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3 of Air - Mrs. Sarah Gamp


Sarah 'Sairey' Gamp


Martin Chuzzlewit

    Sarah Gamp from Martin Chuzzlewit is one of Dickens' most recognizable characters. Her name suggests a gabby gimp, a damp hump, a swampy lump of gammon. Mrs. Gamp is a cockney nurse-midwife who mangles her words, guzzles cucumbers, tipples gin, and either brutalizes or totally neglects her patients.


 "She was a fat old woman, this Mrs Gamp, with a husky voice and a moist eye, which she had a remarkable power of turning up, and only showing the white of it. Having very little neck, it cost her some trouble to look over herself, if one may say so, at those to whom she talked.”


 Gamp is the complete opposite of what a caregiver should be, and what an ailing person in their sickbed wants to see. She became popular with the English as the epitome of a callous and incompetent nurse. A kind of umbrella became known as a gamp, because of the one Mrs. Gamp brandishes with “particular ostentation”, and a gamp became something of an umbrella term for any atrociously inept caregiver. As grotesque as she is, Sarah Gamp – like most of Dickens' characters - is based on a real-life person, introduced to Dickens by Angella Burdett Coutts. This Victorian nurse's unprofessionalism and lack of compassion, illustrated by Sarah Gamp, would be wholly redressed by Florence Nightengale, who came to prominence during the Crimean War and later founded the tenets of modern nursing.


 Sairey Gamp has a friend in Betsey Prig, a fellow nurse, and they often work together. Drinking a great deal while protesting she drinks very little, Mrs. Gamp constantly recounts stories that involve her good friend, Mrs. Harris.


 “If it wasn't for the nerve a little sip of liquor gives me (I never was able to do more than taste it) I never could go through with what I sometimes has to do. 'Mrs. Harris' I says, at the very least case as ever I acted in, which it was but a young person, 'Mrs. Harris' I says, 'leave the bottle on the chimley-piece, and don't ask me to take none, but let me put my lips to it when I am dispoged and then I will do what I'm engaged to do, according to the best of my ability.' 'Mrs. Gamp' she says in answer, 'if ever there was a sober creetur to be got at eighteen pence a day for working people, and three and six for gentlefolks – night watching' said Mrs Gamp, with emphasis, 'being extra charge – you are that inwallable person.”


 Mrs. Harris, of course, is “a phantom of Mrs Gamp’s brain … created for the express purpose of holding visionary dialogues with her on all manner of subjects, and invariably winding up with a compliment to the excellence of her nature.” Despite their friendship, Mrs. Gamp’s and Mrs. Prig’s tempers get the better of them, and they fall out irrevocably when Mrs. Prig expresses disbelief in the verity of Mrs. Harris.


 Mrs. Gamp comforts herself with the thought that “Rich folks may ride on camels, but it an’t so easy for ’em to see out of a needle’s eye” and other mangled maxims. Tellingly, few if any of Dickens' other female characters are given as detailed and wild an originality of speech as is Mrs. Gamp. Alone with her patient in his sick room, Sarah can't help but pin his arms against his sides, “to see how he would look if laid out like a dead man.” This fascination with illness and dead bodies, along with her idiosyncratic skill with language, are two things Mrs. Gamp shared with her creator, Charles Dickens.


 To what degree Mrs. Gamp is aware of her own perfidy is unclear. Her deceased husband, who was himself an alcoholic, had a wooden leg, and when desperate for liquor he would send his son out with it to try and hawk it for matchwood. Mrs. Gamp seems to sincerely hold the wooden leg responsible for dragging her husband into public houses against his will. Dishevelled by nature, Mrs. Gamp attends the funerals of her patients in her worst attire, to play on the mourners' heart-strings, who invariably buy her a new outfit. The lesson then, of the 3 of Air card, is the need to discard the illusions of probity and tenderheartedness. As humorous, endearing, and pathetic as they are, the hot air and gin-soaked illusions one holds on to must be cut through and dumped if the reader doesn't wish to become the victim of Gamp-like malpractice.


 Shorthand : death of sentimentality - lies - deceits - falsehoods revealed - in a pickle - gin fizz - self-deluded - to harass with Harris - physical disorder - mental distress - cutting away the fat - under the weather - loss of patience - a call for reform - gasbag - midwife crisis - goodnight, nurse!

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