Flora and Mr. F.'s Aunt
10 cm high by 7.3 cm wide (framed)
Fourth full-page illustration for Dickens's Little Dorrit in the James R. Osgood (Boston), 1871, Diamond Edition.
Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham.
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Little Dorrit (Boston: James R. Osgood [formerly, Ticknor and Fields], 1871)., by Sol Eytinge, Jr., in Charles Dickens's
The fourth illustration, unlike the others before it, does not introduce its subjects in a characteristic setting (such as Rigaud and Cavaletto's cell) or with significant appurtenances (such as Mrs. Clennam's symbols of inflexibility and control, her wheel-chair and bell-pull). Rather, Eytinge has chosen to focus on the faces and the dresses of the women alone to suggest their relationship and characters, but places them in such close proximity to graph the col tempo theme: what Mr. F's aunt is Flora will become. But, again, as the other plates in the series thus far have realised a specific passage in the narrative, here in Chapter 13, "Patriarchal," Eytinge captures the moment when the young widow Flora Finching leads Mr. F.'s Aunt from the dining room: "it became necessary to lead Mr. F.'s Aunt from the room. This was quietly done by Flora; Mr. F.'s Aunt offering no resistance, but inquiring on her way out, 'What he come there for, then?' with implacable animosity" (92). In describing the appearance of Arthur Clennam's former sweetheart and of her sharp contrast, Mr. F.'s "legacy," the vacuous aunt, Eytinge has actually conflated two separate descriptive passages in his illustration, beginning with the flirtatious Flora herself:
Flora, always tall, had grown to be very broad too, and short of breath; but that was not much. Flora, whom he had left a lily, had become a peony; but that was not much. Flora, who had seemed enchanting in all she said and thought, was diffuse and silly. That was much. Flora, who had been spoiled and artless long ago, was determined to be spoiled and artless now. That was a fatal blow.
This is Flora!
"I am sure," giggled Flora, tossing her head with a caricature of her girlish manner, such as a mummer might have presented at her own funeral, if she had lived and died in classical antiquity, "I am ashamed to see Mr. Clennam, I am a mere fright, I know he'll find me fearfully changed, I am actually an old woman, it's shocking to be found out, it's really shocking!" [Ch. 13, "Patriarchal," page 86-87]
Whereas Eytinge interprets the aunt as senile and one-dimensional, he suggests through the fullness of Flora's rounded face and figure that she is, despite her superficiality, attractive and kind-hearted. He contrasts these positive aspects of Flora's character with the aged thinness (so apt for one whose remarks are always totally irrelevant to the topic in hand) of Mr. F's Aunt, whom Eytinge has realised in every visual particular from Dickens's narration of Arthur Clennam's dinner with Mr. Casby and his childhood sweetheart, who has not merely grown up but out as the recently widowed Mrs. Flinching:
There was a fourth and most original figure in the Patriarchal tent, who also appeared before dinner. This was an amazing little old woman, with a face like a staring wooden doll too cheap for expression, and a stiff yellow wig perched unevenly on the top of her head, as if the child who owned the doll had driven a tack through it anywhere, so that it only got fastened on. Another remarkable thing in this little old woman was, that the same child seemed to have damaged her face in two or three places with some blunt instrument in the nature of a spoon; her countenance, and particularly the tip of her nose, presenting the phenomena of several dints, generally answering to the bowl of that article. A further remarkable thing in this little old woman was, that she had no name but Mr. F.'s Aunt.
She broke upon the visitor's view under the following circumstances: Flora said when the first dish was being put on the table, perhaps Mr Clennam might not have heard that Mr F. had left her a legacy? Clennam in return implied his hope that Mr. F. had endowed the wife whom he adored, with the greater part of his worldly substance, if not with all. Flora said, oh yes, she didnŐt mean that, Mr. F. had made a beautiful will, but he had left her as a separate legacy, his Aunt. She then went out of the room to fetch the legacy, and, on her return, rather triumphantly presented "Mr. F.'s Aunt."
The major characteristics discoverable by the stranger in Mr. F.'s Aunt, were extreme severity and grim taciturnity; sometimes interrupted by a propensity to offer remarks in a deep warning voice, which, being totally uncalled for by anything said by anybody, and traceable to no association of ideas, confounded and terrified the Mind. Mr. F.'s Aunt may have thrown in these observations on some system of her own, and it may have been ingenious, or even subtle: but the key to it was wanted. [page 91]
There is something of the somnambulist about Mr. F.'s Aunt as Flora gently takes the elderly lady's extended arm to help her keep her balance, or simply prop her up physically as she does in her conversation. The quality that Eytinge does not communicate is her defiance of Arthur Clennam throughout the meal, perhaps born of her conviction that Arthur has returned from China to claim his bride and deprive Mr. F.'s Aunt of her sole prop and support in life. All of this the reader will have surmised before encountering Eytinge's illustration facing page 92, when Flora leads Mr. F.'s Aunt from the room.
Dickens, Charles. Little Dorrit, il. Sol Eytinge, Junior. The Diamond Edition. Boston: James R. Osgood, 1871.
Last modified 18 April 2011