Knowing that any picnic might dissolve in chaos when attacked by a flying critter, readers of Punch, Britain’s premier satirical magazine, laughed at Leech’s mock tragedy. They might have also smiled patronizingly at the verbal pun “wopps,” the Cockney pronunciation of wasp.
Only a small circle of friends might have known that Dickens is the heroic figure brandishing a dinner knife while protecting his wife Catherine from a nasty “wopps.” The cartoon is Leech’s way of thanking Charles and Catherine Dickens for a good time during a recent vacation with them on the Isle of Wight.
Leech knew that Dickens loved picnics, especially eating boiled potatoes cooked in a kettle brought along for that purpose. Whether or not Dickens’s family picnics turned topsy-turvy is unknown, but Leech could not help invent one.
It’s doubtful Leech knew that his complimentary portrayal of Dickens’ heroics in the cartoon is ironic. At the time, Dickens was unhappy with his marriage and with Catherine, who was pregnant. Suggestions embedded in David Copperfield, which he was serializing at the time, lament the death of Copperfield’s wife Dora and his subsequent search for new love. When an author “kills” his hero’s wife in an obviously autobiographical novel, his marriage is in deep trouble.
Leech illustrated Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843). Despite its success, he never worked on Dickens’ other novels, though they remained friends.
See John Leech. Awful Appearance of Wopps at a Picnic wood engraving. Punch, or the London Charivari, v.17, (August 25, 1849); Charles Dickens: A Family History vol. 3, ed. Norman Page. London: Routledge, 1999.