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'What is the matter?' he exclaimed.

"'What is the matter?' he exclaimed. 'I don't know. I — I am afraid to think. Go back. Hark!'" — Fred Barnard's twentieth illustration for Dickens's The Christmas Books, p. 144. Engraved by one of the Dalziels, and signed "FB" lower right. [Click on the image to enlarge it.]

Barnard's penultimate illustration for The Battle of Life realizes the return of Alfred Heathfield and the simultaneous discovery of Marion's disappearance. In this regard, the illustration is more faithful to both the text and Dickens's intention than Leech's "The Night of the Return" in that it does not erroneously stipulate that Michael Warden has been instrumental in the flight of Alfred's fiancée on the eve of his return from medical studies. Leech had misinterpreted the plot-line as many a reader would if he or she were simply to assess the situation realised in Maclise's "The Secret Interview" and assume that an elopement would result (as Dickens seems to imply) prior to Alfred's return. Omitting the country dance which Leech shows in progress in the upper register, Barnard's illustration is not effective in contrasting the binary opposites of the inner, "social" world of the familial celebration — the familiar world of village and beloved sibling that Marion now abandons, and the "outer" world (the night, nature, and experience of the greater world beyond the confines of the village) — but neither does it make the error of depicting Michael Warden leading Marion into the night as Leech's illustration does.

Barnard's illustration compared to plates by John Leech and E. A. Abbey.

Two alternate interpretations of the novella's chief crisis, the supposed elopement: Left: John Leech's "The Night of the Return". Right: E. A. Abbey's "And sunk down in his former attitude, clasping one of Grace's cold hands in his own".

Instead of showing the yuletide dance in progress as Marion departs into the darkness (a moment not actually described in the text), Fred Barnard has simply realised the dramatic moment of Alfred Heathfield's arrival, eschewing speculation about the cause of Marion's disappearance shortly before. Thus, like E. A. Abbey, he is being far more faithful to the text than is John Leech in "The Night of the Return," albeit far less melodramatic than his American counterpart in the Household Edition. The scene begins with Alfred's leaving his carriage and approaching the house on foot, through the orchard:

Listening for hers: attempting, as he crept on, to detach it from the rest, and half believing that he heard it: he had nearly reached the door, when it was abruptly opened, and a figure coming out encountered his. It instantly recoiled with a half-suppressed cry.

"Clemency," he said, "don't you know me?"

"Don't come in!" she answered, pushing him back. "Go away. Don't ask me why. Don't come in."

"What is the matter?" he exclaimed.

"I don't know. I — I am afraid to think. Go back. Hark!"

There was a sudden tumult in the house. She put her hands upon her ears. A wild scream, such as no hands could shut out, was heard; and Grace — distraction in her looks and manner — rushed out at the door.

"Grace!" He caught her in his arms. "What is it! Is she dead!"

She disengaged herself, as if to recognise his face, and fell down at his feet.

A crowd of figures came about them from the house. Among them was her father, with a paper in his hand.

"What is it!" cried Alfred, grasping his hair with his hands, and looking in an agony from face to face, as he bent upon his knee beside the insensible girl. "Will no one look at me? Will no one speak to me? Does no one know me? Is there no voice among you all, to tell me what it is!"

There was a murmur among them. "She is gone."

"Gone!" he echoed.

"Fled, my dear Alfred!" said the Doctor, in a broken voice, and with his hands before his face. "Gone from her home and us. To-night! She writes that she has made her innocent and blameless choice — entreats that we will forgive her — prays that we will not forget her — and is gone."

"With whom? Where?"

He started up, as if to follow in pursuit; but when they gave way to let him pass, looked wildly round upon them, staggered back, and sunk down in his former attitude, clasping one of Grace's cold hands in his own.

There was a hurried running to and fro, confusion, noise, disorder, and no purpose. Some proceeded to disperse themselves about the roads, and some took horse, and some got lights, and some conversed together, urging that there was no trace or track to follow. Some approached him kindly, with the view of offering consolation; some admonished him that Grace must be removed into the house, and that he prevented it. He never heard them, and he never moved.

The snow fell fast and thick. ["Part The Second," The Household Edition: by Chapman & Hall, p. 143; by Harper & Bros., p. 130]

In the entirely new series of illustrations for the fourth Christmas Book, both Abbey and Barnard chose to avoid simply reinterpreting the work of Dickens's original illustrators. In this case, both Household Edition illustrators have corrected Leech's famous misstep in the original edition, and in a somewhat theatrical manner have focussed on the family's discovery of Marion's clandestine departure, which Leech should have realised occurs somewhat after the hour at which Michael Warden had to catch the tide to begin his voyage to the Continent.

Following the logic of Dickens's red herrings regarding a putative elopement, Leech focuses on the contrasting activities of Dr. Jeddler, eagerly anticipating the arrival of Alfred and fully engaged socially as dancer and host, and (with greater prominence in the scene below) Marion, alienated from Dr. Jeddler's sanguine feelings by her conviction that Grace is in love with Alfred. However, the logic of the narrative, conducted at this point in the limited omniscient and from Alfred's perspective from the point at which he arrives at the outskirts of the village, is quite another matter. Whereas Leech in his choice of simultaneous actions ignores the figure of Alfred, both Abbey and Barnard depict scenes in which Alfred is intimately involved, so that their work forms a more suitable complement to the events unfolding at the close of "Part the Second" and in the consciousness of the long-absent lover.

Leech's dual scene is certainly graceful, and the tree stump in the orchard behind the house serves as a telling symbol for Marion's severing not merely her engagement but also her remaining with everything safe and familiar in order to make way for her younger sister. However, Leech fails to suggest the bitter cold of the snowstorm in which Marion departs, and thereby misses an opportunity to heighten the drama of the moment. Perhaps it was the graceful nature of the double scene that persuaded Dickens not to suppress it; and perhaps, as Jane Rabb Cohen speculates based on a letter he sent to Forster, Dickens did not want to offend the "kindhearted" illustrator by demanding that the plate be amended:

If 'The Night of the Return' wrongs Marion's innocence, its unaltered presence testifies to the sensitive strength of Dickens's affection for Leech. The gesture was an especially magnanimous one at this time, when the author was so hypercritical of any shortcomings in the work of his illustrators. [147-148]

Since Forster called attention to Leech's misreading in The Life of Charles Dickens, both Barnard and Abbey must have felt that they should correct the error. And each provides an admirable solution: Barnard realises the exact moment of Alfred's arrival at the door, just as a frantic Clemency opens it, aware that Marion has just disappeared from the dance. Too late to catch the girl, by coincidence she runs into Alfred, well muffled against the cold, windy night, suggested by the swirling skirts of Clemency (an older woman in respectable eighteenth-century attire who looks nothing like the awkward servant of the original series) and the agitated leaves in the tree by the door. Barnard has her look to the left, rather than at Alfred directly, as she grabs him with her left hand. She raises her right hand in agitation, as if to call out and make herself heard above the wind. A nice bit of detailing is Alfred's fitted travelling coat and small-brimmed hat, both consistent with the fashions of the late eighteenth century, signifying the passage of time since he Left the village for medical school, and perhaps even the current fashions of the Continent. Alfred is alarmed, but looks to Clemency for an answer, rather than in the direction of her earnest glance. Thus, the illustration reflects a moment several pages earlier, and analeptically focuses the reader's attention on Alfred's initial reaction to Marion's disappearance.

Abbey realises the subsequent "group" moment when Grace has fainted and Alfred begins to comprehend that Marion has fled rather than confront him about their engagement. The distraught doctor (left) has evidently read the note that she has left, and vainly calls out, while Alfred has sunk down, crying as he holds Grace's hand; in total, this is a memorable tableau to close the second part, the darkness engulfing the orchard in the background, and the chiaroscuro created by the unseen, open doorway (the reader's vantage point) highlighting Grace's period dress — with a rose representative of her innocence in the bodice. Rerading the illustration is insufficient to determine which of the sisters lies senseless on the ground, so that the reader must mediate between the text on page 130 and the image, which occupies the central half of page 131 facing. The former scenes of domestic bliss recalled by the denuded fruit tree (a presence shrouded by the darkness in the background, in the field between Dr. Jeddler and Alfred) have been exploded by anarchic feelings, but whether of passion, self-sacrifice, or utter wilfulness the reader cannot at this point determine, and must read on.

Accordingly, the scenes presented in the Household Edition volumes published in New York and London would have made effective "curtains" in the serial novel that Dickens had at one point contemplated The Battle of Life might have become, had he not been so focussed on the composition of Dombey and Son.


Cohen, Jane Rabb. Charles Dickens and his Original Illustrators. Columbus: University of Ohio Press, 1980.

Dickens, Charles. The Battle of Life: A Love Story. Christmas Stories. Il. E. A. Abbey. The Household Edition. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1876.

Dickens, Charles. The Battle of Life: A Love Story. Christmas Books. Il. Fred Barnard. The Household Edition. London: Chapman and Hall, 1878.

Dickens, Charles. The Battle of Life: A Love Story. Il. John Leech, Richard Doyle, Daniel Maclise, and Clarkson Stanfield. London: Bradbury and Evans, 1846.

Gibson, Frank A. "Nature's Possible: A Reconsideration of The Battle of Life." Dickensian 58 (1962): 43-46.

Goldman, Paul. "Defining Illustration Studies: Towards a New Academic Discipline." Reading Victorian Illustration, 1855-1875: Spoils of the Lumber Room. Ed. Paul Goldman and Simon Cooke. Farnham, Surrey & Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2012. Pp. 13-32.

Hammerton, J. A. The Dickens Picture-Book. London: Educational Book, 1912.

Parker, David. "Christmas Books and Stories, 1844 to 1854." Christmas and Charles Dickens. New York: AMS Press, 2005. Pp. 221-282.

Slater, Michael. "Introduction to The Battle of Life." Dickens's Christmas Books. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1971. Rpt., 1978. Vol. 2: 123-126.

Solberg, Sarah A. "'Text Dropped into the Woodcuts': Dickens' Christmas Books." Dickens Studies Annual 8 (1980): 103-118.

Thomas, Deborah A. Dickens and The Short Story. Philadelphia: U. Pennsylvania Press, 1982.

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Last modified 28 August 2012