Mrs Jarley’s Waxworks

Posted on 10th March 2015 by simonbeattie

I am currently reading my way chronologically through Dickens’ novels.  I started this reading project last year, but as I’m not reading them back to back (and I’m actually quite a slow reader), I’m only as far as The Old Curiosity Shop.  With the tale of Little Nell still fresh in my mind, I was interested to come across this:

Dickens Mrs Jarley

The book (apparently here in its first collected edition) describes how to put on various tableaux vivants of famous characters, both real and fictitious, in which the performers are presented in the guise of waxworks.  Mrs Jarley is but a minor character in Dickens’ novel, but the entertainments she peddles to Nell are here made flesh, and her travelling spectacle revived and expanded.  The scenes—dozens are here collected—see the ‘statues’ arranged on stage.  Following introductions from Mrs Jarley, who narrates throughout, each is seen to come briefly to life adding humour or a grotesque aspect to the vignettes.  Characters include Little Nell, Lord Byron, Childe Harold, Old King Cole, Little Red Riding Hood, Christopher Columbus, Robinson Crusoe, Lady Macbeth, King Lear, Juliet, and (in parts III and IV, drawn up by the English newspaper editor, William Gurney Benham) Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom, Shakespeare, Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, William Tell, Guy Fawkes, Cinderella, Buffalo Bill, and Lewis Carroll’s Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

Mrs J 1

Mrs J 2

The original author, George Bradford Barlett (1832–1896), was a New Englander who wrote the popular Concord: History, Literary and Picturesque (which ran to more than fifteen editions in his lifetime), as well as poetic encomia to Massachusetts.  He evidently saw success with this theatrical effort, for there are many recorded examples of Mrs. Jarley’s Waxworks being performed in the church halls and temperance houses of New England.  Interestingly, the phenomenon enjoys literary echoes in the work of that other Concord native, Louisa M. Alcott (in Jo’s Boys, the titular siblings enjoy entertainments presented by Professor Owlsdark, whose ‘marbles’ have strong echoes within the present work), and Laura Ingalls Wilder, whose intrepid Ohio homesteaders visit a performance of ‘Jarley’s Waxworks’ in Little House on the Prairie.

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5 responses to “Mrs Jarley’s Waxworks”

  1. Ted Mole says:

    Simon
    I’ve just taken the liberty of ‘borrowing’ your image of the Mrs Jarley’s Waxworks book to illustrate a short piece on the visit the show made to Lelant in west Cornwall in 1888. This is part of our On This Day project. The piece won’t be live until 6 February so id you’re not happy about this use please let me know and I’ll remove it. I’ve included a link to your blog.

    Thanks
    Ted Mole
    Website Editor, Penwith Local History Group

  2. Mike Tayler says:

    Dickens got the idea for Mrs Jarley from Madame Tussaud who toured Britain & Ireland for nearly 33 years with her waxworks before opening a permanent exhibition In Baker Street, London on the 24th March 1935. She in turn had learnt her trade from her guardian Dr Phillipe Curtius who showed his waxworks at two Parisian Fairs whilst also having two permanent exhibitions at separate locations in Paris in the late 18th century.

    Madame Tussaud carried on the idea of showing famous people and criminals from Dr Curtius and although most clients at the permanent exhibition were of the “middling class” and gentry/aristocrats, the customers at travelling fairs were for all classes and the entry prices reflected this.

  3. Mark Borthwick says:

    Very interesting. I’m doing some research that may turn into a biography of my relative who is said to have played Mrs. Varley in a performance in the 1890s. Like Ted Mole, I’d really appreciate permission to reproduce the book cover just in case I get it done. It would be of course with the appropriate acknowledgement and link to the site.

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