads.

Thus far the material-textual, oral-aural, and possibly literary facets of Wegg’s ‘choice collection of halfpenny ballads’ have each been held up to the light in turn.  As Wegg and Boffin prepare to part ways until that evening, ballads become shapers of subjective and social worlds, just as they form the boundaries of Wegg’s corner station.  As Wegg and Boffin settle their arrangement, we learn just how deeply embedded ballads are in Wegg’s mind, and how strategically they function there. As he will do throughout the novel, Wegg effortlessly adapts the words of a popular ballad to cannily ‘perform’ or fashion himself.  Patricia Fumerton describes the way that ballads allow their singers and audiences ‘casually to take on and cast off’ new identities or subjectivities—identities that may or may not be proximate to one’s ‘real’ self or situation (150).  Evading Boffin’s query about the extent of his acquaintance with The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Wegg sings an on-the-spot parody of an enormously popular ballad of the day, ‘The Soldier’s Tear’ by Thomas Bayly.  (Two nineteenth-century slip song editions held at the Bodleian Library may be seen here.) Casting his older brother in the role of the eponymous soldier, Wegg simultaneously throws Boffin off the scent of his ignorance and constructs a romantic origin story for himself.

Even without an audience, Wegg continues using ballads as his inner language.  On the point of setting off for Boffin’s Bower, having worked himself up to the role of ‘an official expounder of mysteries,’ Wegg faces a moment of navigational confusion: ‘The Bower was as difficult to find, as Fair Rosamond’s without the clue’ (41).

This fleeting moment of (potential) free indirect discourse refers to ‘The Lamentable Ballad of Fair Rosamond, Concubine to Henry II, Who was put to death by Queen Eleanor, in the famous Bower of Woodstock, near Oxford.’ The ‘clue’ that one needs to find the way to Rosamond’s bower is mentioned at the end of the fourth verse: ‘Most curiously that Bower was built, / of Stone and Timber strong, / A hundred and fifty doors, / did to this Bower belong, / And they so cunningly contriv’d, / with turnings round about, / That none but with a Clew of Thread, / could enter in or out.’

The allusion to ‘Fair Rosamond’ connects Wegg’s quest for Boffin’s Bower to a ballad of extraordinarily persistent popularity, which readers of Our Mutual Friend may very well have known. ‘Fair Rosamond’ appeared regularly on broadsides from the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries.  (A late seventeenth-century printing is here, and a nineteenth-century copy is here.)  It also appears in Percy’s Reliques with a lengthy preamble explaining its historical importanceThis allusion decisively validates and rewards ballad literacy: an audience familiar with ‘Fair Rosamond,’ either by hearing or reading it, may connect Wegg’s evolving selfish designs on Boffin’s Bower to the destructive jealousy that Queen Eleanor unleashes once she finds Rosamond’s.

So what, finally, should we make of Our Mutual Friend’s interest in ballads, particularly given the way this scene portrays ballads as a pluripotent form of cheap print?

Perhaps Wegg and Boffin’s first encounter gives us way to think about the material textuality of the serial instalments of Our Mutual Friend itself.  Indeed, materially speaking, the serial instalments of Our Mutual Friend share a certain ‘openness’ with the halfpenny ballads, more than they do with the bound volumes into which they will ultimately be revised.  Each instalment’s visually appealing illustrated wrapper is clearly akin to the woodcut illustrations that intrigued and entertained even illiterate purchasers of broadside ballads.  The single-shilling price tag, too, made an instalment of the novel nearly as accessible to a wide nineteenth-century audience as the customary one-penny or half-penny price had made ballads to the seventeenth-century working class and middling sort (Watt 12).   And like ballads, these serial instalments were portable, collectable, shareable, and even disposable.

The most crucial quality that the serialized version of Our Mutual Friend shares with ballads (a quality about which it seems self-conscious indeed) is its potential to be converted back and forth from print to oral-aural media.  We are familiar with historical accounts of one literate person being called upon to read Dickens’ work to her friends whose education had been as ‘neg—lected’ as Boffin’s (38).  And in fact, one of the vignettes on the instalment wrapper, prominently placed just below the title section, acknowledges and promotes this kind of reading: there we see Wegg with his head bent over a book, while Boffin takes in the scenes Wegg’s voice creates before him.

Wegg and Boffin’s interaction thus seems to pay homage to ballads as the original model for successful popular print.  They appeal to the eye and the ear; provide escape from and enrichment to one’s own subjective position; they are companionable, comfortable objects; they are thresholds of literacy and promises of literary experience.

Works Cited

Bristow, Joseph.  ‘Whether ‘Victorian’ Poetry: A Genre and Its Period.’  Victorian Poetry 42.1 (2004): 81-109.

Fox, Adam.  Oral and Literate Culture in England, 1500-1700. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Fumerton, Patricia. Unsettled: The Culture of Mobility and the Working Poor. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.

McDowell, Paula.  ‘‘The Manufacture and Lingua-Franca of Ballad-Making’: Broadside Ballads in Long Eighteenth-Century Discourse.’ The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation 47:2/3 (Summer/Fall 2006): 97-113.

Nebeker, Eric. ‘The Heyday of the Broadside Ballad.’ The English Broadside Ballad Archive.

Smith, Bruce R. ‘Ballads Within, Around, Among, Of, Upon, Against, Within.’ The Acoustic World of Early Modern England: Attending to the O-Factor. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Watt, Tessa. Cheap Print and Popular Piety, 1550-1640. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Online Ballad Archives

Broadside Ballads Online from the Bodleian Library

The English Broadside Ballad Archive (EBBA)


Filed under Books, Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend

2 responses to “A Bower of Ballads: The Potentials of Popular Print in Our Mutual Friend

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